Body Language 1

Horses, as we know, communicate with us primarily through body language.  They can tell us all kinds of things if we learn to listen, feel and observe.  Sometimes they let us know in obvious ways.

Classy jammed neck turnTake Classy here.  This is a photo I took of her the day she arrived for some rehabilitation work.  She’s curious and interested in looking at me holding the camera, but she is unable to turn her head and neck comfortably.  She’s telling me, by how she stands and turns her head that she has some problems in her neck and shoulders, maybe even upper back. She’s also telling me she’s reasonable trusting, curious and friendly.

I can tell these things without ever laying a hand on her or asking her to move.  Her posture, the way she stands, the way she looks at me or doesn’t, all these things and more tell a story that informs me about how to approach doing things with her.

If I didn’t pay attention to these more obvious signs I might decide to just put her to work, but then I’d meet resistance that has nothing to do with her being disobedient and everything to do with her being uncomfortable. When we educate our eyes so that we notice this kind of body language, we save ourselves and our horses a great deal of trouble.

Classy unjammed neck

Here she is a few weeks later after appropriate care to alleviate the stress and tension in her neck and shoulders.  What do you notice that’s different?

This will be the first in a series of short image-based posts about body language, which is one of my most favorite topics!

 

Togetherness

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What motivates a horse to move in perfect harmony with a person?

Is it love? Conditioned response? Dominance? The tools we use?

Maybe it’s cookies!

 

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All of the photos in this article are courtesy of the talented Tanya Pearce of Redhawk Photography.  Gin and I exploring our connection.

Twenty-five years ago I did my first session ever with an animal communicator. Gin was terribly aloof and uninterested in human connection. With a great deal of skepticism and a whole lot of prodding from my mentor (Kim Walnes), I finally called her. I walked away from that experience a believer, which is a story for another time, but what came out of that session was a life long habit of watching people interact and move with horses. During that session, Gin asked me to please show her an example of the kind of relationship I wanted to have with her. From that day on, every time we were together and saw another horse and human interacting, Gin would stop and look at me, then look at them as if to say “is this what you’re after?” Each time I would stop and watch, noticing the details of how they were together and each time I would have to say “no, that’s not it”.

She always sighed with relief. And so I kept seeking with her as my guide.

Over the course of many years I’ve come to see great differences in the type and quality of connection between horses and humans. Horses move and behave in a fluid, natural way in relation to people when there is a genuine connection. My sense is, these are horses who are ‘intrinsically’ motivated to interact with that person.

Intrinsic motivation comes from deep inside and cannot be coerced, conditioned, trained or bribed. These synchronous partnerships seem to tap into something that is more like instinct and that makes it an irresistible force.

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When horses are moving with a person out of a genuine, inner desire to partner they flow together in harmonious movement that is in synch. You’ll know it when you see it. What I’ve learned about horses that I no longer doubt or question is that they seem to have a genuine desire to interact with people, to partner with a human being in motion. They like the mental, emotional and physical stimulation. Assuming, that is, that the human in question makes a good dance partner! Moving in synch with another being can be a kind of meditation and shares similar benefits to mediation. When we are truly in flow with one another it’s magical for both partners.

I know the horses enjoy these interactions and that they benefit from them because when I am consistently interacting with them in such a way, they seek me out, they want more. One horse goes back with the herd and another comes over, volunteering to put their head in the halter and interact. They start to glow. Their coats gleam and shine and their posture and carriage change as they become more fit, more agile and more interested in moving creatively on their own, as well as in partnership with me.

What is it that “intrinsically” motivates a horse to interact with a person, to move in synch with them? I think people who synch up with horses believe in horses natural abilities, athleticism and intelligence and trust them to follow. They don’t talk down them or condescend.  They believe in themselves as much as they believe in their horses. They know horses know how to move and be already and that all that’s required is that dicey proposition of learning how to move together.

I’ve come to recognize those elusive qualities that can be so hard to teach: feel, timing and balance, are encompassed in our capacity and willingness to move with our horse. It’s one thing to get our horse to move for us. It’s another thing for them to offer to move with us and yet another for us to move with them when they do. Our capacity to move with them or not creates feel or destroys it.

What does it take to move with them?  I find it’s posture, balance and movement. Feel, timing and balance come naturally if we have good posture (carry ourselves well), can maintain our own balance and move with grace and agility. Gin taught me this over the years. She is a highly intelligent, highly responsive horse. She responds with great accuracy to what I present. When I am on she is right there with me, willingly, without reservation in perfect synch. When I am off she is off in exactly the way I am off!

When all of these qualities come together horses naturally join us in perfect synchrony.  No bribes, no dominance, no coercion necessary.  Simply being together, willing to engage in a dialogue, willing to connect with one another.

To see more about how  posture, balance and movement influence a horse check out this video I did for my online class where Gin was generous enough to allow me to demonstrate her wonderfully accurate responses to my posture and how it impacts my balance and movement.

Video of Gin and I

Endless gratitude to Gin, Kim and Theresa for sending me down this particular rabbit hole!

Movement is Life

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I love to watch life in motion!

“Nothing is more revealing than movement.” Martha Graham

Movement fascinates me.

It always has.

“Movement practice gets all your creative juices flowing. It doesn’t just release your body, but it opens up your heart and empties out your mind as well.”  Gabrielle Roth

My fascination runs deepest when it comes to how movement is shared. How do flocks of birds, herds of horses and schools of fish seamlessly flow together with such harmony? How do we recreate such harmony when we make a conscious choice to share movement with another person or a horse?

Where does shared movement come from?

Sometimes we move together randomly: pushing, shoving, wrestling, in conflict or play.

Sometimes we move together in harmony, sharing movement that is fluid, graceful, consensual and healing. When we really connect and flow with another being it drops us into present moment awareness…

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The Great Bit Debate

The only opinion that matters to me is my horse’s:

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Jack doesn’t like it when people look at him in the appraising way people do. It makes him cranky and reminds him of his days as a show horse when he was judged for his looks and his way of going. He was a champion. Qualified for the world show. Went home from the qualifying competition and kicked through a concrete waterer, effectively taking himself out of the competitive world. I often get the feeling from him that this move was intentional. He doesn’t like to be looked at that way and he doesn’t like to be judged. He picked his own way out of that world.

Jack found his way to me some years later. After spending some unknown, but no doubt lengthy stay in a vet hospital, in a cast, he recovered enough to survive, but not to be sound. Not useful in the traditional sense of the word, he was moved along to a new home, ultimately donated to a horse sanctuary to live out his days in relative ease. Except for one small problem.

His injuries were such that his right hind leg continued to weaken. It bothered him enough he learned to get around without using it much. He packed it underneath himself in such a way he didn’t bear any weight on it. His spine adapted, growing crooked in response to the unusual stressors, his pelvis tilted at such an odd angle the local vets could only guess he must have a dislocated hip. He was effectively disabled, vulnerable, picked on by other horses and in enough discomfort he was pretty darned cranky.

I was volunteering time at the sanctuary back then. Doing bodywork on those in need. Jack and I crossed paths there and he responded brilliantly to my work, standing up on that right hind and making use of it to the degree it was decided he should come to my place and enter my rehab program. He came to me an angry, frustrated, uncomfortable guy. He seemed to know I was trying to help him and yet was so frustrated that all he wanted to do was bite. I understood his frustration and his discomfort so he was never punished for bad behavior. I simply worked around it.

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Jack is one of those horses who is a great teacher for me. Ultimately it is work in hand, with a bit in his mouth, that seems to help him access the muscles in his back that build the strength necessary for him to be relatively sound, and definitely comfortable. He’s no longer the vulnerable, picked on, frustrated guy who bites anyone in site. He’s one of the sweetest, snuggliest guys around, finally able to hold his own with the other horses. It took us a long time to find our way through all of his angst and my own doubt and hesitation about what to do and how to do it. Is it even fair to put him through physical therapy? And yet time and again, even when he was more like a snapping turtle than a horse, he kept asking me for help.

 

We’re well over the hump now. We know each other, trust each other and love each other. He has his ways of letting me know when I’m not doing enough physical therapy and when I’m doing too much. He’s a good communicator! Jack is one of those horses that makes me feel confident about what we’re doing together to the point that no one else’s opinion matters one whit. And I sure do appreciate that right now.

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You see, I wrote an article recently as a guest contributor – http://www.listentoyourhorse.com/giving-horses-their-voice-what-if-they-say-no/

I was asked to write about how I handle/interpret my horse saying “no” to something I ask them to do.  Several people called me out because I included images of my horse Rio wearing a bridle with a bit. How can I possibly justify the use of a bit and justify the use of something that has no purpose but to cause pain or the threat of pain. There is no way to make use of a bit and still give a horse their voice, still allow them to say no.

I respectfully beg to differ.

It’s a human choice to determine to use a piece of equipment to control or to inflict pain. Some pieces of equipment are clearly designed with that goal in mind and there sure are plenty of horrific bits out there! I get the argument against bits, I really do. But the human can choose to give their horse a voice and a choice, bit or no bit, tack or no tack. Bit or no bit, tack or no tack I’ve seen humans who have a knack for taking away a horse’s voice and choice through the shear magnitude of their presence. Horses are so keyed into body language that if you are intimidating enough they may not feel they have a choice even if you don’t have one lick of equipment involved.

So it’s the human that has a choice to make. Are we going to control and manipulate and force our horses to do things for us or are we going to make the commitment to giving them a voice? Once I made that promise, to never force compliance, I stopped using tools and equipment to enforce my ideas. It’s tempting and it would be so much easier, but I promised myself and my horses I’d find another way. It ain’t easy! I walk away disappointed more times than I can count but I’m not going to yank on those reins, or pull on that bit. So I’m here to tell you, you can use a bit or a halter or any other piece of sane, humane equipment and not turn it into a weapon.

The choice is yours.

If you don’t trust yourself or you don’t have the relationship with your horse in place then by all means don’t use that bit. It takes me a lot of time with a horse to determine how we are going to do things together in a cooperative, mutually beneficial way. I don’t put bits on horses who are going to fight me, who don’t trust the connection and brace against it. We learn to trust each other first. And then the bit is there for a reason and the horse has as much or more to say about the addition of the equipment as I do.

The nice thing about being called out this time is that for once in my life I didn’t get shattered by shame and doubt. Why? Because I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that I do right by my horses. How do I know? Because my horses let me know day in and day out by how they interact, not only with me but with all the people who step foot on my property. They know I am their unwavering advocate and that anyone who comes here is under my supervision and trying to hear them so they communicate profusely and freely, letting us know exactly how they feel about every single idea we present.

How do I know how my horse feels about what we’re doing and how we’re doing it? Because they show me. They share with me how they feel. I literally feel what they feel. If their jaw gets tight, so does mine. If their throat closes, so does mine. If they stop breathing, so do I. If they feel anxiety, nervousness or fear I share their butterflies. If we would simply learn to listen to this level of communication we’d all know exactly how our horses feel about everything we offer up. We’d learn to interpret what they are sharing – if they are sharing old memories they want help sorting through or sharing a current feeling that needs a change to help it resolve. It’s not that hard to learn to feel and that kind of direct communication is more efficient and immediate than any scientific study will ever be. I’ll take what my horses share with me and respond to that over any study any day.

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It feels good to have this level of connection and to be able to trust it. So jump up and down and scream and yell all you want about how barbaric my practices are. I don’t care because my horse’s opinion is the only one that matters. And Jack is the proof in the pudding that sometimes a bit is the right tool for the job. Nothing else helped restore his soundness like the tactful use of a bit.

And while I honor and respect your opinions, please don’t bother with angry anti-bit comments here because you won’t sway me. I’ll always do what I need to do to help and support the horses that cross my path. I’m always open to Jack deciding he doesn’t want to do his physical therapy or that he’d rather not do it with a bit. The point is, it’s his choice, not mine. Each horse is unique and I trust them to tell me what they need and I do my very best to listen well.

It’s all any of us can do.

P.S. I make a point of asking a horse’s permission before I share their story. It’s the respectful thing to do. I ask by establishing a connection to the horse in question and asking them if it’s okay for me to share their story. I get a felt sense of opening, spaciousness when it’s a yes and a closed off feeling when it’s a “no”. Jack gave me an enthusiastic “yes”!

 

 

Fireworks! Oh My!

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Happy 4th of July!

We’ve been having ‘fun’ with fireworks in our neighborhood, which afforded a good opportunity to practice what I preach when 34-year-old Dillenger had a panic attack Sunday night! Who can blame him when there was a full on, full-scale fireworks display less than 1/2 mile due south of us. It was rather large!

When I heard the first boom I hurried out to make sure the horses were okay. As the main herd high tailed it out to the pasture, Dilly, who chooses to remain separate most of the time anymore, panicked. He charged from one corner to the next, pressing his chest against the electric fence, threatening to run through it to get in with some other horses. This is the perfect opportunity to practice modeling calmness for him, letting him know with every fiber of my being, he is safe, nothing to fear here. All the other horses, who were looking nervous when I stepped out the door, instantly settled when they saw me. Not Dilly. He was too caught up in his mounting panic.

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Many years ago Romeo taught me that some horses require physical connection to calm down. A thoroughbred, off the track, back in my experimenting with “liberty” work in round pens, he would run frantically around the pen screaming at the top of his lungs. I was powerless to help him standing as I was in the middle of a round pen with no line attached to him. After that first terrifying round pen episode I always lunged him with a halter and line. At least then if he panicked I could reel him in and offer some support. That was a powerful lesson!

Sunday night I opened the gate to Dilly’s pen, giving him a larger area to move around in and hoping he might head for the pasture with the rest of the herd. Of course that would mean going TOWARDS the terrifying, booming lights in the sky and he would have none of it. Normally he’ll follow me at liberty anywhere but not this time. So I gave him more room to move and fetched a halter from the nearby trailer.

Putting a halter on a panicked horse is such a test of relationship. I can’t show any doubt or hesitation. I know touch can be calming so I placed a hand solidly on his shoulder and spoke to him as I put the halter on. He was tense but stood for me and once the halter was on he settled in beside me and followed me quietly (though filled with held tension) to the pasture where he could find comfort among the now grazing herd.

I hope none of you find yourselves in a similar situation with any of your four-legged friends this holiday. But if you do, remember that horses, like any other being, are capable of reading our energy and emotions.

Become a calm, solid presence that lets them know with certainty that they are safe, nothing to worry about here. Plant your feet firmly on the ground, standing tall and breathing deeply, how we carry ourselves matters a lot. And remember that touch and physical connection from someone thus grounded provides a lifeline they can ground into if your presence alone isn’t enough (assuming you can do so without risking injury to yourself in the process)!

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Follow your Heart and your Horse

Nothing else matters!

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“Learn to sit still, to wait until your dust has settled, and your air has become clear.  Wait for deep stillness. Then, start.”[1]

My path has been fraught with painful lessons that stem from prioritizing someone else’s expertise over my own inner knowing and the direct feedback of my horses.  It is not easy to stand against knowledgeable, trained, professionals and disagree, with nothing beyond instinct and gut feeling to back you up.  I am learning to listen, with the help of the living, breathing world around me, to those whispers of communication.  I am learning to let those whispers be my guide and to add the insight from the experts to my own perception and most importantly from the feedback of the horses.  When I listen this carefully to the horses and my own heart it creates a bigger picture that takes into account communications that come directly from the wider world, my own inner world and my horses.

The trick is to allow ourselves permission to step outside the linear, rule based, perfectionist mode most of us have learned.  This paradigm convinces us that we don’t know enough, the wisdom of our hearts and our horses becomes suspect. Furthermore, if we try something outside our area of expertise or training, we may make a mistake.  We are trained to think of a mistake as a bad thing, something with dire consequences, something to be ashamed of.  Really, we are trained to be perfectionists, terrified of getting the wrong answer.  The educational paradigm of the modern world robs us of a sense of free will and confidence in our own inner guidance and wisdom.  We lose access to our endless well of creativity, however, it doesn’t mean we can’t regain it!

Whether you know it or not, you are in direct communication with the world and the beings you share it with all the time.  When you meet a new person, or a new horse, massive amounts of information are being processed and sifted to determine what pieces are relevant enough to be brought into your conscious awareness.  Every being we encounter, every environment we enter, has a feeling tone to it that we assess automatically.

What we feel guides us.  Is the person we just met open to a handshake, a hug or do they prefer no physical contact?  Is the horse we just met defensive and guarded, or inviting us in for a head rub?  Do we feel comfortable enough in a room to sit in the middle of the auditorium or are we seating ourselves close to the nearest exit?  Do we cross the street to avoid passing too close to the person walking toward us with their large dog, or do we walk past them and say ‘hi’ and give the dog a pat?  Thousands of bits of information are entering through our sensory system to help us make split second decisions about all kinds of things.  For most of us these things happen outside our conscious awareness.  We respond instinctively and don’t give it a second thought.

There is so much richness available when we work consciously with this ‘sixth sense’.  When we allow ourselves to experience the feeling tones of the world around us we drop back into our bodies, we can stop second guessing ourselves and access creative solutions to any problem we face. It’s easy enough to re-awaken your capacity to access this endless well of creativity, this capacity to be in direct communication with the world around you.  All you have to do is begin to ask the question:  how does this room feel?  How is this feeling different from the last room I was in?  How does this horse feel compared to that horse?

This is not asking the horse, “how do you feel?”, as in assessing his emotional state.  This is asking our own body sensory system to begin to distinguish between the feeling evoked by one horse vs. another – how does this horse, right now, resonate or vibrate within my own being?  For example, the coffee mug sitting beside my computer – it’s my favorite pottery mug, it has its own life force that feels warm and inviting, its glossy rounded surface is perfect for wrapping my hands around the warm mug – it makes me feel warm all over.  It has a different feeling than the Himalayan salt candle holder sitting next to it – which feels cold and crisp and ancient, very much alive.  As we learn to let the feeling of things in our world wash over us, we begin to open the doors to perception on ever deeper levels. [2]

Yesterday, I took two geldings who are new to my place out for a hand walk around the pasture.  Their pasture abuts my neighbor who has a small group of cattle living on her field for the winter.  These two horses have not lived in the company of other herbivores and they are quite terrified of them.  I led them out across the pasture, turning south as we neared the western boundary of the property.  Right away I could feel them hesitate as they realized we were walking towards the dangerous, horse eating cattle who lay basking in the sun, prone bodies scattered across the field.  This was a physical sensation, they were no longer eagerly walking with me, they were lagging behind, focused on the cows.  So even though they continued to follow me, I could physically feel their hesitation.

Suddenly, on a whole-body level, I felt fear crawling up my back, overwhelming my senses.  This is an example of how developing my natural ability to allow the feeling tones of the world wash over me has practical application.  This was not my fear, this was the horses reacting to the increasing proximity of the cattle.  Responding to their fear in that moment, I guided our small herd left and circled back away from the cows until I felt them walking freely, felt the fear abate.  We continued our circle and started back toward the cows.  This time they did not hesitate, they continued to walk with me and the overwhelming fear never returned.  Without any fuss or ‘training’ we moved through a threshold moment for these horses without any fuss at all.

This is one of many ways accessing this kind of perception is so useful.  Make no mistake, those horses knew I felt their fear and responded to it.  And I responded in a way that let them know I was listening and they weren’t wrong for having those feelings.  I never turned it into a lesson in obedience or into a challenge to push them over their fear threshold.  We worked together to find a mutually workable solution that helped build their confidence…in themselves, in me and in the cows.  Nothing to fear here.

It is indescribably fun to be in direct communication with my horses, to allow them to guide me in discovering what works best for them.  You can start developing your own abilities to do this today.  Start paying more attention to how everything you encounter feels.  Start building your own library of felt sensations and your mind/body will automatically begin to bring these subtle things into your conscious awareness.   We are capable of receiving and processing so much more information than we realize.

Every single person has access to endless wells of creativity – the kind of creativity that allows us to realize solutions to any situation on a moment-to-moment basis.  We are born with the capacity to live in direct communication and connection with the living world around us.  From plants to non-human animals to technology and beyond, when we are in ‘the zone’ we are able to creatively problem solve beyond what we have learned or been taught.  And in this way, we have only to allow our heart and horses to guide us to our own unique path where there is no doubt.  Horses love that!

This is a somewhat shorter version of the blog post: Learn to Listen with Your Whole Body.  The content seemed timely to share again but with more focus on developing our ability to sense our horses.

[1] Hugh Milne, The Heart of Listening: A Visionary Approach to Craniosacral Work (North Atlantic Books, 1995), p. 2

[2] Stephen Harrod Buhner, Plant Intelligence and the Imaginal Realm: Beyond the Doors of Perception into the Dreaming of Earth (Bear & Company, 2014), p. 28-44

What Matters to Our Horses

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What matters to horses is that we are true to ourselves, above all else.  When we are true to ourselves our inner world is healthy and vibrant and we reflect that health through our outward expressions to the world.  Horses love what it feels like, interacting with a healthy, vibrant expression of life.  They seem to find it magnetic and willingly engage with humans who share this quality.   The great masters of any discipline embody this truth, but it can be elusive to define and put into practice in our own lives.

Whenever I think about the qualities horses find appealing in humans, I see all these things interweaving and coming together more like a web than a pyramid or a linear progression.  This makes it challenging to teach the qualities we see in master horse people because we are so used to being taught in linear ways.  Each time I have tried to find a linear progression for helping my students find these qualities in themselves I’d hit a brick wall.  We express these qualities holistically, so how do I teach them holistically?

I spent weeks pondering and writing and tossing.  Finally, last night, I lay quietly pondering:  What matters to horses is who we are – they respond to healthy expressions of self – when it hit me!  I would break it down into two general categories:  – our inner qualities and our outer qualities – which must be developed simultaneously.

Here’s how I see it:

Our internal qualities – when in a state of health – relate to our capacity to utilize all of our senses to consciously gather information from the world, to perceive, to receive.  A healthy inner world is capable of harmonizing with the frequencies, emotions and sensations of absolutely everything in our environment (horses, other humans, wild life, plants, soil, you name it).  One hallmark of a healthy inner world is the ability to enter states of deep stillness where we can listen on many levels.

Our external qualities – when in a state of health – relate to our capacity to take our inner qualities and share them with the world.  How we carry ourselves, how we move, how we communicate and interact with others are reflections of our inner world taken outward.   Our outer qualities are what allow us to have physical experiences of the world and those we share it with.  It’s how we take the inspiration and insight our inner world provides, and test it to see how it enhances our experience of being in a body on this planet in relationship to everyone and everything.

I like to think of self-awareness as a dance between my inner self and my outer self, the embodiment of balanced masculine and feminine energy within myself.  Johanna Siegmann, in her book, The Tao of Tango, talks about the necessity for dance partners to each embody balanced masculine and feminine energy.  In addition, she makes a distinction between masculine and feminine ‘behavior’ and masculine and feminine ‘energy’.  When I apply her ideas to my concept, I think of my healthy inner world as the feminine aspect of myself.  Healthy feminine energy is receptive, open, nurturing, and so on.  My outer qualities represent the qualities of healthy masculine energy being expressed as motivation, drive, aggression (in the sense of having enough aggressive energy to get something to happen). Without these healthy masculine qualities I would simply sit and stare at my navel and never take my inner energy out into the world.

A few words came to mind that characterize my inner and outer selves (no positive or negative connotations attached – both sides are equally important to the expression of a healthy self):

Internal/feminine:                                   External/masculine:

Perception                                                  Activity/action

Receptivity                                                  Giving

Empathy                                                      Movement

Resonance                                                  Dynamic

Stillness                                                        Energy

Listening                                                      Communication

Follow                                                           Lead

It’s very easy to compartmentalize and to judge.  Our life experiences may create a perception that feminine qualities are weak and subservient or that masculine qualities are domineering and hostile.  If we prioritize one aspect over another we create imbalance within ourselves that is reflected in how we interact with the world. Part of self-awareness is recognizing the ‘dis-ease’ states we knowingly or unknowingly cling to that inhibit healthy self-expression.  Horses recognize this imbalance as dissonance, a lack of structural integrity between our inner and outer selves, and they do not like it.

In terms of working with horses, when we are out of balance with ourselves, they don’t respond fluidly to our requests. We are typically trained to see their resistance, reluctance or escalation as disobedience. We are taught to correct these behaviors, often by any means necessary. The consequences of this are damaging both to ourselves (our own integrity) and to our horses. When we force ourselves to act in ways that are not in line with our inner truth it harms us. When we punish our horses for accurately reflecting our dissonance, we harm them.

The implications and applications of finding balanced self-expression between our inner and outer qualities are endless.

We can change the world if we can master this one thing!