Eliminating the need for dominance with horses:
I love interacting with horses. Everything about interacting with horses. The joyful, magical moments of connection are just as addicting as the crazy challenging moments when we can’t get in sync with each other, no matter how hard we try.
My horses have me on the trail of the elusive quality in myself that is magnetic to them- the quality in me that becomes addictive enough they seek to be with me. I’m certainly not the only one seeking this particular grail. Each seeker has their unique way of describing the experience. The way I figure it, the more we share our experiences as we find our personal grail the more possible we make it for others to find the light inside themselves, to hopefully, let that light shine.
The horses here keep showing me how to access the truth of who I am, all of who I am. In those fleeting moments when I set aside all the ideas I have about how I ‘should’ behave, what I ‘should’ do with horses, what would be acceptable to others so I won’t be judged harshly or laughed at, ah, horses love it.
As I endeavor to listen to my horses and give them a voice, it’s been easy to feel doubt about so many things. In my doubt I hold back, lose confidence, fall back on whatever the latest study, article or guru tells me I should or shouldn’t do. I stop being myself, I stop really listening to MY horses and things fall apart. I feel resistance, reluctance or outright rebellion from my horses. My efforts to give them a voice seemingly backfire.
But it’s not me giving them a voice that backfired. The reality is I gave them a voice and they used it to speak freely. What they share is not always something I want to hear. They tell me they have been scared, hurt, told what to do in ways they didn’t appreciate. They also tell me I am scared, timid and unsure and they don’t like being around humans when we feel like that. They stop dead in their tracks when I resort to trying to make something happen or grasp for control.
We spend a lot of time together being still, sharing with each other about all the things in the horse human dynamic that doesn’t work for us. Meanwhile I spend a lot of time away from horses investigating all those places inside myself where I feel shy, held back, ashamed, lacking confidence or conviction. I found ways to access more of who I am by learning to sing, play the guitar, braid halters and dance, things that push my comfort zone and highlight those areas where I get stuck trying to fit in or not stand out, to protect myself from feeling too much or get frustrated enough to give up.
It’s been good to find ways to feel more comfortable in my own skin that don’t involve the horses, then bring my healthier self to the horses and see what happens. They share everything with me now. Freely. It no longer matters if I have tack in play or work at liberty, we have the capacity to flow together. To dance. Everything has changed. My horses have taught me to stop hiding who I am. To stop lurking in the shadows, always looking for someone else to take the lead, trying not to be seen. It’s still a work in progress but when I stop looking to others for validation, stop worrying about what someone else might think all of my life is better for it.
I am finally writing the book I have wanted to write for years but been to shy and disorganized to make it happen. I spent the last year hosting an online class that has pushed all my limits and forced me to share what the horses have been wanting me to share for years now. This subject of how to set healthy boundaries with our horses came up a few weeks ago and I feel called to share my thoughts on that subject more widely. I hope you find some inspiration here.
Excerpt from Integrative Horsemanship Online Series 3:
Almost everyone wants to do something with their horse. Most of us want a horse we can ride, whether for pleasure or performance, and we want to feel safe. It can be hard to trust the idea our horses can have a voice and still be safe doing all the things we want, or need, to do. It may seem as though we have the option of giving them a voice when we are hanging out together, but maybe not when we do a rehab session, doctor them, or train for our next competition. When the rubber meets the road, it can be extremely difficult to let go of the desire to control.
In my experience of dancing, when I trust myself and my partner I don’t have to think, I just feel. In order to enter this dreamlike state, I have to stay fully present, fully in the moment, deeply connected and committed to my partner, myself and the Earth, or I’ll miss the subtle differences between the lead to do one thing and another. When I think about what it takes for me to feel safe enough to commit to my partner on the dance floor I have far more appreciation for how challenging it must be for our horses. What is it about those magnetic leaders that makes it possible to enter that dream state and surrender to the moment?
I have spent the last five years analyzing what it is about those magnetic leaders on the dance floor that instills trust and a desire to follow their lead. A great leader instills so much trust in the follower she surrenders, in a sense, to the shared movement. She has to feel safe to allow herself to be moved by another being. That safety comes in part from knowing that she has a voice, that the dance is a conversation.
We have many tools to help facilitate connection and communication with our horses. The tools we use may take the form of equipment – whatever the tool it should enhance communication and connection. But the single most important tool we have in our tool box is ourselves.
All of ourselves.
When we engage all of ourselves in the act of connecting with our horses, magic happens…
All of ourselves including:
- Body: Tone, posture, precision
- Mind: Knowledge, our capacity to analyze and problem solve, our creativity
- Spirit: Our energetic heart, instinct, intuition, guidance, our love for horses, our determination and commitment.
Did you notice I said “our tools are there to enhance our connection and communication with our horses?”
What I am talking about are the nuts and bolts of taking the receptivity we spent all year nurturing in ourselves into action as we do the things we want to do with our horses. Any tool we use, anything we do, either enhances our connection and communication or interferes with it.
How would I define interference?
- Anything that restricts or confines movement of horse or human in an unnatural way
- Anything that inflicts pain as a means of control
- Anything that causes ongoing stress or discomfort (physical, mental or emotional)
- Anything that is biomechanically impossible or damaging
To name a few.
As I explore with my own horses I am constantly checking in with myself: how do I stay open, receptive and allow my horse to have a voice in the next step and the next of our progression towards our mutual goals? Is my approach efficient and effective? For me efficient and effective means my horse and I are making steady forward progress: not stagnant, not drilling, not repeating the same steps over and over again like a hamster on a treadmill.
It also means, I am not resorting to pressure or dominance to make something happen. The need to set occasional strong boundaries came up in the group dialogue and I want to elaborate on that subject to make sure my personal stance on the subject is clear.
What if my horse starts ‘taking advantage’ or ‘acting out’? What if I am getting steam rolled by my horse or he is consistently not doing what I request? What if he is doing something that makes me feel unsafe? What if we are not making steady, forward progress? If I have ruled out any physical issue causing the problem, what’s left?
In the absence of physical issues or pain causing the problem, any of the above are a call to action on my part. My horse is asking me to take a closer look at what I’m presenting and how I’m presenting it. If I have to resort to setting a strong boundary that includes physical contact with my fist, my foot, a rope, a whip, etc., my horse is letting me know I have not been presenting myself as a leader he can feel safe with, or I am not challenging him enough and he is bored. It means he has been letting me know, in small ways for a long time, I’m not fully present when I’m with him.
I recognize the necessity of setting boundaries for the sake of safety, but I never feel empowered or righteous about it when it happens. In our current horse culture, I see aggressive action frequently rewarded by coaches and trainers as an act of self-empowerment. That worries me. The truth is, our horses operate on such subtle levels, all that’s required is for us to act with confidence, self-assurance, clarity, consistency and ease. But that’s not very dramatic and it takes daily acts of courage to keep asking ourselves to stay awake in a culture that tempts us to go numb on a moment to moment basis. Our greatest challenge is to stay awake, even when it really hurts!
Let me reiterate, when aggressive action becomes necessary, it is because something about the way I am presenting myself is making my horse nervous or defensive. When I miss things, when I don’t pay attention, when I’m inconsistent, horses get nervous, defensive or shut down. That is often when a horse develops a pattern of behavior that feels dangerous. I may have no choice but to set a strong boundary (to match his energy). It’s like we need to hit the reset button on our relationship. He’s asking me to step up and demonstrate my confidence, resolve and unwavering presence. Once reset, in order to avoid conflict in the future, I must determine what to do differently to keep the dialogue on more productive footing.
Sometimes I get angry when I feel scared by something my horse does. If they bump into me, push me, run through a gate and knock me down, kick me, bite me or something of the like, it triggers my fight or flight response. I always used to over react when they scared me. I’d yell and kick and hit and fight until they backed off. Now I know all that is actually required is for me to own my space. Simply owning my space defuses all of those behaviors so they don’t occur at all. Hence no need for strong boundary setting.
Let’s say I have missed something and my horse is acting out. All I have to do is match my horse’s energy. Matching energy does not require physical force but it does require me to dig deep. I may have to stomp my foot or growl. I may have to wave my arms or yell. But the growling, the yelling, the stomping, are not really aimed AT my horse, they are designed to help me bring up energy that I don’t normally carry inside myself. The energy of owning my space, energy of confidence, the energy I’m used to being told is too much. I have to find a way to access my too muchness, my true power, and without fail a horse will step down and honor that in me. Maybe that’s what I love so much about horses, they never tell me I’m too much 😉
Experience has shown me, when I am fully present and receptive I don’t need that kind of dominance to feel safe or in control. All horses are innately respectful and curious, looking to us for safety, and they are attentive to our suggestions. In the absence of pain or emotional trauma, horses naturally seek someone to follow (follow in the sense of joining in shared space and shared movement). It’s in their nature to move with others.
It’s been a long road to figure out what it is about the quality of my presence that eliminates the need for dominance. What I know now is, the greatest tool I have in my tool box is myself. All of me. At the end of the day my horse will follow my lead (always a request, never a demand) because my full attention and commitment is magnetic and he desires to follow that kind of lead. Having experienced following someone else’s lead when I dance, I can tell you following a magnetic, fully present, engaged leader is absolutely addictive. It’s SO much fun to move creatively without having to think about it. There is something insanely empowering about surrendering and melting into the connection with another. There is power in allowing oneself to be vulnerable with another being.
Enjoy your dance and let your light shine!
One of the best ways to learn from your horses, about them and about yourself, is to spend quiet time with them each day. I spent almost a year doing what felt like nothing with my herd but it has been the most profound learning of my life. I did three podcast interviews with Linda J. Salinas about what I learned during that time. She has published two of them along with many other interviews with other like minded horse women: Kim Walnes, Crissi McDonald and Carolyn Resnick. I’m honored to be in such good company! Here are the links should you care to listen.