How the human mindset is changing the human-horse interaction, and why it is important to be aware of it.
When it is about horse training, it’s all about communication. Communication is always going in at least two directions: The one who is sending an information, and the one who is receiving it. The most famous example is probably the game “Chinese whisper”, also known as “broken telephone” (in german “stille Post”). Do you remember that game from your childhood? And how often did the same message come out at the end as it was started?
One would think that in a one-on-one communication this phenomenon appears less, but interesting enough, the opposite is true.
Experiment @ Home
A very nice experiment to take at home is to remember random a social gathering. It should be at least two weeks ago, but better a year ago. Ask several people attending to write down shortly how the event was, what their main experience was, and their take home message. Most often, the stories are not resembling very much. If you ask your siblings to do the same with your shared childhood, quite often you will ask yourself the question if you really grew up in the same house or attended the same vacation.
How is that possible?
If we like it or not – we are all biased by our own biography. Therefore, the mindset and the level on that we receive a message is so very different.
Just a very small amount of the experience is received on a “matter of fact” level. Quite a big amount on the contrary is received on other, very individual and emotional levels. Who is the sender? In what relationship is the receiver with the sender? What emotional level is triggered? What is the body language expressing? How is the tonality? What is your personal history? What is the mindset of the receiver in that very moment? Is the receiver very happy and content in this very moment, or tired, down, sad? The outcome of the message received is totally different.
If this is true for a communication with your boss, sibling, husband or friend – just add different cultures or different mother tongues to the experience. Or, if we are talking horses, a different species.
How is the awareness about communication helping with our horses?
Foremost the awareness that human and horse are two different species is already helping. If we want to communicate fluently, both have to learn a new, shared language. That alone is opening a lot of space for miscommunication.
A hands-on example is the quarter-in in groundwork. While the whip aid is asking the outside hindleg of the horse to step under, the positioning of the human body is blocking the horse. Each horse that is clear in its head will be confused. With two opposing messages to deal with, the horse is forced to disobey. If the horse is sending out that message, how will you as a receiver, care-taker and rider receive and process it?
Do you see a miscommunication? A language that is not fully understood yet? Or do you see a horse disobeying? A horse that is naughty? That the horse doesn’t like you and do not want to cooperate with you?
A simple misunderstanding can lead to very out of scale reactions when it’s getting emotional. And it can help us too to not humanize the horse in its message.
What is the story you tell yourself?
Lately, we bought a farm. The place is a bit up in the mountains, what gives us a fantastic view, but as well a quite uneven and steep surface to ride on. My mental picture when moving the ponies over was: Training on a grass field for a couple of weeks while building a riding arena parallel. No prob, I can do that – I believed.
Opposite of humans, horses are living in the present moment. For equines, each message send is (at least for your pony) matter of facts. In equine eyes, humans react quite often unforeseeable (humans would say emotional 😉 )
The simple message my ponies gave me was:
– It is difficult to find balance on a steep surface with so many bumps.
– It is very difficult to carry additional weight and lift the back in these circumstances.
– I cannot concentrate with all the free running sheep, moose, reindeers around.
How do I as a rider hear these (for my horses very true) facts and how does my mind process this information? Is my mind set on problem-orientation or a solution-orientation? The outcome and interpretation is completely different. Let me give you some examples:
Being in the present moment and giving a fact-based information, the horse does not implicit anything. The human mind though is unique to create beautiful stories around. If the human get emotional affected, the outcome is often a disaster for the training and the relationship to the equine in particular. A couple of human interpretations of the equine message:
There is no possibility to train for the next few months. / How far is that putting the training development and approach back? /How much suppleness and strength is the horse losing in that time? / It is impossible to handle my horses properly for the upcoming period at all. / We will lose connection. / My horse does not want to train with me at all. / He’s just pretending. / Or even worst case: my horse doesn’t like me, otherwise he would do it. / My horse is naughty, lazy, stupid.
The list can continue for basically ever. If these are the thoughts the mind is telling, the problem got a beautiful spot in the centre of attention. Here, it is very easy for the problem to shine brightly. Very easy as well to see all the difficulties and problems that might hang together with this little one. And if you really want to enjoy the problem, it is from here on easy to even spin a story about all the future problems that might connect with it. And then continue spinning the story.
“Excuses, excuses!” my lovely husband would comment if I come home complaining about why a certain training did fail in a certain situation. Being a computer scientist, his simple advice would be “Just do the work that needs to be done.” A less emotional approach very often helps to see things clear.
… or solution-orientated?
Trying to look at the situation with different eyes, the story might be a completely different one, though the message is still the same. Making the problem a part of the solution, taking your ego out of the story and being ready to stay in the moment and “just do the work” – how is that changing the whole story?
Let’s have a look at the raw and unemotional facts.
One of the messages my ponies gave me was: It is difficult to lift my back with your weight on top on this surface. Now, there we have two approaches. One is to avoid the general problem and just stay with ground- & handwork. There is always a million things and details to focus on, develop and learn more about. That might be a great period now to put focus on little details that usually come a bit short. The other side can be the awareness that downhill, we need much more collection to keep the shoulders free. Are we already able to do that?
Another part of the message was: I cannot focus with so many influences around.
Wonderful, then this is the time to train focus. We do not need a perfect surface for this. Free running sheep, cows, moose, deer and tractors – here’s the invitation to pop up regularly in our training sessions. Instead of avoiding the problem, let’s take this as a great chance to train trust, relaxation and dealing with environmental influences.
What is the lesson learned for your daily training, even if you do not have any sheep, steep mountains or moose around you? The first step is to process a reaction of your horse in general as a basic information, without any interpretation or humanization.
Breaking it down to a matter-of-fact level is giving you information about what you really need to train right now to come closer to the human – horse interaction of your dreams, or the gymnastical outcome you go for. We cannot wave with our magical wand (or wooden whip) to swish all problems away. But we can very well be aware of communication and adapt the training to a lesson for horse and human that is worth that name.
Enjoy the Journey!
Celina is a classical rider and liscensed Bent Branderup Trainer, equine energetic osteopath, systemic coach and communication expert. Therefore, the wholistic approach of body, mind & soul is a main ingredience of her personal style of beeing with horses. Her private interrest in bodywork and fine communication influences her work. She likes to share her thoughts in her blog with horsepoeple all over the world. Beeing a teacher and student at the same time, she loves the discussion and the share of experience.
Least but not last, she is deeply in love with this beautiful creatures she is allowed to work and live with.
German born and privatly based in Norway, she teaches clinics and online lessons all over the world.