Recently, a woman called me for help with her 4 year old quarter horse gelding. She has had the horse for about a year and a half. Initially, he was well behaved and did well showing in Western Pleasure classes on the Quarter Horse circuit. But, soon things started to fall apart. While most of the time he was an endearing, inquisitive fellow, he was becoming more difficult to handle – spooking, rearing, threatening. Unfortunately, the result of one of his spooky, difficult moments was a broken rib for his owner. As she was leading him from the paddock to the barn, he pulled away from her and then kicked out, catching her in the back.
I went to meet them on a sunny, calm January afternoon. As Sandra and I chatted by the fence, Stryker came up to check us out. His interest quickly turned to pushing me with his head and nibbling on my gloved hand outstretched in passive greeting. At each of his inappropriate touches, I calmly but firmly pushed him away. Realizing that I was not a push over, he focused his attention on Sandra. Her response was also to push him away, but he kept coming back a bit more forcefully each time. Why did Stryker quickly decide to leave me alone but continue to bother Sandra?
While we both pushed him away, there was a significant difference in HOW we did it. My pushes were directed to either his chest or his shoulder (depending on his alignment to me at the time).
Sandra’s pushes were all towards his head.
Have you ever watched a couple of geldings playing and seen it escalate into a more serious interaction with rearing and striking? This play may start with a game of “halter tag” (grabbing each other by the halter) or nipping at each others’ head or neck. The head and neck are an area horses want to protect … their vulnerable, personal space.
So, when Sandra was pushing Stryker’s head away, she was inadvertently instigating more aggressive behaviour from him. In Stryker’s perspective Sandra was being a bully. My pushes were all directed to Stryker’s body. He understood my message of “get out of my space and go away”. From his perspective the message was clear and sent with respect.
As I went into the paddock with Stryker, Sandra warned me that he will rear and that is usually preceded by head shaking. I had a halter, lead rope and dressage whip in my hands. Almost as soon as I was in the paddock, Stryker started to come into my space. I immediately stopped him by pointing the whip towards his chest. When he continued forward, I held my ground and gave him a firm tap on the chest. At first he looked surprised as this was not the response he was expecting and then he backed off with a bit of attitude. He looked at me and then dropped his nose to the ground. I had earned a modicum of his respect. After assessing me for a moment, he tried a few more small challenges. To each one my response was the same – I respect your space; I expect you to respect mine. I was not asking him for anything other than that. None of my responses sent any impulsive energy towards his head. All of my responses were towards his body – shoulder, barrel or hip – and had the same level of energy as his. Within a few minutes (after he put on a bit of show running around his paddock), he was much more focused on me and showing more respect for my space and my requests.
As it turns out, Stryker is a very sensitive but not very confident horse. He is very aware of body language. So, when the people around him were not making sense, he became much less confident and his reactions which appeared on the surface to be aggressive were actually defensive.
There was the viscous cycle that very often occurs where as he became more nervous because he was confused by the humans around him the humans became more nervous and managed him with more force because he was so unpredictable.
Sandra confided that although she was afraid around Stryker she put on a bravado and became tougher with him. As a result, she was inadvertently being a “bully” and sending conflicting messages through her body language, behaviour and energy.
Sandra was feeling that her safety was threatened and behaved defensively (even somewhat aggressively from Stryker’s view point). Stryker was feeling exactly the same way. Human and horse were actually mirroring each other. When I worked with Stryker, I showed him assertive, confident, calmness and he began to mirror that back.
Every one of us sends out energy all the time based on our perceptions of our world and the situation we are in. Our energy is our intent in that moment. Horses as prey animals perceive the world through a highly attuned awareness for body language, movement and energy. In the wild, zebras and lions live side by side. The zebra can tell the lions’ intent (hunting or resting) simply by reading their energy and movements. If the zebra could not tell the difference in the lions energy/intent, they would constantly be running exhausting themselves as they used up their energy resources – making themselves much easier prey for the lion.
Our horses are mirrors for our energy/intent in any given moment. So, if you are working with your horse, but your energy and emotions are still connected to an argument you had earlier that day or the person who cut you off in traffic on your drive to the barn, the horse senses those emotions as energy.
Before working with your horse, take the time to check your emotions and feelings. Just for the time you are with your horse, let go of stresses, disagreements and worries and bring your awareness into the present moment. Be truly conscious. Pay attention to what you mirror to your horse and she mirrors back to you.
How is your horse affected by your emotions, feelings and energy? Share your experiences in the comments below.
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Anne Gage ~ Confident Horsemanship