A couple of weeks ago, I was in Regina, SK giving a 2 day Confident Horsemanship clinic. It was a great group of women and horses eager to learn how to deal with their loss of confidence or fearfulness. Because it was a small group and I had the assistance of another trainer and one of her students, we were able to have all 5 horses and people in the arena together for the first ground work session. I like to start with simply having the participants leading their horses around the arena to get a feel for the existing relationships between the horse and their human.
There was some nervousness from most of the women as well as from the horses (who did not know each other). It was a very windy, cold day and the horses were reactive to the noises in the arena. They were high headed, pushy, not wanting to stand still and not paying attention to the person attached to the other end of the lead rope. The work in hand is fairly simple. The handlers have to stay in the moment and pay attention to their horse’s shape as well as their own alignment to the horse. They need to provide clear and consistent boundaries through contact on the lead rope, asking the horse to respect their personal space and making sure it is the person directing the movement not simply going along with the horse. I said this was a fairly simple exercise, but as the participants found, it is not necessarily an easy one. If the participant was distracted by a noise or movement, held her breath or allowed tension to creep into her body, she was not paying attention to the horse. She became reactive to the horse’s behaviour. With me and my 2 assistants reminding each participant in the moment and at the appropriate time to “soften the tension out of your arm”, “remember to breathe”, “look up – you are in the driver’s seat”, “pick up your contact”, etc., the participants were able to spend more time in the moment and become proactive. We were giving the participants what they needed to give to their horses. As they were able to do that more and more consistently, the participants started to relax and feel more confident. Being in the moment, they were not worrying about what might happen, they were dealing with what was actually happening. The horses mirrored their handlers and also become more relaxed as they walked with level and gently swinging relaxed necks and backs, giving more focus to the person at the end of the lead rope and being more respectful of the boundaries.
At the end of the session, all 5 people and horses stood quietly – the horses with low heads and soft eyes; the women with smiles on their faces. With the wind still howling outside, I walked non-challantly to the side of the arena and banged the aluminum wall. The women looked at me with surprise and then smiled even bigger. Not one of the horses flinched let alone jumped. The women had done for their horses what they had done for themselves – released tension and stress to become calm and relaxed so that an unexpected sound was a non-event instead of the final straw.
Our horses need us to provide them with calm, clear and confident leadership. It doesn’t have to involve chasing a horse around a round pen or riding them or ourselves into a sweat. We demonstrate our leadership in every moment we are with our horses by mirroring in ourselves how we would like them to be – soft, supple, focused in the moment, respectful of boundaries and consistent in our behaviour.