The Good News and The Bad News
Updated: Aug 21, 2019
One day Dorian and I were out for a ride with our friends Sandy and Zipper. It was a cool day and Sandy and I were chatting as we happily trotted along.
Off to the side of creek there was a fair-sized metallic piece of wrapping paper flapping in the breeze. Dorian had seen it on our ride the day before, so he went on by without a thought, but Zipper responded—it spooked him. But only a little and only for a nanosecond.
Zipper and Sandy have been together for a long time. She’s a great rider and Zipper knows how much she loves him. They trust each other completely. He’s pretty savvy, too, so his fear response was brief then he trotted on by just like Dorian.
Sandy commented that when Zjpper spooked, his fear went through her, too; she wondered why that happened.
How come we feel what our horses are feeling?
I’ve felt that a lot, whether I’m riding or sometimes just out in the pasture with the herd. When something startles Dorian or the herd, I feel the same rush of adrenaline they do.
Horses are prey animals, so they’re always hyper-vigilant—aware of their surroundings. In the wild, it’s what keeps them safe. Horses also notice more what’s different or “off” in their environment than what is similar. Again, their ability to detect anything that might be a threat is key to their survival because it allows them to instantly flee a predator.
And it’s not only us who feels what they’re feeling. They feel our intentions, as well. When we’re fearful, they feel unsettled. The communication between horse and rider is instantaneous.
A few years ago, during his “bad boy” phase, Dorian got kicked in the chest pretty good and my friend Elizabeth agreed to have him rehab at her dressage barn, Harmony Equestrian. She’s the one who picked him up from the racetrack when he retired and named him. She still refers to him as “The Big Red Man” and loves him dearly.
So down to her dressage barn he went. But he couldn’t be turned out with any of her various herds because he was way too fond of the mares and would get into fights. So he spent a lot of time in her outdoor and indoor arena. And, of course, with me.
But it was early spring when the mares come into their first, hard heat, and he took down the fence in her outdoor arena to get to Shar, her 18-hand mare. I felt terrible, of course, and tried to do a lot of his exercise riding in the indoor arena or going on short trail rides around the equestrian properties where her barn is located.
Lots of new things, in other words, happened on those rides! First, down the road were the curious quarter horses, who rushed the fence as we approached under saddle for the first time. Dorian planted his feet, up his head flew, and a surge of fear and a wee bit of aggression flooded him, then me. I’d walked him by these horses prior to riding that way, but their stampede to the fence made me dismount on our first ride and approach them slowly.
It took a while for him to get around the whole property, and I always kept a vigilant eye out when we approached Elizabeth’s herd or the horses on others’ properties.
So how come Sandy and I, and likely you, experience what our horses are feeling? And visa versa?
We often disguise what we’re really feeling because in our culture—especially for women—there are so many “shoulds” about how we’re supposed to be.
As I’ve shared in another post, there’s scientific data about how in sync physically horses and humans become in close, calm contact, especially in terms of heart rate, mood, and its relationship to brain functioning.
The other thing that happens is called “proprioception” or the ability of the body to know where it is in space. It’s also the ability to translate mental thoughts (left brain), but especially mental pictures (right brain) into somatic responses.
I think this ability occurs in both humans and horses. For example, when you ride, your mental intention translates to very slight body movements that your horse can feel. And—as we all know—when we’re tense, or scared, or angry, we literally embody those feelings. That’s also translated to our horses.
But when we’re in sync, our horses communicate in this way to us, too. And often completely out of our awareness. That’s why Sandy literally felt Zipper spook. And why I know when Dorian is apprehensive, even before his larger, physical signs are there.
For me, the lesson has been a huge one. I’m much more able now to relax, breathe deeply, and send calm body signals to Dorian before he needs to trigger fear in himself.
And conversely, he seems able to read my thoughts as we’re riding or working on the ground. I know that’s more than my body language, but certainly proprioception plays a role. (See the video above for an example of Elizabeth's great proprioception at work.)
That’s the good news about being in sync.
The bad news? We sometimes disguise what we’re really feeling because in our culture—especially for women—there are so many “shoulds” about how we’re supposed to be. This results in us acting one way when we’re really feeling something entirely different.
That always comes out in our body language, which is easily "read" by horses and humans. Most often we believe the non-verbal messages, says research.
I know that's true for me. When I'm feeling unhappy but have a big smile on my face, Dorian knows something's "off" and shies away from that. I need to own up to my feelings--be honest with myself--and then I'll send "congruent" messages to Dorian and to others.
It boils down to this--whether our proprioception abilities provide us information or we pick up incongruent messages, we have two choices about what to do: we can"react" or "respond."
I learned that the hard way one day.
Dorian and I were riding out with a huge group of folks. Dorian was really excited--he felt like a coiled spring under me. About four of us turned for home as the rest of the crowd continued on.
Dorian wanted to be with the herd. Of course he did, he's a herd animal! I could literally feel his intention and in the next second, he acted on it. He was nearly impossible to control, trying to turn and run for the herd rather than obey me and head slowly for home.
Instead of responding to that--taking some deep breaths, sitting back and deep in the saddle to calm him--I reacted. I bent way over his head, pulled on the left rein to turn him hard in a small circle but he was having none of that.
I had to dismount and walk my hyped up ex-racehorse nearly an hour back to the barn.
I learned a good lesson that day. I don’t have to react. I can mentally take a step back, breathe a little, and take stock of things in a more productive way. See the “big’ picture more clearly, and act more productively.
Taking the temperature down a notch is always more helpful than a knee-jerk response. In horses and in humans.