Beyond Natural Horsemanship
When thinking about writing this article there were so many thoughts and topics running through my head regarding effective communication with horses. So, I thought I would just break the concepts into at least a couple of articles, so each is not too long.
This installment is basically an introduction to communication which goes well beyond traditional natural horsemanship. Then there'll be thoughts on using “imagery” as just one of the components in communications with horses.
Beyond Natural Horsemanship
When I began on the horsemanship journey, I began with natural horsemanship and at that time, I truly believed that that was the way to have a great relationship with horses. However, for the past couple of years I’m in a totally different place. I’m completely convinced there is so much more to horse communication than traditional natural horsemanship which focuses on pressure and release presented purely on a physical basis.
Natural horsemanship is conceptualized as teaching a horse in a way that (humans believe) horses communicate with each other. However, this thinking is exclusively based on what humans can SEE in horses’ communication styles. I believe there’s way more than that in terms of communication when asking something of our horse. I think that you'll find that experimenting with these other modes of communication can reap huge rewards with your horse!
Communicating in a manner that makes sense to horses
It’s amazing to see how very subtle we can be in giving cues or messages to our horse. Communication does not always have to be physical.
When you watch really, really fine horsemen/women you can barely see what they’re doing and it sometimes seems almost imperceptible. Those very special riders are in many disciplines and many that perform liberty with horses tend to exemplify this undetectable communication (one of my favorites: Frédéric Pignon).
These amazing people are not just using physical pressure. There’s way more finesse to their communication with their equine partners. They're enjoying a so much more quiet, more subtle communication with horses by creating imagery; internal emotional energy vibration; body language; sometimes vocal words or cues and they are forever in-the-moment when with their horses. Yes, sometimes depending on the situation, there might be a need for light physical escalation such as looking at or walking towards or touching certain body parts of the horse. But, the goal of communication with horses can be so much lighter.
When we begin to journey down this path, one of the keys to success with this mode of communication is making sure that we don’t send mixed messages.
Think of human-to-human communication. If one were to say to another that they’re having a great day, but that person is hunched over and not smiling….that would be an extremely confusing message. The words are sounding good, but the body language doesn’t match. Sometimes you can even feel that that person’s energy isn’t matching what they’re saying either.
With horses, their communication can be very, very subtle particularly when horses know each other. They’ve already figured each other out…..again, very much like humans. Did you ever have a human-to-human relationship where at times barely any words are needed and yet the communication was clear due to knowing each other’s looks, body language, and just having experienced the other’s patterns, and maybe understanding the other’s energy vibration in-the-moment too?
Another really, really important component of communicating with a horse is our breathing.
Humans quite often hold their breath which communicates to a horse that there’s trouble in the air. We don’t do it purposely but quite often it just happens ….particularly when we’re thinking or trying to be very careful. Unfortunately, that “being careful” translates to a horse that you’re not confident or that they should be worried about something.
Having the practice of meditation and being aware when your mind wanders helps slow
down breathing. If we want our horse to feel safe with us and be able to listen to us, we need to keep our breathing slow and steady….
oh!...and breathe in-and-OUT through our noses…and from our belly more like a horse 😊🐴
Something I learned in graduate school when going for my teaching certification: a professor said it’s not the students fault if they don’t understand; it’s on the teacher’s to find a different way to communicate something in a way that that student can grasp. It’s absolutely no different when teaching horses. Realize that the horse isn’t wrong. It’s up to the human to find a way to communicate to the horse.
In order to do so, we have to be very self-aware.
We need to check on ourselves to make sure something isn’t off in US!!! For me, if messages aren’t understood or heard by the horse with which I’m working….rather than putting the focus of “what’s wrong” on the horse, I check to make sure I’m “present” and in-the-moment and run through various self-checks like:
-Am I in the right place emotionally to work with the horse right now or am I too troubled with something else in my life to effectively communicate in a way that the horse can feel safe to think and process?
-Am I in-the-moment OR am I thinking about something else?
-Is what I’m asking of the horse reasonable for this horse to understand in this place and time of his/her training?
-Do I have clear imagery in my mind of what I’m asking of the horse?
-Am I using an emotional energy that makes sense to this individual horse in this particular moment?
-Does my body language match the rest of my communications (on-the-ground or while riding)?
-Am I breathing?
I subscribe to the idea that only after I’ve examined myself fully, should I escalate my communications with the horse. The horse will then tell me if I’m appropriate or not in my slightly bigger communication.
One of the communication essentials: IMAGERY.
What is imagery? Using your mind to create representations of what’s going to happen and/or what you would like to happen using as many senses as is appropriate and/or possible.
Mental imagery is used in sports psychology all the time. It’s known to raise confidence, improve focus, encourage consistency, and aid motivation in a wide variety of sports. By strengthening neural networks in the brain, imagery also reinforces physical skill*. Learn more on how imagery can be helpful for human/horse in-the-saddle skills here*.
A breakthrough program called Centered Riding
was developed by Sally Swift sometime in the 1980's and is still a mainstay today. The program teaches the principles of classical riding by focusing a lot on mental imagery (and body awareness) to help the human be balanced and better "physically" communicate with the horse while in-the-saddle.
When working with horses, I strongly believe that mental imagery goes much deeper and further than just enhancing human/horse riding performance. My personal belief is it enhances communication and that there is some level of perception going on with horses when we create representations of what we’re asking in our mind. It seems like horses can almost “read” our thoughts. (“Energy vibrations” play a role, in horses’ understanding as well. A future blog installment will delve into the “energy” component of communication.)
A question that is asked often is: should the imagery be from the human’s perspective or the horse‘s vantage point. Well, I think that somewhat depends. However, I have found that when communicating with my horse at liberty that generally I’ve had more success with an OVERALL frame of reference. Including my surroundings and spatial distances around myself and my horses ….seems to create a clearer understanding and perception for them. When performing liberty and asking for certain gaits, positions of the horses, changes in directions, and waltzes are all examples where an overall perspective in my mind seems to be helpful. Other liberty movements where a broader frame of reference might be helpful could be when asking a horse to turn in the aisle, giving the human room while putting out hay; turning around and moving in position while one’s hosing the horse off, etc.
Even though that OVERALL frame of reference is effective for me when being around my horses and asking for movement or behavior at liberty, other situations for me and with other horses sometimes calls for different imagery perspectives. It’s always worth experimenting to see what mental imagery best resonates in various situations.
Keep in mind that there’s various experiences associated with imagery. Consider it more of an art rather than a specific science or mechanical technique. It’s interesting to experiment with different frames of reference and various communications (both on the ground and while riding):
Consider imagining a line in the ground where you’d like your horse to stop. You can create that mental representation with the horse’s front legs/hooves landing and stopping right on that spot. This could be while riding or at liberty.
When riding, you might try creating an imaginary horse in front of you who’s moving at the pace, tempo, posture, bend, relaxation level, and/or direction in which you’d like your horse to move. In this case, depending on the horse, the fictitious horse might be only a few yards ahead or sometimes much further than that.
For instance, when riding a serpentine in a riding ring, you might envision the imaginary horse already around the bend across from you like this:
If you’re hoping for certain positions or movement from your horse when riding or on-the-ground such as a bend, or a step under of a hind leg, or a square turn, etc…..create a mental picture visually or with a feel of those movements imagined within you and/or by your horse.
A scenario where you might engage other senses such as feel and sound might be when introducing fly spray. Imagine your horse standing still; the feel of the spray, and how the spray feels on the body; as well as the sound of the spray coming out.
Another way to make use of mental imagery is in helping to prepare a horse for something or to see if your horse is ready for the next step of a certain learning process. Here you can lay the groundwork for your horse to accept the saddle, bridle, or wraps; or walk through a gate; or be comfortable with you on a mounting block nearby; or any other situation in learning that might cause stress for your horse.
Practice the whole scenario in your head…like a game of “pretend”. Use lots of details when creating this in-your-head movie. For instance, if you’re preparing your horse for the saddle: imagine picking up the saddle; adjusting the saddle in your arms the way you would in real life movement; imagine your steps to your horse (keep your horse in the mental representation) with saddle in hand; pretend you’re lifting the saddle on your horse’s back, etc. All the while you’re imagining, you’re also watching your horse’s signals/communication. If at any point there’s worry, STOP and notice where the concern began. This is good information to begin to help your horse by potentially going slower or to let the horse process and try again the next day.
When you notice a change in your horse in a mental imagery scenario be sure to examine yourself too....in that their might have been a change in your energy or breathing which created the concern in your horse (there’ll be more on that in a future blog installment). As I suggested earlier on in this article: self-awareness is so very important in relationship-based horsemanship.
In closing, be aware that “imagery” is not a stand-alone component of communication with horses. It’s only one part. Other elements like breath, energy, and body language need to all work in tandem with our mental imagery for our horse ….so that the message is clear and there aren’t contradictions.
Look for the next installment in this COMMUNICATION feature on: Internal Energy Vibrations.
Good luck and have fun with your horse ❤️🐴