Ask a Horse: Riding & Relationships with Humans

AMBER: Fiona, what do horses think of riding?

FIONA: It’s a good question to ask. We don’t separate it in our relationships with you, as you might think. Meaning, we don’t disconnect riding from our other interactions with you. Our experiences with humans, with our people, is not limited to the moments “around” the riding, as many of you seem to relate to us. Our experience with you is the whole process, from turnout to grooming to riding to cooling-down and carrots and trailering and vet work and all of it. We find that many people segment their concept of riding, as if it’s not part of their emotional relationship with the horse, and the two are distinct features. This seems to make it easier for people to ride, because they can view the horse as a beast of burden instead of a friend when they are on his or her back.

For us it is quite the opposite, and our mixed feelings about interacting with people often stem from the mismatch in your energy and attention between interacting with us “on the ground” versus under saddle. We strive for consistency, to know how to behave and how to relate to you. When you change in character from friend to authoritarian on our backs, it makes it hard for us to trust you completely. The dynamic is different. Our role is different. How and what you ask us is different, and we horses become easily distressed by this sudden change without explanation. Many of you had parents who would become hostile or unpredictable when angry, and learned as children to be very cautious when you weren’t sure of the mood of your parent. This is similar to our experience as horses. Many “spooky” horses are so because that uncertainty grows into timidness of the world itself. That doesn’t mean that people with spooky horses are inherently untrustworthy, but it does mean that horses with spooky tendencies do better with calm personalities. Volatility is no friend to the horse. And, even not-so-spooky horses will become so if they spend prolonged time with volatile human beings. We can’t help these feelings; our instinct tells us to be on high alert when relationship dynamics are uncertain. In the wild we would give space to an unpredictable or volatile companion, but when you do not let us leave your company, that stress turns inward or comes out in another form. Such is the nature of being a horse.

AMBER: That makes sense. I know many of us enjoy our horses on the ground but are easily frustrated when riding. We call humans who are kind to us sometimes and nasty to us at other times “frenemies,” because while they can be great supporters, we feel we can’t trust them completely.

FIONA: Yes! That is it exactly. And yet you ask us to do so many things which require trust. Which require us to submerge our instincts and follow your authority. Which require us to put our faith and our bodies – our survival – in your hands. In many ways, you ask the impossible, for you humans would largely be unable to fulfill what you ask of us horses. Your instincts would not allow you to subject yourself to those you do not fully trust, but that in a nutshell is the entire life of a horse.

AMBER: What can we as humans do to improve the life of horses? To make our relationships more trustworthy?

FIONA: Consistency. We can read your energy. We learn, quickly, what your volatile emotions look and feel like. You often say that horses have “off days,” but mostly we respond to your vibration, to your aura. When you have something lurking that we know will lead to trouble, it is difficult for us to respond because of that survival fear which arises in response. That’s not to say that we don’t expect humans to have differences in their energy or bad days, but if we must learn to deal with then, then so must you. Your consistent approach and kind manner soothe us, and we are easily settled around those who are steadfast and grounded. This is the key to a successful relationship, because we can trust you when you’re grounded. We can trust what you’re asking us when you’re connected to the earth, connected to yourself.

When you’re dizzy with emotion, or flighty in spirit, we look at you and we see an eruption brewing, and our instincts tell us to flee. There can be no true cooperation here. No true unity, because we cannot trust your leadership. Work on yourself to develop that groundedness, that center, and we will respond easily. It will be no difficulty for us, then, because our instincts work in concert with what you ask of us – to follow your grounded and trustworthy guidance. This is how we choose “leaders” – or guide horses – in the wild. We do not pick them as you might believe from domination or from subduing the lesser animal. Our guides are strong physically, perhaps, but mostly strong in spirit. They are grounded. They are wise. They allow the Earth to guide them and feel their way along her spine to know where and how to be. We trust this. It is true connection with the planet. We trust in this connection because that is the essence of being a horse. To work with a horse in true harmony, be one with us in this way and all we have to offer is shared, for we are in unity. We are of the same flesh.

AMBER: Thank you for sharing. That connection may sound a little “Black Stallion” syndrome-y to some. Can you elaborate?

FIONA: And what is the purpose of [those stories]? What is the driving force behind a child’s love for a horse? Is it to master the perfect piaffe? Is it to understand the intricacies of different bits or saddle fit? No, a child is honest in intention. A child wishes to join with a horse in joy and companionship. To be of one heart. That is what you all wish, through all of your relationships with every being on the planet. That is what you ask for and crave with your heart and souls. You just grow out of your heart and into your head as you mature. You change this deep desire to be more acceptable to your adult sensibilities. You alter your descriptions to speak of functional partnerships, to talk about quality of relationship and suitability and compromise. We do not offer that. We are as you are in a child state. We are only open-hearted and seeking to connect on that level, to share one heart and one mind with another, as we do with each other, and to celebrate that together through joy. That is the nature of horse. That is what we can have together when you approach us as we are: grounded, centered, and trustworthy in your connection to the earth.

AMBER: Thank you. What about the act of riding, itself? We have discussed this before, and healthy horses seem to see this as a divine experience when done correctly.

FIONA: Oh, yes. It’s beautiful. It is the perfect union between souls. Single-mind, two bodies, perfect harmony. Complete submission from both to the divine, to the light within and that which moves the earth. It is GOOD. But it is rare to encounter this. Mostly, it’s a rather uncomfortable experience of being pushed, pulled, prodded, yanked, thumped, kicked, and bullied into something you don’t understand. As if you were a chess piece on a game board you don’t know how to play with no instruction manual and no way to understand except for a giant reaching down to swat you if you make a false move. It’s very nerve-wracking from that perspective. Few people realize just how difficult it is for a horse to understand what you want. We do not think in the same concrete and linear fashion that you do, nor do we have the same desires. Using our bodies to do dressage or to jump is not something we horses would come up with on our own, though we do feel the alignment in doing these activities once we understand what you want. It’s just infinitely confusing for us to reach that point of understanding.

Most horses – probably 80-90% – shut down and just give up rather than continuing to try and figure it out. They reach a state of learned helplessness, where they try nothing, and are content to let you batter them around and bully them into performing what you ask. It is a violation of trust to reach this state, for the horse without its autonomy is dead inside. In the wild, that animal would not survive. He or she would fall victim to predator or natural disaster. In your world, you call them good horses, but there is little “horse” left to them. It takes a special rider to understand what he or she is working with and to preserve that inner beauty, that inner wildness of the horse. This quality of wildness can work in your favor, but it requires strength of connection instead of strength of hand. Many people are not capable of this at their current states of evolution, for they lack the centeredness in their own selves to ever achieve this with a horse. You usually call such people horse trainers, which we find ironic as they are training out all that makes a horse a horse.

In the animal kingdom, it is a violation to take the sovereignty of another being as your own. Even when we kill or die, we do so with respect to the nature of the being we hunt or feed. You humans lost your own sovereignty as a species so long ago that you are unable to recognize how deep this violation runs, but trust when I say there can be nothing crueler to do to another. We horses are sad for our human friends, because this is done to you as children when you enter your society, and we have compassion for you that this is all you know to bring to your relationships with us. However, it does not feel good, even in that compassion, and most horses would prefer not to be ridden rather than to be stripped of this deep essence of who we are.

This aversion to being ridden and shut down has caused humans to deem us as lazy, or mean, and many people believe that we horses would never choose to partner with humans at all, if given the choice. You see us as eaters, consumers, beasts who would never make fit human beings because of our lack of desire to work for a living. We find this greatly entertaining because we horses have never seen a human who likes to work! However, we, like you, love to play, love to run and enjoy the spirit within us, and love to share in the company of our friends. When you approach us with this common goal – of riding as play, as fun, and as an expression of connection, we enjoy greatly meeting you there. If you’re not having any fun, neither are we, and so the interaction is uncomfortable.

Lighten up and live a little. Approach us with joy – not dizzying over-exuberance, because that is too volatile, but from centered companionable joy, and we will desire what you desire – wonderful rides together. It may take time to develop this desire, however, if you have been inconsistent with your emotions and fairness to us. Just as you do not easily trust after betrayals, we are cautious at becoming too open and too giving with a sudden change of heart. Most horses, after all, have spent their lives working out how to protect themselves against the volatility of humans, so trust is not easily gained. Those horses who have shut down may not ever be fully available to the relationship you desire, as they are unable to move energetically the way humans do. You may be better off making your shift and then seeking a new partner, rather than pushing your shut-down horse to trust what has already been broken.

AMBER: That is a sobering statement, though I understand why you say it. It’s not easy for animals to release trauma or re-awaken.

FIONA: Nigh-impossible, except with the most expert of hands as guidance. What you call horse-trainers usually just bury the problem. This may be enough for the animal to have a satisfactory life, but he or she will be unable to join you in the joy I described.

AMBER: I wrote recently about “pillars of consent” in working with horses, which we must adhere to if we wish to be ethically-sound horsemen. Basically, the horse must be free of pain, confusion, fear, and unfair treatment in order to be able to give his or her consent for the work we are asking. These pillars don’t guarantee consent, but without them I don’t believe a horse would willingly offer consent. How do you feel about this in regards to riding or training with people?

FIONA: I like those very much. I think they are key to a successful relationship. Most people struggle so much to find the right method or approach, and it’s really very simple. If it feels wrong to you, don’t do it. We are not less-sensitive to pain or emotion than you are. We are not working against you. We are not trying to be bad or cause trouble. If what you ask or the way you ask it causes you to feel uncomfortable either because of the question or the answer you get from us, it is not the right approach. When we let someone on our back, we are giving them control over our whole being. You would never punish a child who was submitting to you for misunderstanding, or beat him or her into the right answer if he or she was trying to figure it out, so extend us the same courtesy. Just because you know what you want, doesn’t mean we do. Moreover, most of you put all of your energy and focus when riding into what you do NOT want, and that is a very conflicting signal since we rely more on your energy and thoughts than we do your physical commands.

AMBER: I didn’t realize that. I thought the aids were a greater part of the communication process.

FIONA: It depends somewhat on the horse. Those who shut down rely almost entirely on the physical aids because they have stopped looking to the rider and reading the energy to figure things out. However, it is far more natural for us horses to communicate with you the way we communicate with each other – about 10% body language, and 90% energetically. As riders, focusing clearly on what you want and allowing us to access that through the openness of your body and energy lets us see what you’re really asking for. You do it frequently while grooming us because your attention is more clear. It’s disconcerting to many horses, especially the young, because we’ve learned this way of interacting with you on the ground, and the moment you mount, you shut down and turn your body off from us so that we can’t feel you properly. It can be scary to experience this, because it’s another relationship change and unpredictability, plus we feel left on our own to figure out these brutal thumping requests you make. It’s not a pleasurable experience.

Stay connected to us, stay grounded to the earth, and focus on what you do want. If it feels good to you, and feels good to us, we are in harmony and riding is fun! We love the energy and the play that can come through this relationship together, because humans have invented many games that are pleasurable to us. There’s no need for the great fuss of all the rest. Choose your joy and we’ll gladly join you.

AMBER: Thank you, Fiona. This is enlightening. I’m sure we’ll revisit this topic again soon!

FIONA: You’re most welcome. I like speaking on this because it’s so much easier than people think. Really, it doesn’t have to be hard. You only make it hard when you think too much about how you should be doing it, or enter into a relationship of discomfort. Your horse will tell you all you need to know, if you let her.

Have you ever wanted to ask a horse how they feel about a particular subject? Now’s your chance! Hear about horse-keeping and equestrian subjects straight from the horse’s mouth. These segments are conducted interview-style between Amber and equine advice extraordinaire Fiona, or a guest horse. Have a question or a topic you’d like to know about? Leave a comment here or on Facebook or Twitter with under #askahorse.

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