Anyone who has ever taken up meditation, yoga, or any kind of mindfulness practice knows that intentionally quieting your own thoughts is not easy. It’s something you have to work at. But when you’re working with horses, it’s one of the most valuable skills you can possibly develop.
Being able to focus and simplify your thinking accomplishes a number of important horsemanship goals:
- It keeps you safe, because you are more focused on the situation in front of you, and you also reduce the chances that your horse will react with fear.
- It helps you to project calm assertiveness, which is the key to helping a horse feel relaxed and receptive to your requests – making every interaction more enjoyable and productive.
While applying mindfulness to horsemanship may sound a little new age, it is (like all my horse-related advice) firmly based in science. Prey animals like horses are extremely sensitive to the subtlest signs of anxiety, agitation, or stress that in the herd are the first signals of danger. Quiet your thoughts, and you quiet those signals.
For example, approaching your horse while you’re distracted and thinking about the obnoxious driver you encountered on the way to the barn is a sure way to transmit minute signals of anxiety to your horse. Or maybe you are anticipating something your horse might do – whether it’s trotting away from you (annoying) or giving you a nip when you’re not looking (painful).
Those kinds of vexing thoughts come across in your behavior in very subtle ways, as any good poker player will tell you. They put your horse on alert, prevent him from understanding what you want him to do, and keep him from complying in a calm manner.
The solution is simple, but not always easy. There are techniques you can use to approach all horses that will maximize the probability that you get calm, relaxed compliance from your horse every time. It starts by establishing inside your mind a feeling of calm assertiveness that will come across to your horse.
Turn off the timer
People often remark about how calm and confident I seem when I work with horses, and they want to know how I can be so patient. To be sure, my decades of experience contribute to my calmness, because I have learned that if I gently keep asking my horse for what I want, eventually I will be successful – so I don’t put a time limit on achieving success.
But I have also learned to quiet my mind around horses in a very deliberate way – putting myself in a mental state that is happy, relaxed, and unhurried. It took a lot of practice – but it is a skill I now use every single day that I am working with horses (and sometimes with grandchildren.)
Finding your calm place
My personal mind-calming exercise involves imagining myself in a moment of time that was pure contentment. For me, it’s a specific beach in North Carolina – and I conjure up the sounds, the sunlight, and the feelings of that moment when I want to replace fretful thinking with a quiet mind.
Think about a place and time when you felt completely relaxed and happy. Maybe it was holding your children when they were tiny or experiencing the warmth of a cozy fireplace. Then practice recreating that emotional state until it becomes a reflex to go there when you are around your horse.
So, that’s the “calm” part of the equation. But what about assertiveness? Here is where you really need to simplify your thoughts. That means having a clarity of intent so that you know exactly what you want the horse to do – not what he might do or what he did last time you tightened his girth, but precisely what you want to happen in the here and now. Like an olympic skier, you need to visualize success.
Precision is also important in assertive thinking. If you want a horse to back up, visualize precisely which foot will move first and how many steps you want him to take. When you have that very specific action in mind, it will influence the cues you give your horse, and your request will be clearer to him. Finally, don’t confuse assertiveness with force. Start with the minimal pressure you can possibly imagine and go even softer, then release the moment your horse completes the job to reward him for calm compliance. In other words, the gentle pressure you apply to your horse to get that foot to move should be released the precise moment the foot begins the last step you have pictured in your mind. This specificity will help your horse be more confident the next time you ask.
You can do this!
Practice quieting your mind the next time you are interacting with your horse, and see what happens. Chances are some sneaky stressful thoughts or fears will intrude here and there, but keep working at it. It will come easier over time, and the results can be dramatic. You can also practice throughout your day, making that state of mind more accessible when you are with your horse.
- Go to that place of total relaxation and peace before you approach any horse, and practice throughout the day
- Know precisely what you want your horse to do before you ask him to do it
- In as calm and soft a way as possible, ask your horse to do what you want
- Keep asking until you get it, without a time limit
- When your horse complies, stop asking immediately, and be proud of yourself and your horse – you have both done something amazing!
Learn more about equine behavior and building better horse/human relationships at one of Jim’s nationwide clinics, horsemanship courses, or individualized training opportunities. Get details here.