Our interpretations of the horse’s nature and its actions have a profound effect on everything we do in our horsemanship. Some viewpoints can lead us to compassion and connection, while others will take us down paths where both horses and humans are likely to struggle.
Learning to spot the difference – and to make adjustments when we find ourselves drifting into muddy waters – is an important part of building a solid foundation of trust between you and your horse.
One common way of interpreting horses is what I call Emotional Horsemanship, in which we judge the horse and its actions through a distorting lens of human emotion. Operating from this perspective, we tend to take what our horses do personally and often quite negatively, overlaying their behaviors with imagined attitudes gleaned from our own emotional life. This can create a huge disconnect between what is actually happening with our horses and what we believe is happening. For example, we may feel “disrespected” or think the horse is “being a jerk” if it kicks out or twirls its head when we use some form of pressure.
This perceived slight makes us feel justified to respond emotionally and “get after” the horse, which drastically changes our energy, feel, presentation and timing.
In reality, the horse’s supposed disrespect is most often just an expression of confusion, frustration or fear in response to some lack of clarity in our use of space or pressure, and the most productive way to work with that is to take responsibility for it and make adjustments as necessary. This doesn’t mean that you allow unwanted or dangerous behaviors, only that you frame your training to fulfill the horse’s needs, rather than to gain dominance. When you work in this way, you bring clarity and peace to the horse, which is truly the best way to create a safe and willing partner.
If, however, you frame the situation emotionally and blame the horse for its “bad attitude,” you have allowed yourself to be pulled away from a stance of positive calm into one of negative emotionality. When we let the actions of the horse change our mental state like this, we create an instability in our energy that is deeply unsettling to the horse. The result is that they see us as unpredictable and untrustworthy – the opposite of what we need to be if we want to earn the position of leadership in the horse’s eyes.