Natural horsemanship revolutionized the way that we interact with horses. Even if you do not follow one of the big natural horsemanship methods, you likely have some knowledge of them. I think that even individuals who say that they do not use natural horsemanship techniques have still been influenced, to some degree, in their approach to horses by the influence natural horsemanship has had on the attitudes of the industry. Even the non-equestrian culture has been made aware of this monumental shift through films like “The Horse Whisperer” and, more recently, “Buck.”
Personally, I was very excited to learn about a new way to work with horses that was less invasive and dominating. I grew up in the traditional hunter/jumper world on the east coast. Learning how to use ground work that didn’t involve mindlessly running the horse around on a lunge line to get the bucks out and learning how to read my horse’s body language better was so refreshing. I was eager to learn about natural horsemanship and try new ways of training and interacting.
Eventually, I came to realize that I still wanted more connection, harmony, and understanding between my horses and myself. I came to realize that the horses have much to teach us and, if we choose, working with them can go beyond training to personal growth. My desire to seek out a collaborative form of interaction led me to expand on the wisdom of natural horsemanship into the wisdom within each individual’s heart. Soulful horsemanship is my first delicate step into a new realm of partnership with horses. Soulful methods are a continuation of the growth the equestrian industry has made thus far.
Below are the six primary ways in which I feel that soulful horsemanship differs from the proliferation of natural horsemanship techniques that have been introduced.
I take my hat off to the individuals who first promoted the importance of understanding the way horses communicate. Natural horsemanship was so key in learning the body language and herd dynamics necessary for understanding how horses behave, think, and interact with one another so that we could learn to work with them in a more humane way. Through this awareness we were able to empathize and relate in a less violent manner. It has improved the lives of horses.
It is time to build on that knowledge and take our communication to the next level. There is nothing natural about training a horse to work with us and perform for us. There is nothing natural about a horse/human interaction. We will never be equipped to communicate like a horse because we are not built like a horse, we are not functioning within a herd, and we are asking the horse to do completely unnatural things that would never be requested of them by an alpha mare. It is wonderful to see and understand their language as best we can but we cannot replicate it. So what is the next step?
Soulful horsemanship proposes that we can learn to communicate on the only level that both horse and human can become fluid and equal. Horses will never develop our complexity of spoken language and humans will never develop the complexity of equine body language and herd dynamics. We can both learn to connect and communicate through heart energy. Our emotional field, intention, and intuition are the only way that the horse and human can flawlessly hear and be heard. It is time to change our communication from a means to get the horse to do things for us and into a means to connect and work collaboratively.
Natural horsemanship helped to shift the equestrian mentality out of physical domination and forced control. I think of natural horsemanship as interacting with the horse through mental means rather than such harsh physical means. When I watch natural horsemanship demonstrations I feel as though I am watching a precise form of control. When it is done really well there is a sense of cooperation on the part of the horse. In other words, the horse agrees to meet the desires of the human without too much of a fight.
Mental control over a horse, or even cooperation, is not the same as true collaboration and co-creation. I want to collaborate with my horses. I want them to have a choice in the process. I want horses to move beyond willing compliance to an attitude of joyfully seeking out the interaction with humans and actively participating in that partnership. I believe that we have a lot to offer horses to meet their needs for peace, security, safety, and companionship. We do not have to dominate them in any form if we choose to connect through the heart and see their needs in addition to our own.
Horse training, in all its forms, has been a way to change the horse’s behavior in order to meet the needs and desires of the human. The human needs transportation, desires the thrill of show jumping, has cattle to move on the ranch, or wants to entertain people through the thrill of gambling at the track. To meet those needs and desires, we find an effective training methodology to mold the horse’s behavior. The focus has been on changing the horse to get what we want. Whether you use traditional or natural means, this is still a one-sided approach.
A true partnership requires that the needs of both the horse and the human are understood and met. Both parties should be heard, understood, and respected. If we are not meeting the needs of both, it is not a partnership. In addition, both members of the team must grow, learn, and develop. When we work with horses we have an opportunity to learn the way of the horse and grow on a spiritual level. If we just focus on the development of the horse, we are missing out on the depth of relationship because we are only trying to affect change in half the team.
One of the premises of natural horsemanship is that if we can gain control over the horse’s movement, we can gain control over the horse. If we can prove that we have the ability to move their feet, the horse will submit to us. I believe that this is disempowering for the horse and the human. When you try to force compliance, you are manipulating the horse to behave in a certain way. That leaves them with limited options – they can either resist which is met with punishment and intimidation or become submissive. Neither of those things creates a willing partner.
In addition, when we believe that the horse must do as we say, go where we want, and listen without any question, we are disempowering ourselves. As soon as you start looking for external control over a situation, you are giving up you authentic, internal power. When we manipulate the horse and move their feet to prove that we are in control and dominant over them, we have lost the collaborative partnership and the opportunity for empowerment.
Soulful horsemanship proposes that we can build a synergistic, empowered partnership with horses. We can focus less on controlling the circumstances in the arena and instead address our internal, emotional worlds. It is not enough to learn a less forceful way to make the horse comply with our demands; we must shift into a relinquishment of those demands in favor of a fulfilling, harmonious interaction.
Horsemanship methods have been very fear-based for the horse and human. We feel the need to exert external control over the horse because we are afraid of what will happen if we lose that perceived control. The horse also responds from fear – the fear of being cornered, trapped, and pushed around by a predator. From this space boundaries are created to mitigate fear rather than foster love and compassion. It is very hard to learn new things and make lasting change when we are in a state of fear.
We can move out of survival mode into the joyful expression of partnership by focusing on love-based interaction. When we interact as a way to help the horse and human improve the quality of life through compassion and understanding, we can encourage one another to grow and find the peace and harmony we are seeking. We can take the ego out of training and lovingly dance from the heart.
Natural horsemanship has really focused on systems, techniques, and equipment to gain results. A lot of ego is introduced in regards to which method is better, who is qualified to teach, and if your good enough to use it. When we focus on executing movements with precision, we miss out on the natural flow, communication, and energy exchange. We can, instead, focus on awareness in the moment to interact authentically based on all of our knowledge and filtered through our intuition.
Horses naturally live in the moment. We can learn how to enter that space with them through mindfulness practices. It is important to quiet the mind and the ego so that we can interact through the motion of our bodies. Working with horses is very physical and we must be aware of our movements – natural horsemanship taught us this but made it somewhat mechanical. The way to flawlessly communicate through the body is through emotional awareness.
The key in soulful horsemanship is the focus on the emotional worlds of the horse and human. It is time to get in touch with our heart and soul. It is time to understand the emotional needs of horses and humans. It is time to become aware of how we are feeling and become empathetic about how our horses are feeling. We can accomplish so much more in the arena and in life through the development of emotional intelligence. The horses can teach you how if you empower them through authentic interactions. Emotions are the heart of our experience.