Let’s face it – sometimes your communication with your horse goes haywire. You want one thing to happen and your horse is just not having it. This is the moment when you can begin waging war against your equine partner. You begin the push-pull effort to force your horse to do what you want – cross the creek, go over the pole, enter the wash stall, get on the trailer, walk by the monster, pick up his foot, allow you to catch him…
You start coming up with ways to bribe him, manipulate him, trick him, scare him, force him – whatever it will take. You hold a carrot enticingly just out of reach. You try the two steps sideways to unstick his feet before using the momentum to move forward. You try backing in. You wave some items behind him. You pull and push and growl. And all the while your frustration level and temper begins to rise.
At this point, many reach a state where they either give up or they make a decision that is damaging to their relationship with their horse. Out comes the chain shank, the whip, the spurs, or some other tool or method that causes discomfort, fear, or pain for the horse. It may be a last resort, but at times it can feel that the only way you will get through to this big stubborn animal is to get after him a bit.
What is the alternative? How can you keep your cool and overcome your disagreement with your horse?
Don’t Assume Ill Intent
Sometimes it feels like your horse is being a jerk, rude, stubborn, naughty, or deliberately against you. The first step to overcoming a disagreement with your horse is to catch this kind of thinking. When you assume that your horse is out to get you, deliberately being bad, or sabotaging your desires, you will pit yourself against him. It is very hard to work together in collaboration when you feel as though the other party is working against you.
It can be particularly dangerous when you label your horse has a jerk or as bad. There is a big difference between identifying behavior that is undesirable and labeling the one who is doing that behavior as undesirable. To stay connected, you must separate your horse from his behavior. You are working with a horse who you love and he happens to be behaving in a way that you do not appreciate. That doesn’t make the horse wrong or bad – nor does it mean that he is intentionally trying to harm or upset you.
By not assuming ill intent, you open a gap to ask questions. If your horse is not deliberately trying to cause a problem, then what else could be going on? Am I acting as a trustworthy leader? Does my horse understand what I am asking? What could be causing this behavior? Is there a different way to approach this problem?
There are endless questions that you could ask in this moment. The more you understand about the situation, the less tension there will be between you. Practice compassion and empathy to see the situation through the eyes of your horse. His perspective and experience of the interaction will be completely different than yours. While you can’t ask him directly why he is reacting in the manner that he is, you can reflect on different possibilities that will help to shift your own perspective.
Escalating frustration will not help the situation. However, this is often easier said than done. Asking questions and keeping an open mind will help you to better understand, but that alone may not be enough. While searching for understanding with your horse, also practice self-empathy. Why am I so attached to my desired outcome? Is there any other acceptable resolution to this conflict? What is, ultimately, the most important thing to me – getting my horse to behave or building a strong relationship?
Take a moment to pause and breathe. Stop the pushing and pulling. Stop the fight. Stop the need to be right or to win. For just a moment, stop. Take the pressure off of your horse and yourself. In that stillness, center and ground yourself. Use your breath to still your mind and sooth your emotions. Try a controlled breathing technique to calm your nervous system.
A simple method is to still your body while you breathe in through your nose and then breathe out through your mouth. As you exhale, purse your lips (like you were going to blow out a candle) and blow the air out audibly. As you exhale relax your body. Try to make your exhale twice as long as your inhale. Repeat five or ten times – just make sure that you don’t get lightheaded if you are not in a safe space!
Clearly state your request
Now that you have calmed yourself, you will likely find that your horse has also calmed down and relaxed a bit as well. This pause allows both of you to reset. Rather than continuing to trigger adrenaline and the fight or flight response, you have started to shift into greater relaxation and connection. A state of calm allows for better focus, clarity, and understanding. From this state of being, and with the information that you gathered by asking questions, you can begin again.
You may find that asking clearly and calmly for what you were originally asking for will do the trick. Your horse will be in a better state of mind to work through your request and will better trust you because of your state of being. Or you may decide to ask something simpler that is a step toward your desired outcome. Be sure to reward any effort and finish in a state of calm connection.
The escalation of disagreements happens in any relationship. Our emotions get triggered and we begin to create a mountain out of a mole hill. When neither party feels heard, understood, and valued, they fight to get their needs met. This dynamic can be even more difficult to work through in a non-verbal relationship. Your horse cannot tell you how he feels and why. You cannot explain the importance of completing a task that you requested.
Just because there are no words to share an understanding with your horse, doesn’t mean that you can’t communicate loud and clear. Your actions are always talking. Your horse senses every emotion. Be aware that what you are communicating when you are in a state of determination to get what you want may not be what you want to communicate. You are saying loud and clear that you can’t be trusted! Yes, you can be firm and set boundaries, but you have to keep the anger out of it.
These four simple steps will help you to overcome disagreements with your horse while keeping your cool. As you learn how to do this more effectively, your relationship will continue to grow.