My horse time over the last few months has been largely occupied by a stunning young warmblood in training for someone else. An extremely talented, very well bred and very expensive dressage prospect that is, or now I can almost say was, very troubled. A very complicated horse with very deep fear and anxiety – I don’t think I have ever seen a horse draw in his bottom lip as much as he did. This fear was mixed with a lot of anger, resentment and contempt when humans asked him something. He is strong minded and he has decided he won’t put up with people pushing him around and pressuring him into things anymore. He has decided he has had enough of that and good for him!!!!! Combine that fear and anger, strong mindedness and a strong sense of self with extreme sensitivity, high energy and being highly spirited and package it all up in a powerful and very athletic body  and you have a complex horse to work with !!!!  Underlying all of that is a very sweet natured, affectionate horse with a heart, mind and a soul looking for love, connection, friendship and something to do.  He has bolted and bucked two people off before coming here. Once I believe it was  through fear but the other time (I saw the video) seemed like a very conscious choice. He had had enough and wasn’t putting up with any more.

I certainly didn’t (and don’t) want to get hurt by him.  I told the owner if I took him on it was going to be  a long slow project, building the connection, relationship and trust and reprograming everything. Fixing a broken horse (broken in mind, emotions and spirit) is usually way harder than starting a horse with no problems or previous traumatic history. As one of my mentors Ronnie Willis said “ You get one chance to get a horse’s heart. Once it is broken it is VERY hard to get back.”

I am winning his heart, changing his mind and  we are making great progress. We have a great connection. He really likes me. He always walks and sometimes even canters to meet me when I go out to work with him. Been doing loads of confidence building things on line and loads of liberty. The liberty because I wanted him to feel the freedom that liberty provides, if we do it in a non-pressuring way, to express himself both positively and negatively, and then to be able to make his own choices and ultimately choose to “want to” participate.  I have just begun to ride him now – about 6 rides so far and that is going well.

The biggest challenge has been and will be helping him manage his emotions when he gets scared. When he gets scared and overwhelmed he runs. He got away from me twice on line. He doesn’t think about it and leave in a planned way like a lot of horses that run away have learned to do. He just stops thinking, gets running and then his emotions escalate even more. So it’s baby steps in stretching his confidence and helping him learn to self-regulate his emotions, calm himself down, stop and think and breathe – just like we as humans have to do when we get afraid or anxious. It is the exact opposite of what horses are designed by nature to do. Their instinct is run first and stop and think later. All horses have this instinct but some  just have it a lot more extremely programmed than others. So I am just gently stretching him out of his comfort zone without overwhelming him and building his capacity to tolerate feeling unsure, uncertain and the unfamiliar. I need to get him to believe that different things, bigger energies, the unfamiliar and the unknown do not always equal danger and understand that in the world he now lives in stopping and thinking is the best possible thing he can do. I have also got to build his self-belief that he is brave, courageous and safe in the world. Get him to believe that he can conquer the world and not that the world is conquering him. Get him to believe that he can count on me to keep him safe and I have his back. I have to prove to him that I will always make good decisions and judgements for the highest and best good of his mind, emotions and his body. And I have to prove to him that riding can feel good and be enjoyable for him.

When we use “connection” as opposed to dominance and force (including mental force) we empower horses to be brave, self-confident, to be expressive and to trust us.  Dominance and force break their spirit (which is where the term breaking in came from), intimidating them, shutting them down and disempowering them. Through connection, we will have more enjoyable and rewarding interactions with our horses and also the highest capacity for performance. When we shut down one aspect of the horse, we actually shut all of them down including their physical body. When we empower them mentally and emotionally and empower their spirit, we also empower them physically. Optimal biomechanics, enthusiasm and exuberance, true magnificence, can only come from a willing and empowered horse. Whilst many horses are very easy to intimidate, which is why people can keep using those approaches, strong minded horses are harder to intimidate – they then get classed as the difficult ones.

Let me explain connection and what it means to me. I also now like to call it communion or attunement  because the word connection is becoming very common place and the new “in” word with trainers. Mostly it seems that people don’t have the same depth of meaning, understanding or feeling as I have when I use that word. For many it seems you could replace the word connection with attention. You can force or pressure a horse to give you their attention or  to stay with you at liberty. True Mind, Heart and Soul Connection with horses is  very different. I  started using the word connection about 15 years ago when it was not commonly heard in relation to horses.  For me it means knowing the horse deeply, very deeply, from the inside out. Knowing how they are and who they are, at the level of their mind, emotions and soul. Sensing how they are feeling, what they are thinking and sending the traumas and memories they are carrying, sometimes even past life traumas, collective consciousness or intergenerational traumas. Seeing them and hearing them, knowing who they are, as an individual sentient and spiritual being who thinks, feels and emotes.

We can then cultivate that connection by caring more about how they are feeling in the process of doing things rather than just getting the task done or achieving the goal.

The challenge with training with connection is that it is not just about being friends with your horse and loving  your horse. There are plenty of people doing that but they are still having problems with their horse. We have to be  a leader but that doesn’t mean dominance. We have many roles with our horses for example parent, teacher, counsellor, psychologist, physiotherapist and personal trainer to name a few, not to mention good physical skills as a rider if we want to ride. These are all leadership roles. They require us to have skills and knowledge, to be wise, intuitive and be a good communicator. Also to be a good leader for another we first need to be a leader for ourselves  and that usually requires a lot of self development and self-empowerment. So it’s a big role. There is much to learn, but it is that journey of learning that makes horsemanship the amazing thing it is and it is the gift horses give us. They are leading us to become better humans. If we are on the path with horses that is not about force, but rather love and connection, it is really about who we have to become, to be good enough to lead and inspire them. It’s pretty easy to lead and inspire a dog but it’s a big step up to lead and inspire a horse. Horses are leading us to step up.

Perfect Partnerships with horses are the balance of friendship and leadership. So that is what I am working on with this young warmblood horse as with all horses, connecting to his soul, winning his heart, engaging his mind and proving to him through my understanding of biomechanics that I will ride him and work with him on the ground in a way that physically feels good.

I believe he hasn’t enjoyed the experience of being ridden before which is why he bolted and bucked in the pre-meditated way he did  the second time it happened. When I first rode him in  the bridle, even when at the mounting block before I hopped on, he was snatching the reins – telling me “Don’t trap my head”. Indicative of horses who have been blocked by the rein contact, forced into a frame  or head set, rather than supported to do a re-organisation of the whole spine to bring them into a more engaged state. This restrictive way of riding does not allow the natural lengthening of the neck that needs to happen with optimal biomechanical movement. This traps their spine. This horse was a bit hollow in the middle of his back probably from being ridden in a restrictive way – his back shape has now improved.

The other thing this horse did when first ridden was curl his neck and get really overbent behind the vertical. Probably again the result of being ridden with a restrictive contact and a blocking seat and perhaps even draw reins. The problem with this is not just that it is the wrong physical shape biomechanically, but it also is the mental and emotional state he goes into when he does it. Shut down and a bit introverted, which means not thinking, not present, not aware – they are all dangerous mindsets for a horse to be in – things easily frighten them in those states because they get surprised easily and they are just not mind sets for positive, expressive, happy horses.

We are making very good progress in all areas. I am looking forward to continuing the journey with him and seeing how things unfold and him blossom.