Especially the non-horsey people like to ask me this one question: What’s so special about horses?
People who themselves ride or have horses, rarely ever ask me this because they’re in it for the same reasons I am.
But because this has been a pretty frequently asked question over the years, I thought I’d take a moment to look at why I love working with horses.
Horses have always been my passion and, to a large extent, they’ve helped define who I’ve become.
Horses teach me how to be present
If I’m not in this firmly rooted in this moment, I’m not safe. A horse is a large animal that can do a lot of damage to my (by comparison) frail body in a matter of moments – even when they don’t mean to.
I remember when I started learning how to drive a car; it felt nerve-racking and unsafe. It felt like being put in control of this big, heavy hunk of metal was a big ask and all the responsibility for being safe with it was on me.
When I told my driving instructor that I’d prefer a horse over a car any day because at least I’ll be working with another brain, he just laughed and said he found horses quite terrifying and cars quite easy.
The bottom line is, I can never hope to control a horse by brute force. I have to control his mind in order to control his body – and keep both myself, the horse and other people safe.
This means I have to be here now. I have to catch that left ear flick, I have to see that head going up by a few finger’s width, I have to see those hindquarters slightly turning in towards me testing my personal boundaries in order to determine if I’m a pushover.
If I don’t see the subtle signs, I’m not safe because my horse will have to take more drastic measures and shout a lot louder to make me listen. I love horses with a singlemindedness that has abated not at all since I was five but that love doesn’t include being disrespected and treated roughly.
Which brings me to my next point…
Horses teach me about trust
Trust is the foundation of any healthy relationship. In my experience, horses have taught me how to at least identify what healthy relationships look like, even when I’ve failed at creating them myself.
My parents divorced when I was five and I moved in with my mother. It was a pretty solitary life because she worked several jobs to ensure we were okay.
I spent a lot of time alone and found it difficult to make friends. As an introvert, I hated being in large groups of people and still today I tend to be more quiet in a group and only really come alive one-on-one or in a small group (or if I’m on stage, but that’s a different story).
Horses teach me to trust myself, trust the process and to not get too hung up on things. If something doesn’t work out, you move on. If something doesn’t agree with you, you can say “No, I don’t want that”.
I think that this more than anything has taught me to listen to myself and what I want. Over the years horses taught me resilience and grit in the face of adversity.
Horses taught me that I have to protect myself and set unnegotiable personal boundaries.
Horses teach me about vulnerability
In order to be able to work with a horse (not just put them where I want them and insist until they do what I want), I have to know myself. I have to be able to be with myself and be with uncomfortable feelings.
I have to be willing to admit that I make mistakes and that we misunderstand each other – but also that our relationship can recover from that.
Every time I’m with a horse, it’s an opportunity for me to discover and let my authentic self come out. I can say what I feel and how I feel it without having to be politically correct or socially acceptable – we all just want to hang out and relax and have a good time.
With people, I often struggle to say what I really mean. I tend to get vulnerability hangovers easily.
A vulnerability hangover is that feeling of something gnawing deep inside the pit of your stomach, followed up by immediate regret, topped with an overwhelming sense of panic. God, what did I just do? or Why did I say that?!
It’s a confusing mix of fear and exhaustion and it can really take a long time to recover from that. Around horses, I find the kind of tranquillity and space that help me to recover from it faster.
Horses demand authenticity from me
When I interact with a horse, that experience resonates with me, in my body, and touches me at my core.
A horse standing by me quite often renews my faith in myself. When I’m willing to listen and to join them in communication and in creating a relationship, they open doors for me that I cannot open for myself.
Horses have taught me about love and compassion – that I am capable of it and worthy of receiving it.
Horses teach me about communication
Over half of the communication we do, on a daily basis, is done through body language. The other half is made up of verbal communication and tone of voice.
With horses this experience is amplified because the majority of their communication is energy and body language.
If I’m being unclear about what I want, the horse is unclear about what I want and the results are muddy at best.
With a horse I receive immediate feedback on my communication and so, communicating with a horse means I need to take a step back from myself and see that the horse’s behaviour is a reflection of my own.
I need to employ humility to admit mistakes and unclear communication and only after that can I correct my course – and the effect is immediate.
Horses remind and push me to be consistent with everything I do in order to be received clearly. Practising that kind of mindfulness with my own actions and intentions allows me to take full control of my own power and how I am received.
Horses teach me about leadership
Horses teach me how important it is that I have confidence in myself, so that they can look to my leadership with complete faith that I am reliable and rock solid in a world that can often be noisy and confusing.
They’ve also taught me that you don’t become a leader, you’re made one by the people (or horses) you’re working with bestow that honour on you. Until then, you’re just a manager and when the shit hits the fan, you’re not the one they’re going to run to, but you’re probably going to be the one cleaning it up.
For me building a relationship with a horse is about building trust. I want the horse to feel seen and heard. I want the horse to know that I am acknowledging his experience as it is – not as I think it is.
I have to use creative thinking and problem-solving in order to find a way for us to work towards the same goals. I have to teach him how I want him to do things and that in turn allows me to learn more effectively.
Working with horses gives me an opportunity to step outside of myself and serve others. Horses give me confidence and support in making my interactions with others better and help me become a better communicator.
Horses give me a creative outlet
Being around them clears my mind and makes space for new ideas. When I’m working with horses it’s more important to find that state of flow that to get to the end result – and I can give my full and undivided attention to the process.
They provide me with topics to write about and motivate me to write about what I’ve learned with them.
I can put my work mind aside and just play, which I think we forget to do as we grow up and become trapped by what society tells us we should do.
My relationship with horses isn’t a cutesy-cuddly one
I was trained as a professional dancer and I know that in order to produce a show for an audience takes months and years of practice.
I truly enjoy the work – even though 99% of it is invisible and the audience rarely appreciates how much work really goes into orchestrating just that one performance on that one night.
I mean, as a dancer, you spend your whole life trying to attain a viable career. Then you spend that whole career trying to achieve the highest level of performance.
Then you spend that whole level trying to attain that moment in which you cease to be earth-bound and take flight. That moment where all the effort you’ve put into it finally pays off and the dance becomes effortless.
And you do all this so that you can go back and do it again – but this time around enriched with that one sweet memory of having achieved it once before.
That memory of having dived into the rushing river of creativity where you became one with the universe, where your own ego ceases to exist and you transcend yourself to become a pure expression of creativity.
And as it is with dance, so it is with horses for me. Once I’ve put in the work to build our relationship to a good place, things start to click and it becomes an intricate dance between the two of us – creating something beautiful together that we could never achieve alone.