How can we behave in ways that put our horses at ease? And why would we want to do that?
To answer the second question, when our horses are relaxed and at ease they are happier, healthier, and better able to learn and heal. I’ve mentioned the Parasympathetic Nervous System many times, and this is it. The place of rest/digest/relax is where our horses (and other mammals like us) are not in survival mode (aka fight/flight/freeze) and have energy and attention available for digesting new information along with food.
I meet many horses in my line of work, and part of my job is to have good (or at least decent) manners in horse language. Since I do bodywork, that means encouraging them to relax and stay relaxed while I touch them. The better I am at reading their body language and showing them that I understood what they said, the safer and more relaxed they feel.
First, a story
I saw Lydia again yesterday. She’s an older Morgan mare who tries her heart out, but remains guarded around her body, especially her hindquarters. I’ve been using a few craniosacral techniques with her and getting lovely results. Some days, Lydia prefers not to be touched. I’ve done sessions with her from outside her stall. I look funny with my hands in the air, but there is a connection with her body, and she still responds with process and release.
Yesterday, it was a lovely sunny February afternoon. I went to get her from the pasture, walking slowly towards her, pausing to enjoy the air. I meandered around her and paused as I came to the edge of her personal space. She reached out her nose to say hello, and standing with my side to her, I extended my arm and the back of my hand in return. I asked her if she’d like some bodywork and watched her response. She turned her head away from me, and then after a bit, turned it back towards me. Then I stepped closer to her and put the lead rope over her neck, pausing again until she offered her nose for me to put on her halter.
We worked in her stall, blanket off, and hands on. There was lots of activity under my hand on her chest as I touched her very lightly. Ears softly to the side, her lips quivered and her eyes blinked. As she relaxed more deeply her head made little nods, and her head and neck drifted lower. I noticed some drool. But every so often, she’d come back out to pay attention to her environment. This is how Lydia and many horses process. They go very deep, but resurface periodically. Here is video of Lydia in deep process from the ‘When less is more’ blog post:
I did a second hand placement on Lydia behind her shoulders with the same effect. When she was paying more attention to the idea that hay was about to fall into her stall, I unclipped her lead rope and stepped away. After giving up on the hay, she stood with her head in the sun at the doorway to her run and kept processing. I stayed in her stall, understanding that my presence was part of what supported her deep processing. After a while she began looking for scraps of hay on the floor, and that told me that she had finished for the day. I spent a total of an hour with her both with hands on and holding space for her process that followed.
If we imagine ourselves as a horse without anthropomorphizing, we live in the present moment, with a good long term memory, and not such a good short term one. We survive through our acute sensitivity to potential changes or threats in our environment nearby and at great distance. Our eyes see 340 degrees around our bodies, but we have blind spots directly in front and behind. People are part of that environment. They often come to spend time with us carrying a cup of coffee, thinking about the many things they want to do at the barn or the text they just got or need to send. In other words, people are really busy in their minds. Mental energy can move twenty times faster than body energy, and people moving and talking quickly while paying attention to many different things at once keeps them up in their heads, and not so present in their physical bodies. It is uncomfortable for horses to be around that—some people find that uncomfortable, too.
How do we become more comfortable for horses to be around?
- Move more slowly;
- Talk quietly and say less;
- Pause to exhale deeply and often;
- Let our eyes shift to soft focus (or peripheral focus);
- Step away from the horse while maintaining connection and pause;
- Notice what your horse does and does not like when you touch them;
- Approach your horse in a curved or zigzag path, maybe stop to admire a pebble along the way;
- Pause at the edge of their personal space, let them turn and reach their nose out to sniff you before going closer;
- Approach from the side at the shoulder;
- Wait for them to offer their head to you before haltering them;
- Rinse, pause, and repeat.
Many of us live with dogs and cats who enjoy having their faces petted and interacted with. Some horses do, but many don’t. Humans naturally use our hands all the time. Horses, as quadrupeds, have a different way of being. By observing them, we can learn more about their individual preferences and ways of being. By experimenting with going slower, pausing often and exhaling deeply, we may find ourselves more relaxed along with our horses.
photo by Doug Plummer of me and Whoopi