horse in snow
Occasionally we’re not in the mood to ride.
Maybe the weather is inclement, the bugs are out of control, or we don’t have enough time to groom, saddle up, and head out for a spin around the arena or trails. So instead we putter around the barn, maybe clean some tack, chat with other boarders— or the barn cat— and often leave with a sense of disconnect. Yes, we may be hanging around our horse, but we aren’t really with our horse.
Having worked and played with many horses all across the country in the last two decades, I have made the same two fundamental observations, no matter if the horse was trained to ride, drive, or simply enjoyed as a backyard companion:
1. Horses want to connect.
2. Horses want to be seen and treated as individuals, and respected as our partners.
The easiest and most effective way to connect with our horses (even before we get on their backs, hop in the cart, or join them in the backyard) is (surprise, surprise) through breath. Breathing along with your horse can turn a dull, gray day at the barn into a deeply satisfying time together.
As we race through our fast-paced, overstimulated days we barely breathe, and that creates tension in our bodies. We bring this tension to the barn and to our horse. But, a deep belly breath can change the tension. Research shows that proper breathing calms the nervous system, and when we’re breathing deeply and consciously, it can actually calm the horse.
Moreover, taking a conscious abdominal breath (breathe in through the nose to the count of three, expanding the abdomen, exhale slowly through the mouth, releasing the belly) puts you right into the present moment, the now, which is where your horse resides.
Meeting In the Now
As prey animals, horses are fundamentally different from other species. Their nervous systems are wired to be ready at a moment’s notice to go into flight or fight mode. If they are to survive in the wild, they can’t afford to let their minds wander into the past or future. If they did, they could miss an approaching bobcat or mountain lion.
Our domesticated horses don’t lose their sense of the “now,” either. They do not think about the trail ride with you yesterday or the horse show tomorrow. They are present in this moment—a perfect reminder for you to live in the moment as well.
As you continually meet the horse in this current space, your relationship can become the container that holds you in the present moment. And concealed in that small moment of time—between past and future—the power of deep connection with your horse is possible.
Here is a great exercise to try next time you see your horse. (Note: If you feel safe and comfortable with your horse at liberty, try this without a halter. Being unencumbered allows the horse to communicate more easily through movement of its body.)
You’re heading to the barn. As you step out of your vehicle, or the back door, take a deep belly breath and announce to your horse that you’re heading his way. The deep belly breath helps you release some of the stress and busyness of the day, and it is a great reminder to be present and to pick up the telepathic “phone” and give your horse some notice that you are on your way.
As you approach the stall, paddock, or pasture, stop at a distance where you can see your horse. Take another deep breath, inhale through the nose, exhale through the mouth, and watch for a moment. When the moment comes, tune in to your horse, see what he’s doing, sense what he’s feeling.
When you start your next approach by taking a few deliberate steps, pay close attention. Is your horse lifting his head, turning an ear toward you, stepping in your direction? If he responds to your approach, stop again, and take another deep breath.
Your breath is the simplest and most effective way to offer your connection.
If your horse comes toward you, start moving toward him as well. If he stands still, or gets distracted by looking somewhere else or walking away, take a deep breath, step toward him, and shift his attention back to you. Once you stand face to face, don’t touch your horse right away. Stand still … and be still. Just breathe together without words.
Your horse might be surprised by this “new you.” Most likely he will start to explore you—nuzzle your coat or give you a little push with his nose, trying to engage you. As long as he is gentle and respectful of your space, and not strip searching you for treats (I rarely feed my horses treats, as they are always a distraction and often get in the way of a meaningful connection.), let your horse explore you. Don’t reciprocate. Just breathe and watch. Just breathe and be curious.
You might observe the following behaviors:
1. Your horse will ask you for what he needs and invite you to scratch his jowls, neck or—as my horses often do— his butt. When you notice an invitation, take a breath and accept it willingly, with gentle kindness.
2. Your horse might give you a little lovin.’ He might nuzzle your shoulder, lick your hands, move his head around yours to help clear your mind. Horses are natural healers, they sense where we hold tension and will—when given the chance—bring awareness to those parts in our body that need a relaxing breath.
3. Your horse might use this opportunity to point something out about his herd-mate or his environment. He might point at another horse that is not feeling well, or is not a good fit in the herd. He might also invite you to walk over to a spot in the paddock or pasture that needs attention (empty water bucket, broken fence, dead porcupine).
Stay open and curious about what might happen, how it might happen, and why it happens.
Considering how much tension our horses feel in their domestic world, how much energy they absorb and hold while being worked, an occasional breath will do wonders for their mental, emotional and physical well-being—and yours as well. Over time, all of these small but significant efforts to connect with your horse will pay off in the many interactions that follow.
Remember, as you become mindful of your breath and your actions, your horse will be more tuned in to you because you are also more tuned in to him. It’s a nourishing circle of energy for you both.
NICOLE BIRKHOLZER is a relationship coach for horses and their humans and the author
of Pet Logic. As the creator of Mindful Connections™, Nicole is pioneering a new approach
to horsemanship and mindful living, where horses are honored as soul-companions and
partners in our human search for happiness, fulfillment and wholeness. Discover the ancient
wisdom of horses—and the unbridled intuition in every human heart at Mindful-
Connections.com. And connect with Nicole on Facebook and Twitter at @Mindfulconnect.