I didn’t ride my horse today. It’s a nice day, the weather is good for the time of year, my horse is well and healthy, I feel fit and had the time to do it. But I didn’t ride my horse today. And the reason is? My insides didn’t match my outsides. I wasn’t coherent. I could have gone ahead and done it anyway, it would probably have worked out pretty well. The difference wasn’t very big, and I believe my horse is resilient enough now to tolerate it. My journey is on a trajectory though to present myself to my horse in a way that is as coherent as I can make it, so I made the choice not to compromise. I also had the recent experience of not being totally coherent on a ride and lead the day before with Oro and Lad. Snow rides are often exciting for horses, and Lad is a bit fed up of babysitting and would like a good canter. As Oro isn’t ready for that kind of gidding yet, our ride in walk and trot reminded me that if my insides don’t totally match my outsides my ability to bring two horses’ excitement threshold down is definitely reduced. I could have winged it… but I want to come home looking forward to the next ride too!
The definition of coherence is something logical or consistent and something that makes sense as a whole. An example of coherence is an argument (as in a debating position rather than a verbal ding dong) that has no inconsistencies. For horses to be able to understand us we definitely have to make sense as a whole. Today I have a little niggly twist inside. I can feel it most clearly in my body in the left side of my diaphragm, but it is affecting my whole front body and reaching round to the left of my rib cage. I need to sort it out as it’s producing a little bit of anxiety. What it’s probably doing is actually mimicking what my body does when I feel anxious, therefore I feel a little bit ‘physiologically’ anxious. I might have a rib out of position, my anxiety producing gut flora could be flourishing or I could even be dehydrated, or be making a fascial change – I have spent this week working on my posture in lots of different movement including with heavy weights and my muscles are feeling the difference. My focus has been predominantly internal so I could also have temporarily lost the balance between looking inwards and looking outwards.
So many things can influence the body it might all seem subjective and a bit of a palavar. In real life when I am making the choice to do something with my horses or not on any given day, it doesn’t really matter how my niggle got like that, experience tells me that horses don’t find these little niggles very helpful at all. Whilst we often downplay them, they find them pretty alarming indeed. Because there is some extra tension in our body and mind, they have no choice but to reflect it in their body and mind and it feeds directly into their alarm system. What happens when you just ignore it and go ahead anyway? Well yes that is an option I have chosen sometimes, and a lot of times it has ‘kind of’ worked out, at least nobody got badly hurt and I have found a way to unravel tautness by moving it back and forth between my body and my horses body. It doesn’t on the surface require much of the grown up horse to do this, but in my mind it’s not very respectful of them. In most domestic circumstances we can’t legitimately ask the horse if they mind, or genuinely give them the choice to back out of it. We have trained them to tolarate our inconsistencies. My horses are hugely aware of my physical and therefore my emotional state because their evolution has physiologically prepared them to do so. How do I know that isn’t over time going to contribute to their stress and affect their health? In lots of years of being a horse guardian I know it definitely can do.
Why does this happen, and what does the evidence look like? After thirty or so years of being exposed to natural horsemanship in practice or the written word, most of us will be familiar with the concept of the horse as a prey animal. Our relationship to the horse has been directly described as predatory, and one of the stated aims of modern horsemanship training is to mediate our own predatory behaviours in order that the horse accept us into its social environment. Lots of us have practised this like a martial art over many years and are getting to discern what is useful information and what we need to unpick now we have learned to be aware of our breathing, heart rate, posture, muscle tone, touch, timing and rhythm etc., all of which make up our ‘feel’. In relation to our coherence and how we directly pattern our horses, equine ethologist Lucy Rees in her recent book Horses in Company (2017), discusses two important applied ethology principles that we could learn from.
Firstly – hard wired avoidance of predators blueprints the majority of other equine behaviour. This is what natural selection prioritises for the continuation of the species. As handlers and riders many of us have learned not to behave like predators, not to sneak up, grab, pull or hold on to horses trying to escape. This is fairly straightforward for most people to analyse and learn for themselves and the most obvious response.
A human behaving like a horse in the presence of a predator however, can also have the consequence of triggering escape behaviour and is probably where the learning gets a bit more technical. When your insides do not match your outsides, when you are ‘faking it to make it’, or ‘feeling the fear and doing it anyway’, or feeling any strong negative emotion your chance of triggering escape behaviour increases. Plus when you are incoherent yourself you are very likely to be less aware of things that are about to happen as your own mind focuses on controlling or suppressing a negative emotion. This can happen in any circumstance when you are with a horse, on the ground or ridden, handling or just standing next to each other. The first thing that commonly happens with an alarmed horse is that after assessing the threat they move closer to other horses or to you if no other horses are nearby.
“Horses’ primary reaction to alarm is to bunch together, producing the predators eye confusion effect (Pullian 1973) a common defence strategy among social prey animals.” Lucy Rees (2017)
When this happens at speed you can get sucked into being part of the herd quite easily, but you are a lot more squishy than most horses and you don’t really know the rules. You may interpret their behaviour as barging or pushing, but in fact it is the first part of their alarm system kicking in. Bunching comes before running away as it over-rides moving directly away from a source of danger so the herd can all assess the danger and start to synchronise. We can use bunching behaviour as a marker to remind ourselves to back up a bit, slow down and take our time establishing calm in the horse before doing anything further with them. They are not ‘taking the piss’ or messing about, they are genuinely fearful.
When I was trimming for a living, some clients would be so worried about how their horse might behave during the appointment (or how the professional might respond to horse escape behaviour, unfortunate but true), that their horse was convinced they were about to be beset by wild dogs. They could be quite a way from the horse but their fear was palpable. All the horse knows is that you are freaked, he isn’t going to ask why before mentally heading off. If he can’t physically head off his alarm is going to build, like squeezing a tube of toothpaste with the lid on. If you have a good hoof carer or other pro who sends you off to make tea or similar distractions during appointments, it might be because they are too polite to say you are freaking your horse out and making it difficult and dangerous to work underneath them. Happily there are lots of ways we can learn to rationalise our fears so we don’t inadvertently trigger alarm, either through self-help or with professional guidance, and it can vastly improve handling situations without ‘re-training’ the horse at all. In my work I explore the relationship off horse between thoughts, feelings and behaviour with my clients, and use positive mental rehearsal, visualisation and reframing to change long standing human behaviour patterns.
Secondly – Synchrony, this is a brilliant concept. Horses, like birds, fish or sheep, use behavioural algorithms for self-organising group movement. When looked at from above, the movements of a herd resemble those murmurations of starlings that are so amazing to see. Self-organising species flock, herd or shoal, keeping a set distance from each other and appearing to move with one intention. This behaviour is innate and hard wired i.e it does not have to be learned, they can do it from birth, hatching or fledging. For our purposes, a group of two or more horses moving together in self-organised group movement essentially becomes one synchronised mind. In fact a horse being ridden or worked on the ground by a rider or handler with highly developed body awareness after a few minutes also moves in synchrony with their human. This is why even very inexperienced horses can appear to have amazing skills when ridden or worked on the ground by very organised, body aware and influential people. Domestic horses learn to move in and out of being themselves and being in synchrony – i.e all one mind, even when not alarmed. You often see horses sharing hay who move the same, have the same posture and the same energy, but we must remember eating ‘piles’ of food together is not natural horse behaviour so is unlikely to be seen in feral observation studies. They do take up similar grazing and resting postures however. Wild or feral horses act like one mind more of the time as they need to have a very sensitive alarm system.
“The single horse loses individual identity in the band, the band loses its identity in bigger groupings… doing what others are doing, moving together and turning together, is what keeps the herd united in flight from start to finish” Lucy Rees (2017)
Doesn’t that remind you of really good riders as well? If you have worked with groups of horses in movement, for instance riding one and leading another you might have recognised that at some point during the ride, providing the horses are comfortable with each other, it starts to be as if you are riding one horse. Moving up and down the gaits the lead horse (lead as in the one you are leading rather than the ‘leader’) picks up the movement cues in parallel with the ridden horse . The same for herding groups of horses at liberty. Knowing how you can trigger synchrony can be very useful when you need to motivate a number of horses to do something like go somewhere or exercise together, but it can also be a big ask to require one horse not do to what a lot of other horses, or even one very excited horse, are doing. Or in reference to our own coherence, require our horse to be calm and controlled when we are squirting excited alarm out of every pore! I might not have been quite doing that on our yesterday, but there was a background vibe of ‘this could turn into a bit more of a gid than I really think is healthy’.
Exploring synchrony with our horses is one of the most rewarding parts of horsemanship. We might call it blending or influencing, or see authentically talented riders shaping horses in synchronicity without force in a way that the horse totally ‘agrees’ with. We can learn this by developing awareness of our own bodies and minds and how we are presenting ourselves to the horse. The questions I ask myself are how close are we to triggering alarm in our horse? And what do I need to do, or where do I need to be to synchronise with a movement? To find the answers to these questions I need to develop in myself a sense of coherence.
“People who have a high sense of coherence have a strong feeling of confidence that they can make sense of their internal and external experience (that is basically comprehensible), that they have the resources to meet and manage the demands they encounter (manageability), and that these demands are challenges in which they can find meaning and to which they can commit themselves (meaningfulness).” Jon Kabat-Zinn 1991)
Exploring the way you see yourself in a relationship with your horse can help you to change your experience of that relationship. If you feel like a victim of your horse’s bargy behaviour you may have some very negative self-talk, but if you can change that thought to your horse simply expressing primary alarm behaviour you can quickly think of ways which you can get help and keep yourself safe. It could be as simple as the orientation of the horses body when it is tied up for daily care or it might be more complex, but you can act to keep yourself safe and balanced.
Kabat-Zinn, J. (1991). Full Catastrophe Living. How to cope with stress, pain and illness using mindfullness meditation. Dell Publishing: New York.
Rees, L. (2017) Horses in Company. J.A. Allen: Marlborough, Wiltshire.