Understanding Horse Behavior – Emotions
When Emotions Affect Your Horse Relationship
-a Horse Training Article by Cynthia McFarland with Linda & Pat Parelli
No matter how independent we may be, none of us exists in a vacuum. Our thoughts, emotions and actions impact not only ourselves, but those around us. This includes our horses.
Emotions, in particular, play a part in every decision we make. Even the most practical, “in control” person is affected by emotions. When it comes to our relationship with horses, our emotions can have both positive and negative impact.
Horses themselves are highly emotional creatures. In a herd, they virtually experience a kind of united nervous system. When something startles the herd, there is no time to communicate the need to flee by anything other than the reactive nervous system. Instinct, or the “right brain,” takes over because conscious thought is too slow, so instinct and feeling are everything.
“This is precisely why horses buy into the emotional imbalances of other horses, as well as their riders and handlers,” says Linda Parelli . “When you learn how to become your horse’s leader, he will ignore everything else and only focus on being in harmony with you as his leader in a ‘herd’ of two.”
Be Aware of Emotions
In a past article, we talked about doing a pre-ride check to make sure your horse is safe and ready to ride. A savvy horseman will also do an “emotions check” to make sure he’s in the right frame of mind and attitude before going out to play with or ride his horse.
“Even if you arrive in a frame of mind that is not appropriate, it won’t take long before your horse alerts you to this and causes you to change it… or suffer!” says Pat Parelli.
A major reason emotion comes into play is that most of us only have so much time to spend with our horses, and we want to make the most of it.
“People tend to be very time-oriented compared to horses,” notes Linda. “You show up to be with your horse and you’re beset with goals and time limits. You think about what you want to get done and why, how much time you have, and you are anything but ‘present.’
“But your horse is fully present. Horses live in the moment, whereas most people live in the past or the future. This makes for a major disconnect with their horses. Not only are you both on different time lines, but dwelling on the past brings baggage, and focusing on the future can bring anxiety.”
Making an effort to concentrate less on time can have a positive effect on the hours you have with your horse, whether you’re riding, grooming, playing, or just “being there.” Some people have already discovered that being with their horse is a relaxing time that truly offers escape. Unfortunately, most people have not found this place because they are frustrated with or afraid of their horse.
After an especially distressing day, getting to the barn may sound like a life saver. But is there ever a time when you should not be around your horse because of particular emotions?
“Yes and no,” says Linda. “Yes… in terms of expecting your horse to perform. He can only be as good as the leadership you offer and almost nobody wants to follow an emotionally imbalanced leader. Horses are really grounding. You can leave your very stressful day in life and find solace by being totally present with your horse. But you have to acknowledge that and not try to ‘achieve’ something, or train and make progress. When you are upset, just ‘be’ with your horse. It’s healing.”
Because horses live in the moment without fear of the future or sadness from the past, people tend to find comfort in their presence. Someone who is grieving a loss, for example, may seek consolation in the company of their horse, filling a void that can’t be satisfied by another human, even by dear friends and family.
Fear & Anger
Our emotions, or moods, definitely impact the time we spend with our horses. One emotion that many horse owners experience is fear, although most don’t feel safe to admit it.
“Many riders are naturally brave and competitive, but many are not, and sadly, they are made to feel somehow stupid or inferior,” says Linda. “Even worse, they are pushed into situations that feel threatening or even dangerous.”
“Horses are natural followers who are looking for natural leaders. As prey animals, horses are cowards, claustrophobics and ‘panicaholics.’ They expect you to be the brave one,” says Pat. “If you are afraid of your horse, you need to find out what is going on.”
Pat explains that fear is often caused by thinking you should be riding your horse and doing what everyone else is doing. The Parelli Method emphasizes that horses are for way more than riding, and teaches you how to play on the ground, as well as when riding. If you have fear issues, playing with your horse on the ground and doing things with him that don’t necessarily include riding can help you gain confidence and move past that fear.
“Not only can you do amazing things on the ground with them,” Pat notes, “but horses tend to teach us about ourselves, in ways we cannot even imagine.”
Many horse owners are nervous around their horses because they don’t feel in control of the situation.
“Unfortunately, many people getting into horses for the first time are pushed into doing things, such as getting on the horse, before they are mentally and emotionally ready,” Linda points out. “At Parelli, we believe in developing a trusting relationship with the horse before ever thinking about getting on his back. It makes sense that this would be what the horse prefers, too.”
We’ve all seen the sad spectacle of someone taking out their anger on a horse. As responsible horse owners, this is one emotion that we must keep out of the equation because it’s not the horse’s fault.
“Your anger is something that horses do not deserve to feel,” says Linda. “It terrifies them.”
Like it or not, our horses consider us as “predators” and because they are prey animals, they aren’t capable of discerning the difference between an aggressive or frightened predator. To the horse, whether you approach him with anger or fear, you are tense and have an unbearable energy, which comes across to him as emotionally unbalanced and out of control. He innately knows that aggressive predators have preyed on horses for millions of years and need to be avoided at all costs.
Some owners use the excuse that their horse “makes” them angry because of things he does.
“If your horse ‘makes’ you angry, chances are you are an angry person and you don’t know how to maintain your composure in situations you don’t know how to handle because you are not really emotionally fit,” says Pat.
“When you get angry with your horse, it’s probably because he’s not doing what you want. He’s not going to react favorably when you lose your temper because he thinks you are going to kill and eat him! His instincts prevail and he’ll do whatever it takes to survive…. run off, rear, buck, strike, kick, freak out…do whatever it takes to get rid of that PREDATOR!”
“Horses can teach us a lot about ourselves. It’s not about anger management so much as realizing that we have run out of knowledge, and that’s what triggers our emotions of fear, frustration, anger, or anxiety,” notes Linda. “The more we know, the less we will get frustrated or angry, mainly because we learn how to set things up for success rather than be the victim of accident or failure.”
Focus on the Present
Take a lesson from your horse and make an effort to live in the present, especially when you are around him. It becomes easier to enjoy your time together if you can learn to consciously let go of negative emotions.
“Horses LOVE happy humans and you cannot fake that,” says Linda. “To me, the definition of ‘happiness’ is being content with the present. It’s hard to do anything meaningful in the future if you’re coming from a position of dissatisfaction in the present. Horses can help us learn to cherish every present moment. Parelli is all about learning how to become the kind of person horses want to be with, feel safe with, and will do anything for.”
“This is way more than a ‘horse training‘ program,” adds Pat. “It’s all about self development. It’s learning how to get so good with horses that even your horse thinks you’re good.”