All of us have been there: our horse is not paying attention or is misbehaving, and as soon as the trainer takes control, the horse completely changes and obeys happily. It’s a source of frustration for many horse owners. The trainer doesn’t look like they’re doing anything special, but the horse completely changes. What happened?
At the risk of sounding “woo-woo,” the key is energy, which we can also call presence. We’ve all been around people who say nothing but have a powerful energy, some repulsive and some welcoming. Horses are equally sensitive to this energy if not more so. This is why you see horses change around certain people, sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse. Many people choose their trainers based on how their horses respond to this energy, which is frequently a wise decision (as long as the trainer’s philosophies and teaching style still “mesh” with the rider).
Everyone has a different energy. That should be obvious, as everyone is unique. However, our energies can change over time. They can intensify or quiet and even change “color.” This is important to keep in mind.
Many horse owners struggle to get their horses to work with them. Sometimes, horses act like the person doesn’t exist, and other times, the horse gets wired when their owner walks in the barn. Most horse owners recognize see the symptoms and try all kinds of exercises, hoping that if they do a specific action, it will fix the problem. Unfortunately, it doesn’t because the problem isn’t in the action but in the intention behind it.
So how does someone “fix” their presence to be a better horseman/woman?
For the “Too Quiet”
This is probably the most common energy problem that I see. People with this energy signature are often scared of being “mean” to their horse. They err on the side of using too soft aids and “begging” the horse, many even apologizing to their horse for every last thing. The horse, in return, acts like they don’t exist, stepping on them, standing despite kicking aids, or other similar behaviors. Their horses might even be spooky and distracted. An odd observation I’ve had of these riders is that they often have cold hands as well, indicative of a very “internalized” energy.
So how do we improve this?
First, the rider needs to find ways of developing their own self-confidence. Positive affirmations can be very helpful. Avoid negative talk: “Don’t stand there,” “Don’t step on me,” should be replaced with “Let’s go!” and “Feet to yourself, please.” Don’t apologize to your horse; you love your horse, otherwise you wouldn’t be doing this. Many horses go unloved, so yours is fortunate to have you. In the herd, the dominant individuals don’t think twice about kicking others. You asking your horse to move with you, stop with you, or mind your space is practically baby talk in comparison. Visualization is also powerful. Seeing the desired behavior in your mind can help accomplish it. Visualizing yourself as someone who can walk in a room and demand attention with a simple clearing of the throat also helps.
Posture is an important piece of this puzzle as well. Most people with a quiet energy are slightly slouched and turn their eyes downward. This is naturally a “submissive” posture. Start with the ground: stand with feet shoulder-width apart, either side-by-side or slightly staggered. Bring your tail under and grow your spine up out of your pelvis. Your eyes should pierce the horizon but be soft enough to see everything. Bring your shoulder blades a little closer to each other to open your chest and breath deliberate, deep breaths. Feel your belly move as you breathe, and you can even bolster confidence by trying to speak in a strong voice that resonates in your chest. Recite a poem or monologue that inspires confidence. It doesn’t have to be aggressive to be confident; it can be something about the majesty of nature. The key is to speak with confidence.
If those don’t work, however, there are other tools. Horse riding is closely tied to martial arts, and martial arts make for excellent cross-training for riding. For the “too quiet” rider, it is better to choose “external” martial arts. These focus on bringing your energy “out” of yourself. Some popular examples include karate, hapkido, and tae kwon do. A popular “western” martial art that does the same would be boxing. However, if you’re not too sure about practicing these kinds of martial arts, you can borrow techniques for the energy control. Here’s one method:
Sit in a quiet place and close your eyes. Concentrate on your breathing for a while, drawing your awareness inward. Now, visualize your energy as a bubble. If you’re a quiet rider, your “energy bubble” is probably small and concentrated toward your feet. See if you can visualize it rising up into your belly. In Eastern philosophy, this is where your Qi should be centered. Feel it as a bubble of warmth, and see if you can make it bigger with each breath, like blowing up a balloon. Feel it rise into your chest and spread down your arms and legs. It should be grounded through your feet, but from there it can grow like a tree up through the rest of your body. Now, feel like you can move the warmth through your palms and into the area around you. Now, open your eyes, and visualize this bubble growing even larger around you, as if you could move a nearby object. The key is to send your energy “out.”
Next time you’re around your horse, try moving them off your energy bubble. If it doesn’t work, start with your quietest aid. Then, escalate both your energy and your aids until the horse starts to respond. If they respond but not quite in the right way, keep that same intensity level until they give you the right answer. Then, back down and praise. You can still be your quiet self, but you will be a confident quiet self. Your horse will realize that you are a confident leader and dance partner and will be more likely to listen to you.
For the Too Loud
I don’t see this energy signature as often, but I do encounter it. These riders tend to be louder in their speech and command the room. These riders might also be the ones that come to the barn to de-stress but still carry it on their shoulders as they come in. Others are often newer to riding and are very excited. Their horses tend to be more anxious or jumpy, dancing in the cross ties and being ready to “go” in the arena. Their horses may also be very spooky and distracted, calling for their buddies. Sometimes, riders who are themselves anxious elicit the same response from the horse, and the fix is the same.
So how do we improve this?
While the “too quiet” rider needs to externalize their energy, usually the “too loud” rider needs to internalize their energy. A lack of confidence is often a problem for the loud rider as well. Overconfidence is very rare in horsemanship, especially in dressage! The rider needs to say to themselves “I have nothing to prove; I am enough as I am.” Many loud riders externalize toward their horses: “Calm down!” “Knock it off!” Instead, a better approach is to breathe slowly and deeply while bringing awareness “in.” Quietly reciting a monologue or poem helps to calm the energy level. If you are a bundle of stress that just won’t go away, do something physical that vents this, like picking out a stall, sweeping the aisle, or raking the dirt before approaching your horse. Very excited riders should focus on something meditative like grooming and turn the excitement and nerves into joy, singing and even dancing a little (no crazy moves!) while they groom and interact with their horses to vent some of that extra energy.
The “too loud” rider often leads with the chest with raised shoulders and strong eyes. Relaxing the shoulders down allows the chest to come back to normal, and softening the eyes helps to lower the intensity. Very excited or very nervous riders may not have these same postural signatures, but finding a strong neutral posture is beneficial to both.
There are also martial arts techniques to tackle this energy signature. “Internal” martial arts are very useful for these riders, such as tai chi, wing chun, and other forms of kung fu. A “western” martial art that accomplishes the same thing would be fencing, which focuses more on intellect than strength. These focus on a smooth flow of energy within the body instead of projecting it outside. If you aren’t sure about practicing these martial arts, here is something you can try.
Sit in a quiet place and close your eyes. Concentrate on your breathing. Bring your awareness into your body, feeling the ground under your feet, the chair you’re sitting on, and the air moving around you. Imagine your energy like a large bubble surrounding you. Now, shrink that bubble until you can concentrate it in your chest. Now, move it down toward your feet. Feel the extra energy flow into the ground. Feel your heart beat slower now.
Next time you’re around your horse, see if you can calm your horse with your own calmness. If you’ve got a little extra energy that simply won’t get quiet, dance a little around them while grooming and sing some. Who cares if you look crazy? You’re a horseperson; we’re all nuts anyway! Convert that stress, anxiety, and intensity into joy. I’ve never had a horse stay anxious when I’m having a good time.
What if I’m neither/both?
Some riders are both or neither: they have a strong energy but not overly intense, or they may go back and forth depending on the day and circumstance. If you’re one of those, you can use tools for both! If you’re particularly stressed one day, you can practice the latter; whereas if you’re timid or “low” another, you can practice the former.
If you’re totally neutral but dealing with horses that act dull or hot, you can use energy exercises from both depending on the horse. A dull horse benefits from a little extra “jolt” of energy from the rider, while a hot horse benefits from some extra grounding. The best horsemen/women I’ve seen have mastered this neutrality with horses and can add energy or ground it as needed.
Impact of Diet and Other Tools
Strangely, diet can have a very powerful impact on energy. Ayurvedic medicine deals a lot with this, labelling some foods as “warming” and others as “cooling.” Ayurvedic principles prescribe changing the diet based on the seasons as well as energy signature. Some warming/energizing foods include ginger, oats, spicy foods, and root vegetables. Cooling foods include citrus, tomatoes, melons, and salads. You can try adjusting your diet and see if it helps your energy levels.
I highly recommend reading Klaus Ferdinand Hempfling’s books, such as Dancing with Horses and The Horse Seeks Me for more tools for improving your energy. I also feel that practicing martial arts is beneficial to all riders. It is wonderful cross-training for self-discipline and self-mastery as well as physical fitness. If you’re not keen on starting martial arts, ballroom dancing is also fantastic cross-training, especially if you can practice both leading and following.
Presence and energy can have a huge impact on your horse handling. Sometimes, this is the only “real” problem I have found in certain horse/rider pairs. It is a lifelong challenge; it is not an overnight fix. However, if you can master your energy with your horse, you will be amazed at all the things you will suddenly be capable of doing with minimal effort.