Do horses know what we’re thinking?
Over their evolution and domestication, horses have never lost the ability to read others and their minute changes in body language. As herd animals they require the innate capacity to read others’ intentions before an event. When you were cantering, thinking of trotting, your unconscious mind communicated your thoughts to the body and what would be to you an infinitesimal change in your physiology, was perceived by your horse as a cue to trot. With practice, this subtle communication can improve your riding style and transitions between, and within, gaits. All you have to do is think of the gait you want to move on to, a half-halt of the mind if you like, then apply the aids. You should begin to find that your aids can be softer and more natural.
Some aspects of our physiology are evident to ourselves and those around us, for example, our movements, tensing, relaxing, facial expression and importantly, breathing (rate of rise and fall of the chest) and type of breathing (high in the chest or low and from the diaphragm). Other characteristic changes are not so noticeable by fellow humans, but are by our equines: heart rate and those small changes in tensed muscles in our hands, wrists, arms and legs. Studies have shown that as a rider’s heart rate increases, so too does a horse’s (http://www.uoguelph.ca/news/2006/08/researchers_stu.html). They too feel the fear, even if they are unaware of the reason for it. Often, riders will show fear around their horse and expect to form a bond and be loved by their horse. In horsey language, this is very conflicting!
In animal behavioural circles, fear in animals is considered worse than pain. This is not as surprising as it sounds when we analyse the difference in human and horse brains. In humans, the pre-frontal cortex allows us to rationalise the fear and control it. Horses cannot do this, the impact of fear on them is far greater. The management of fear in the horse-rider partnership has to start with the rider. Several approaches are useful: breathing control, peripheral vision techniques (see below), changing the self-talk into more positive and productive phrases and having strong visual ideas of what is wanted. If something a little stronger is warranted, NLP techniques can be employed that embed the compelling visual pictures and eliminate the negative movies.
Try this method, known as Hakalau or peripheral vision:
- Pick a spot above your eye line in front of you. Keep focussing on that spot, taking in all the colours, textures, light/shadow and really focussing in. Keep going for about 20 seconds.
- Now allow your vision to extend slightly, so that you are looking at the spot and about 30cm either side, slowly take your vision out a little more and more until you can’t focus on the spot, but you can see your hands if you stretch your arms out level with your shoulders.
- Now stretch your vision even wider. Stretch your awareness in your imagination to as far around you as you can. Now you’re in peripheral vision.
If you start to think about any fears or other negative thoughts, you will probably drop out of peripheral vision; your eyes focus as you consider any negative thoughts or feelings. Try it! See also https://www.traceycolenlp.com/getting-into-the-zone-for-sport/
Now, take your time and bring your vision back to peripheral. You’ll start to relax a little more and push those negative thoughts away. Your mind cannot hold peripheral vision and negativity at the same time. Each time you start to feel those unhelpful thoughts, quickly go into peripheral vision to dispel them. As you use peripheral vision, you’ll be able to use it in the very first flurry of nerves, then, unconsciously, you’ll do it before nerves even appear. Practise often to become accustomed to using the technique! Remember, there is an adage that we become what we focus on; let’s focus on positives!