Women and horses: we’ve been sharing adventures for centuries. The horse has been our co-worker, our friend, our companion. It’s hard to overstate the impact of the horse on our development, our lives both on the large scale and the small – a friend carrying us home, the warmth of a horse’s breath on our hands, a team-mate sharing the race to the finish line.
I don’t believe it’s an accident that women are drawn to horses. We share a complex and nuanced form of communication, a joy in finding the finely balanced art of pure harmony. Horses and women together are capable of incredible things, and working with horses can have untold benefits for those of us who struggle with self-confidence, insecurity or fear – as I have learnt over the past twenty years of riding, training and sharing my life with horses.
When I first started working with Querido – my now ten-year-old Andalusian stallion, one of two stallions I co-own with my friend and mentor – he was a nervy, anxious little two-year-old, so touchy he would accidentally kick himself in the stomach when I asked him to lift his front hoof. Like Querido, I was an insecure teenager, deeply uncertain about whether I was even capable of handling such a horse. I had to learn, and learn quickly, to project calm. I had to reassure this four hundred kilo bundle of nerves that he was safe, and I was trustworthy. Over the years of our developing partnership it has become the opposite, with Querido proving himself trustworthy, and myself accepting that I am safe around him.
With a horse, you become aware of how much energy you are communicating with. Are you walking around big and tall and noisy, with expansive hand gestures and non-stop chatter? You’ve communicated to your horse that you are a potential threat. Are you walking around small, and scared, barely whispering? Your horse assumes you’re not worth his attention. Finding the middle-ground, of a calm and unthreatening physical awareness, a steady self-confidence and assurance, means finding a way to speak without speaking. And once you learn that skill, your horse and you become partners, rather than adversaries. You are no longer shouting at him, and he is no longer shutting you out.
The end results of such self-awareness are boundless. I’m still discovering new ways to work with Querido, from playing hide-and-seek in a pine forest, with him cantering gleefully around looking for me, to establishing the classical ‘high school’ movements of piaffe, levade, passage – controlled, intense, demanding. There is no greater reward than to see your horse perform his own most challenging movement, and to have him stop, turn and bump you on the arm with his nose – ‘Did I do well? Did I do it right?’
If you want to communicate with a horse, you have no choice but to take the time to think of your own behaviour and attitude critically, dispassionately and, above all, kindly. Being angry at yourself for missing a subtle cue, or failing to convey what you want, translates instantly to the horse. He becomes tense and anxious, avoiding your efforts to communicate, or responding with his own anger. All chance of gentle communication is gone. So often I catch myself getting frustrated at not being able to explain what I want, and how I want Querido to achieve it. Within minutes of my own frustration building up, I can see it in him, his eyes anxious, body tense. Stop. Patience. Breathe. Clear out all the old thoughts, all the irritation and negative assumptions, and think – how can I ask this so he understands?
Horses respond to our tiniest emotional changes. It takes courage and effort to step away from a situation, look at your own behaviour, and change it for the better. Self-awareness around horses extends not just to successfully asking a horse to do something for you, or with you. It’s an entire attitude of generosity, offering a quiet moment of communication in exchange for another quiet moment. It’s consistently being aware of your hands, your eyes, your feet, your body. Where are you looking? What are you telling the horse? It’s an invaluable skill to learn. The more you notice how your own prejudices and habits affect your horse, the easier it becomes to consider how you approach other people as well, and how they see you.
Querido and I have come a long way from the pair of anxious, worried teenagers we were. Taking on such a horse, along with his paddock-mate, the powerful, dominant (and cuddly) Favory, has taught me far more than I ever expected about myself. Perhaps the most unexpected benefit has been that of self-respect. I have seen too many women crippled by their own certainty that they are not enough, or too much – not intelligent or fit or knowledgeable enough, or too old or scared or anything else. Developing a positive partnership with a horse forces you to look at yourself as your horse sees you: capable, creative, adventurous, trustworthy. More than once in challenging situations I’ve found myself thinking, “I can ask five hundred kilo animal to dance with me, and he does it. I am more than I think. I can handle this.”
There’s no room for self-doubt when you are working with horses. If I question my own ability, the horses will too. So I have to look at every situation with certainty – of course I can do that. Of course I am capable. Of course I can ask this of myself, and my horse. We are a team, and we are always discovering new adventures to share.
As the old saying goes, throw your heart over the jump, and your horse will follow.
Or, in my case, hide in a pine forest, and your horse will find you.