A number of years ago I was attending a clinic at a barn in Wellington, Florida. The instructor was one of the best professional dressage riders and trainers in the U.S., and the weekend clinic was based on her program for training the rider as an athlete. I was impressed at not only her kindness and awareness of her horses and every subtle nuance of the ride, but how authentic she was with the attendees. She immediately felt like a friend.
We weren’t riding that weekend, but horses and riders were used to demonstrate the principles of her program, which some of the ladies attending had apparently assumed they could be certified for. As it was made clear to them during the final session of the workshop that further training outside of the equestrian field would be needed to qualify for certification in this particular program, tension began to rise in the group as the instructor was being challenged.
From where I was sitting I had full view of the barn with the horses that were there in training for the winter show season. Having seen several in the arena over the two days I knew how calm and quiet they were and how beautifully cared for each horse was. The entire row of about 5 or 6 horses had their heads out the back windows of the stalls, watching the discussion group with great interest and ears pricked. They knew their rider was part of the group too and were fixated in the direction of her voice.
As the disgruntled attendees became angrier and their voices rose, I could see the other participants growing more tense and most certainly the instructor was trying to finish up a great weekend on a positive note. At the same time I noticed the horses becoming restless as well. One of them started weaving, slowly swaying from side-to-side in its stall.
The other horses who had been watching with ears pricked and pleasant expressions also became more agitated. The weaver picked up his rhythm, while the others now had their ears back and were obviously getting upset, yet they remained fixated on the group.
I stopped listening to what was being said as it was becoming quite an argumentative discussion and focussed instead of the reaction of the horses, also noticing that nobody else seemed to be aware of the change in their behaviour. I pointed it out to the lady who was sitting next to me. I always like to have a witness to confirm what I’m seeing when it comes to determining more esoteric circumstances like this 😉
I felt sorry for the instructor as we had gotten friendly over the weekend and communicated via subtle cues that genuine horsemen use to signal each other that we’re on the same page. Much like the horses were doing in picking up the emotions being relayed by the upset women towards the rider they knew well, and who probably rarely, if ever, radiated such energy towards them.
I sensed that this was an unusual situation for these horses and it fascinated me to see them go from so calm and soothed to being obviously distressed by what they were seeing… or hearing… or sensing… perhaps engaging all of their herd instincts in feeling the negativity directed at their “herd leader”. Maybe they wanted to rescue her from the apparent danger, and then bolt to where it would be safe from the “predators”.
As the group began to disperse my friend showed up to drive us back to the hotel and I didn’t have the chance to talk further to the instructor or see how the horses were after everyone else was gone. I did note the one being ridden in the arena had become quite spooky however and thought maybe it had also picked up on the other horses in the barn and their level of stress.
It confirmed for me that horses who have been conditioned to exist in the company of humans think of us like being in the company of their own wild herds. It’s very important to them and reinforces how much of our energy they actually pick up on. It should remind us to be as calm and stress-free as possible when we’re around them if we want them to be that way as well. The Principles of Compassionate Equitation are a program of personal development that will lead the rider through a series of exercises and awarenesses that will help in this aspect of enjoying our own horses by calming ourselves and alleviating stress-related reactions, and becoming mindful of the “global herd” that needs attention, care, and compassion as well.