by Scott Thomson
We spend most of our time with our horses trying to teach them what we want them to do — stop, be safe, don't spook, be calm with the grandkids. If you're a competitor, you may add lessons in how to run the barrels, work a cow, or ride a dressage pattern. It's a one-way relationship where we are always teaching and expect them to always be listening and learning.
Given this crazy world we live in, where it's virtually impossible to predict what the next day will bring, maybe it's time to take a breath and let our horses teach us a few things.
You are probably aware of the incredible things horses are doing in therapeutic riding programs, helping returning vets with the emotional and physical scars of war work their way back to improved levels of confidence and self-esteem. In these same programs, horses help children challenged by physical and mental issues gain the positive energy necessary to face the lives in front of them.
You may not know as much about the contributions horses are making in Equine Assisted Therapy programs, where they play an integral part in helping couples, individuals and even groups deal with emotional conflicts that can influence or destroy lives. In some enlightened areas of the country, counselors will even write prescriptions for equine programs that might help a person work through a troubling event or issue.
There are even some interesting programs out there where horses help corporate leaders and executives learn to communicate better with their employees or customers, or to develop better problem-solving techniques to keep a company or organization thriving.
If horses are capable of giving this much back to us, maybe it is time for us to start looking to them a bit more for valuable input to our own lives. Let the horse sit at the head of the class for once, passing along the practical knowledge gained from millions of years of experience.
What has my horse taught me, and what does he continue to teach me every day?
Patience — This may not seem like much of a virtue these days given the drive for immediate solutions for everything, but I think we'd all do better if we had a bit more of it. When I started working with horses, I was a consultant and managing partner of a small firm in the Bay Area, with a lifestyle to match. I had clients all over the US and overseas as well, and was always on the go, stuck in traffic, running through airports, going to meetings and pretty much on call 24/7. People used to ask me how I stayed so calm and even tempered with all the stress, and I had one simple answer — my horse. I realized early on that working with a horse required you to slow down and put everything else aside for the time when you were with your horse. I also saw that you needed to learn a different language, be far more observant of little things, and be able to work at the pace of another living thing to get anywhere. To me, it is no coincidence that the most productive years I ever had in business came after horses came into my life.
Collaborative problem solving — It is impossible to get through life every day without the help and guidance of someone else. Two heads usually are better than one, especially when another point of view or more extensive experience can help solve the problem. I took this same path with horses, feeling that developing a horse to its highest level of physical and mental capabilities, and to the greatest level of safety, requires you and your horse to work together — and that his point of view and needs are equal to yours. He knows how he sees the world and how he would solve a problem if you weren't there, and he knows how his body works, so things get done a lot faster and with more permanence when he is involved in the process. Think about this the next time you're trying to get something done with your employees, your volunteer organization, or even your mate or family.
Focus on and praise the behaviors you want, don't dwell on the negative ones — I can't count the number of times I've heard a story about the kid who comes home with a report card with three A's and a B, and the parents focus on the B rather than praising the A's. Same in business — "this was a good thing you did, but you should have also done that." The same thing happens with horses. If you want your horse (or human) to consistently exhibit a desired behavior, you need to recognize and praise that behavior. Don't dwell on the fact it took 10 steps to get there, and maybe he bucked a bit on the way, but stop everything and praise him excessively for the last step that was perfect. I'm not talking about false praise or recognition just for the sake of giving it, but making sure when there is obvious success and effort that it is clear to horse and human alike.
Living in the moment — I think if there was one thing I learned immediately with horses, it was that when you are with them you need to be 100% there and focused on them — if not, you literally could get killed. I was amazed at the number of injuries and wrecks I saw because the human took a call or was gabbing with a friend or simply daydreaming about something else, and didn't see a dangerous situation developing. I found this need to be centered and focused very relaxing and calming. No worrying about the future or moaning about the past, just living here and now for your horse for a few hours. I think most people would admit they exert far too much energy thinking and worrying about things beyond their control, at the expense of enjoying the moments right now. Watch your horse and let him teach you about living in the moment — that's all that matters to him.
Setting boundaries — A lot of current political rhetoric seems to indicate that we should all be able to do whatever we want, whenever we want to. Interesting thought, but society or businesses could never work like that. I believe most of us need to know there are some boundaries and some rules that you can rely on and that will be consistent. This is certainly a challenge for parents — how do you set boundaries, how firm should they be, what should the consequences be for ignoring them, etc. This may be one of the most valuable lessons we can learn from a horse. The safest, most reliable and most responsive horses are those that know what and where the boundaries are. It goes to their most basic need of living in a herd — how to get along to belong. Boundaries make them feel safe and secure, and this allows them to grow and develop. Maybe we need that, too.
Clear communication — Maybe it is just that we're in a major election year, but I get really tired sometimes about the "gray" world we live in. Rarely does anyone say what they really think about something. I think parents and kids, bosses and staff, teachers and politicians are all so worried about saying the wrong thing that it becomes impossible to clearly communicate things that need to be said and understood. This isn't the way it is in the horse's world. Things are or they aren't; there is no room for maybes or mights. For a prey animal that relies on flight for survival, clarity is all important. It is no coincidence that the best owners or trainers are the ones who use clear, consistent and precise communication in the horse's language, making it easy for the horse to understand what is being asked and to respond based on that understanding, not on fear, confusion or intimidation.
Next time you're with your horse, pay a bit more attention to what he is saying and doing — then take that home and try to apply it to your life. I've never found a better teacher or advisor.
Scott Thomson lives in Silver City and teaches natural horsemanship. He can be reached with comments or questions at email@example.com or (575) 388-1830.