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Horse Is A Mirror Image

The role of the horse in human life is changing. Horses are no longer needed for transportation, or for military. Their role is no longer limited to sport or recreation.

As various forms of equine-assisted therapy and coaching become popular and mainstream, we are becoming more interested in the horse for what they can teach us about ourselves.

But how do they teach us, how do we learn from them?

Perhaps because of the horse’s sensitivity, an idea has spread that the horse is a mirror of the person working with them. That the horse in front of us will display outwardly the emotions we feel on the inside.

I want to argue against this idea, because I believe that thinking of the horse as a mirror limits how we see the horse and what we can learn.

Watch the video below and then tell me what you think, is the horse a mirror?

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52 Responses

  1. Hi Callie
    I thought you made some excellent points that I will incorporate into my workshops. I have put a lot of emphasis on what is going on for the person when the horse displays certain behaviours. I appreciate your thoughts around the horses own experiences and triggers and how that can impact what is going on. Because I like to work with people in workplaces who encounter workplace conflict, I think it will tie it together nicely; the fact that we can be okay, but we will encounter people who have their own experiences and triggers and what can we do to help them through their issues while maintaining our own emotional balance.

  2. Great video! Callie, I was working with my horse, tuning her up to work on a lunge line so that I can teach my granddaughter to ride. She did great in the arena without the rider. But with a rider, she was stopping and starting without my asking which was a bit frustrating. I realized afterward that she was picking up on my conversation with the rider! The horse was trying to read confusing cues about stopping and starting because clearly my body/hands/voice were sending mixed signals. This is a challenge! To relay to the horse to keep walking on or trotting on while I simultaneously communicate with the rider. This is a huge exercise in self-awareness – to keep two conversations going at the same time. Whew.

    1. Ive noticed this when taking lessons, my clever pony and i are both listening to the instructor. Im now trying to pick up the instruction first, then intentionally apply the instruction.

      1. That’s funny, Pat. Sometimes my trainer has to spell so that I can actually cue a response instead of the horse listening to my trainer’s voice cue.

  3. Hi Callie
    first of all, thank you for your videos. I discovered the world of horses only about a year ago, and I am learning a lot from you.
    As a pretty sensitive person who is easily picking up on emotions around me, I try to pay close attention to how I am feeling. Starting out and being thrown into the water with a lot of different horses, I often just try out things to get by and sometimes this might trigger a response in the horse that has more to do with my own “stable manners” than with my emotional state. And I agree, seeing horses purely as a mirror, doesn’t take that away from seeing them as complex emotional beings of their own, who are doing their own thing?!

  4. Last Saturday, all of my own horses (4 of them) were hyper-aware, and stirred up, about something in the pasture from the night before. It was odd to see the whole herd of 20 or so on edge. We did ride Saturday, but the two we rode were more edgy than normal for a lot of the ride. It had nothing to do with our human emotions. I think sometimes we can trigger anxiety in horses, but sometimes it really is something more related to what’s going on in the herd. We later found out there had been some stray dogs roaming the pasture the night before. It was good to find out the reason for the edginess.

  5. Hey Callie! Interesting take on this subject. It does seem to be oversimplified to think horses just mirror our feelings. But the sure do pick up on the slightest nuance. I think with my horse, it’s more my focus that he reacts to. He gets pushy and pissy when I’m not focused on his fine self. It feels like he gives me a jerk on my rope halter to say… pay attention here!!

  6. Callie…great topic! I’ve often questioned this as well and I admire you for going out on a limb to challenge the mantra of horse as mirror. My thinking is that yes, the horse can and will mirror the human but that’s not the only energy the horse will display. I am very interested to hear more from you and others on this topic as your workshop unfolds! Thanks for all your super contributions to advancing horsemanship!

  7. Hi Callie- first let me say I recently discovered you and your wonderful website and I’m forever grateful for that! I have craved the company of and interaction with horses my entire life, rode whenever possible, but never lived somewhere where I could indulge that driving in-b0rn desire. Now that the kids are grown and gone, I’m making it happen (been taking lessons for the past 1-1/4 years, twice a week, learning so much! Also I volunteer for a non-profit that works with at-risk kids through horsemanship). I really resonated with the idea that to consider the horse a mirror discounts the life they lived up to that moment I’m interacting with them, or what’s happening in their environment that I’m missing. The horse I take lessons on tries to bite whoever is tightening her girth (which is me during my lesson!). It’s nothing I ever did to her, she had that fear habit long before I came along. Yesterday when it was time to tighten her girth, I first stood in front of her and assured her I would NEVER hurt her. Then I showed her my belt, unfastened the buckle, then showed her me cinching my own belt up and that I wasn’t hurting myself…then I cinched her girth up, very gently as always, and she didn’t turn her head to try to bite. Was it because of my belt demonstation? Hard to say…I greatly appreciate all the effort you put into raising horsemanship awarenesses, and find ever so much value in all your videos and posts. Thank you so much for reminding me to stay present, to the best of my ability!

  8. My horse is generally very calm but when a certain individual who gives me great anxiety showed up at the barn and began to harass me my horse got very upset. He could sense my anxiety and became very anxious himself. But other than that I agree that his behavior is his own and not a mirror of mine.

  9. When I am around the barn and my horse is in her stall, she fusses and bites through her stall bars with her neighbors, a gelding on one side and another Mare on the other side. She is in turn out next to the same horses and they get along great! Why does she do this?

    1. Hi Rene, horses in domestic situations will often exhibit aggressive behaviors in their stall due to limited resources for food!

      -Julia Burdy, CRK Training Community Manager

  10. I like the perspective offered here. A balance btwn horse responding to rider and having its own thoughts. I am sometimes an anxious person its true. But i know i have a good horse. But no matter how calm i am, she still spooks sometimes. Im not responsible for everything she does i know bcos she spooks at things i am not worried about and not focusing on. But bcos i was anxious while first getting to know her and learning to ride in a busy arena, everyone says, oh you focused on this or that so she spooked. I guess what im trying to say is i don’t think it is always my fault and being told that it is always my fault doesn’t achieve anything other than making me feel bad.

    1. I think you are right on! The Coach at our barn tells us our horses need to take responsibility for their actions, things are not always our own fault! We teach them how to do things and care for them so they need to let us learn from them as well. Keep it Positive

    2. Pat, exactly we can’t forget that the horse is its own free-thinking being and that it does have its own thoughts and emotions!

      -Julia Burdy, CRK Training Community Manager

  11. I think you make same great points….and I’d also like to offer a bit of perspective as an EAL facilitator. I consider myself a horseman first and foremost, and so my horses emotional and physical safety are always paramount. And the same for my clients Each horse at my farm is absolutely an individual and are treated that way. Both when I’m working and playing with them myself and in the EAL work. An individual horses temperament, comfort level, sensitivity etc is always factored in before choosing any of them to work with a client or specific activity.

    However …..when you are challenging the concept of the horse being a mirror – I totally agree that when it comes to Horsemanship and training our horses, and building that bond – that yes our horse may be reacting to our emotions or habits or boundaries, but first and foremost that he is reacting based on his individuality. In working with our horses the focus is the horse.

    In EAL however we aren’t training our clients in Horsemanship, riding, liberty etc. (of course there is always the safety guidelines) Nor are they there to train a horse, or to build a relationship with them. The focus of the session is 100 % about them and what they are experiencing in their life. And the learning for them is in the horses reaction to them. And in this way the horse is a mirror for them – their energy, fears, boundaries, leadership, beliefs, etc of what’s going on in the moment. How the horse mirrors of course will be unique to his/her individuality. But he will provide valuable feedback none the less.

    However …..that being said, The individuality and suitability for a horse for an activity as well as the horse/human match is very much a big responsibility for the facilitator to make sure the right horse is partnered with.

    Once that is established then the facilitator can step back and let the horse work it’s magic.

    Ensuring the horses are prepared for EAL requires a lot of training and recognition of the horses individuality and a great opportunity for bullfinch relationship.

    1. Hi Nafissa, thank you for your comment and I truly value your input as an EAL facilitator, I totally agree with that you shared in your comment, I think Callie wanted to also stress the importance of the horse as an individual and that they should be free to think and feel as a separate being than ourselves.

      -Julia Burdy, CRK Training Community Manager

  12. Great video. Thank you, Callie.
    I go weak at the knees when I am near horses. They can sense that and usually come closer. I’ve even been “kissed” on my neck or shoulder. Thank you for making the point that they are their own unique beings. They deserve respect. Humans and horses can learn from each other.

  13. I really like this point of view. I’ve noticed that my horses immediately pick up on my emotions but each of them handles that differently, according to their own personalities.

  14. I totally agree. You said “presence and awareness” are important, and that really struck a chord with me. We have to have both of those any time we are around horses, not just in the stall but also when we ride. If we are not able to control our body language (tension?) and emotions (grumpy?) I find that it’s best to just hang out and not do any training… not because of the horse, but mostly because how I’m going to react to his behavior. If I’m tense, angry and impatient, I have no business training a horse. Since I consider EVERY interaction I have with my horse a training session, I’ve decided that I’m better off giving him a bit of food and just breathe while I watch him eat. No point in making BOTH of us miserable! This way, we both end up happier at the end!

    1. Exactly Elisabet, sometimes it is better to just ‘be’ with the horse than put any training if we are having a bad day!

      -Julia Burdy, CRK Training Community Manager

  15. Callie, Awesome video! I agree with your perspective that while the horse often responds to our internal energy (whether positive or negative), the relationship is not a “mirror” image. So many more factors are involved! If this relationship was simply a mirror, than my good mood would immediately change the attitude of my mare on one of those “crabby” days. That would be awesome 🙂 , but it’s more complicated than that. She has taught me that we can still work as a team no matter which one of us has had a bad day. The most important thing is to be aware of it and not let the bad “infect” the good. This somewhat emotional mare has also taken extra good care of me when adventuring out for a moonlight trail ride with friends that turned out to be more of a “darkness ride”. I couldn’t see a thing (creating some tension) and she certainly didn’t mirror that! My gem of a girl handled the situation beautifully.

  16. I was riding my horse in an indoor arena and another horse cane in on a longe line with a young girl. After about 2 minutes the other horse in the arena started taking off, bucking etc…going wild.
    My horse, who is a 14 year old Friesian gelding was not even phased by the outburst. I on the other hand became very anxious. I was nervous the horse would get loose from the girl and run into us. My horse immediately felt my anxiety. I know this because he picked up his head and looked over at the bucking horse. He then turned back around, as if to say to me, “I got this, we are fine, stop worrying”. In that moment my anxiety lifted and I was fine. So in this instance we were both in tune with each other’s emotions, but luckily he had the sense to stay calm.
    I think when you have a bond with a horse, you can feed off each other’s emotions more. But I do agree they are their own individuals for sure!

    1. I think the main point that Callie is hoping to instill in this video is that – even though it may seem like they mirror us – we need to give them the justice of having their own feelings and emotions too!

      -Julia Burdy, CRK Training Community Manager

  17. I do think that horses tune in to their rider’s or person’s emotions. An old cowboy once said to me that if you want to know what a person is like, look at how their horse behaves. Once, when I had a terrible time with jobs during the 2008 recession, I was very depressed and my horse became almost unrideable. Finally I connected the two things, as I wasn’t the same person that he knew and it upset him greatly. My current Arab/Morgan cross is practically telepathic in her ability to suss out my emotions at every moment you are around her. Personally, I love a sensitive horse like that, but sometimes it is a bit of a pain, especially when I first got her as a rescue and she was quite the firebrand for this old lady! But that high emotional connectivity also enables us to work together well, especially on new things, as she can get a bit anxious when she’s learning new things.

  18. Thank you for putting up this topic.when I go to see my Ponys I always check in on myself first and try and be neutral when I meet them.this keeps me open to be able to observe what state they are in.the problem I see regards viewing our Equines as mirrors is that by doing so we realy return our focus back on us rather than staying open and putting the Horse first.all they need from us is to be present.there are times when my head is full of thoughts and questiones.selfdoubth and those moment I try and remember to just sit down wait.take in my surrounding.most of the time I calm down and end up just getting on with what is in front of me and the questions and selfdoubht are gone.if I was to read the Ponys as my mirror I would project onto them rather than accualy working with whats in front of me .it is in the present moment that the true work is done.

  19. I’m not sure horses pick up on our internal feelings but more the way we approach them, by our movements and facial expressions. Maybe it’s the horses training history that can cause some anxiety with them. I have been on horses where I have been so nervous I’m literally shaking and the horse has always been kind to me, calm and easy going not fractious or nervous.
    They are all different and its up to us to recognise this and work with them accordingly.
    Some horses are anxious to begin with because they don’t know what type of rider is getting on their back, if they have been ridden without compassion in the past. Trust issues.

  20. Callie,
    This subject has too much non-objective judgement going along with it. People who claim that their horse mirrors what they are feeling are not the observers who should be doing the research. Rather, a non-biased observer, who has no connection to either the horse nor the rider should be the one who arrives at a somewhat neutral conclusion. Further, a horse is a prey animal. It cannot “relate” to the feelings of a human, which is a predator. It can react in a defensive nature, but it cannot have an emotional bond with what its evolution tells it is something which wants to dominate it.
    Ray G.

  21. Some time ago I got interested in the equine-assisted programs mentioned in the into to the video and I’ve taken part in a workshop designed for ‘horsepeople.’ There I came across the term “the horse as a mirror” whose meaning was: I can use my reaction to the horse to find out what’s going on inside me. It’s not a real or literal “reflection.” It’s based on the knowledge about how our mind works – it projects inner state to sb/sth outside.
    The aim of such programs is to raise people’s self-awareness (and as a result to improve communication with horses and others). When it comes to communication with horses Callie described the main points – how it should be 🙂 The problem starts when we don’t or are not able to recognize properly our inner state and our perception is distorted. Then it’s hardly possible to see what’s really going on with the horse or to be present.
    While our mind is attributing our emotions, thoughts, beliefs to our horse we have a chance to “catch” this projection and possibly to change our view of things.
    Example: I think “the horse is anxious” (my opinion). Because he’s moving a lot. To find out why he’s moving I need to check if I’m calm, etc. and eliminate possibilities: maybe the horse’s behavior makes me feel anxious, maybe I came stressed, or I’m nervous because I’ve had some unpleasant experience with this horse. It’s easy to be trapped, we need mindfulness to see the flies 😉
    Another example: I believe “the horse is unhappy/cold because it’s raining”… Should I take him in???

  22. Callie,
    I have watched your videos for a long time but this is the first instance I have been felt compelled to write a comment not because I haven’t been impacted but because I feel as though I have a share worthy of reading.

    I have a horse given to me because he needed a second chance. He was going to be euthanized because he was “dangerous .”

    I have taken over 1 year to get to know him and let him settle into my herd of now 3 horses.

    Everything you said in this video is so real.

    Yesterday, I said “this is it, it is time.” He was asking for connection.

    I got my step stool and climbed on his back.
    We stayed this way for 1/2 hour. I was massaging his neck and withers. He hardly moved.

    I agree horses come to us with do many experiences that we can only second guess “ what happened.”

    I am thankful that we found each other because he has opened my heart immeasurably .

    1. Wow Lydia, how awesome is that! It sounds like the two of you are so in tune with each other – what a beautiful connection!

      -Julia Burdy, CRK Training Community Manager

  23. Interesting subject. We’re always told not to ride if we are stressed as the horse will pick up on it. We do stress release breathing before riding. On Wednesday we lost a very dear horse very suddenly and unexpected. There were a lot of tears shed. I debated whether to ride on Thursday as I was far too emotional. However I got my horse. As I was leading her she was nuzzling into my side as I was crying. She stood perfectly for grooming and tacking up. When I rode her she was perfect. Did everything I wanted with no arguments and no attitude. Not normal. I believe she sensed my feelings and adjusted her attitude to make things easier for me. I have to think that they dont mirror our feelings, they respond to them in their own way.

    1. Jackie, I can so relate to this comment. Certain days that I’ve had so much emotion I wonder if I should even ride and more often then not those can be some of my best rides, maybe I’m more in tune with my feelings – who knows! All science aside, horses are healing even on the worst days.

      -Julia Burdy, CRK Training Community Manager

  24. I’m SO happy with this video! I know others have said it, but I’m just chiming in with my gratitude. The whole “the horse is a mirror of us” thing has never sat right with me and so I’m glad to have a professional horse trainer and sensitive thoughtful human being, give her point-of-view and offer an alternative interpretation. Thanks AGAIN, Callie.

  25. I had a lovely, cheeky old horse of 32, one day after my husband left me I went out for a ride on him, feeling very sad. when i got back to the stables I got off him and for the first time ever he nudged me in the back sending me flying then walked up to me on the ground and I swear he laughed at me, it was so funny I just lay there giggling. He never did it again. They are such sensitive creatures and after 18 years of having him he could read me like a book.

  26. Well stated Callie. As someone who has worked with horses for over 30 years and also does equine-assisted leadership work with individuals and groups, I feel quite certain that horses have their own personalities and unique “stuff” going on in addition to also giving us feedback on our energy and how we’re showing up. Here’s one example with a client: My horse Cali, our client, and I entered the round pen. Cali was off-lead and free to go wherever she wanted. She promptly left us and wandered over to the window. She gazed out the window for a long time. Her butt was facing me and my client. I asked my client what she thought may be going on. “I don’t think she likes me,” my client answered. “Did I do something wrong?” she asked. I asked my client what she may be assuming about the situation. “Maybe she knows that I don’t know anything about horses… maybe my energy is toxic, maybe she feels my fear…” She brainstormed more possibilities as I probed deeper. I asked, “how else may you think about Cali’s response?” After a long pause, she said, “maybe this has nothing to do with me.” She shrugged and suddenly laughed. Bingo. That started a whole session of what my client was responsible for versus all the stuff she likes to control or felt she needed to assume responsibility for. It provoked some deep insights. I share this story for two reasons: it shows that the horse was just interested in something outside (or was she?) AND the power of the horse’s response to give EXACTLY what the person needs to create awareness. I’ve witnessed this over and over again in my work – the horses are incredible teachers but facilitators must be savvy to the inquiry process and the better your horsemanship and humanship, the better you can help transform lives. Keeping an open mind is critical. Learning is a life-long process. Thanks for the video.

    1. Shari, thank you for sharing this story! Perfect example of what Callie is talking about, sometimes it has nothing to do with us and that is totally okay! In Andrea Wady’s upcoming course we do a lot of this work sort of validating the horse for what they are looking at!

      -Julia Burdy, CRK Training Community Manager

  27. Really enjoyed this video! You always give me something to think about. I do not think horses mirror who we are, but I know they are sensitive to our emotions, facial expressions, movements, etc. I always try to be aware of what I am thinking and feeling when I am with our horses so if there is any negativity, I can address it before being around them. It does make a big difference in our connection. I just love those magnificent animals, and my relationship to them is very important to me.

    1. Teri, great insights! I think that they can most definitely ‘feel’ our emotions – I mean it has a practical application in a ‘herd’ environment that they can feel when the others are on alert!

      -Julia Burdy, CRK Training Community Manager

  28. Hi Callie, I believe horses (and ponies as well) may reflect our unconscious feelings. Not only stress or fear, but also positive feelings. For example: a horse that had refused to lift his feet for cleaning during half a year suddenly did so without any problem. And I realized I have been feeling more self-assured of late. I felt like ordering champaign!

  29. Thank you callie for clearing this up. I honestly have thought about this concept for some time, because this is very hype right now. I agree with everything you say. I have dealt with 2 horses very closely this year, and their personalities are different, leading to various reactions they have to things, and this is completely outside of how I feel about the situation, especially because for the most part I could never have anticipated how they were going to react. However, yes, I have also felt my negative state rub off on them too, they would pick up and react more aloof- telling me politely that they didn’t like my energy. Fair enough! It’s good to get direct feedback, and work towards being calm and present the next time I’m around them. Another sweeping statement that does annoy me is that horses don’t have issues, it’s the humans that handle them that do. Both horses I have dealt with have different “issues” if you can put it that way, I guess challenges would be more accurate. How could it be MY issue if both horses are so very different? I think we need to be careful how to interpret such comments and give ourselves a break. At least the people who are on a journey with their horse, like I am, this I think is something to think about.

  30. Horses can be helpful in showing us what is going on inside us by how they respond. Sometimes, my horse shows me anxiety inside me that I was unaware of. Once when I was riding, he went to all the corners of the arena and blew out through his nostrils. I realized he was trying to blow the boogie men away. I cracked up laughing, I relaxed, and we had a good ride. So… while he reflected my anxiety to me, he didn’t become anxious just because I was. He just worked to fix it.

    The other day, we were trail riding. He is insecure around cows and they had just let the herd into the pasture we were riding in — over 1000 acres in size. He had been extra watchful the whole ride so far, and he heard a cow moo way over a hill someplace. As soon as he alerted, I knew what it was since I’d heard it too. I calmly said to him, “I hear it too. It is a cow. Nothing to worry about.” He seemed to understand that I was watching out for him, and I wasn’t concerned. His head came down and he relaxed totally for the rest of the ride, knowing I was watchful and would let him know if there was trouble on the trail.

  31. One of my favorite horses way back in the day was a 13 year old off the track TB. She was push button, trusting & pleasure to ride. I couldn’t wait to ride her & did 3-4 times a week both individually & lessons. I learned so much with her & was so confident & relaxed. I don’t know her history but I think she was treated kindly & it was part of her personality. Lately I’ve been riding lesson horses. I believe they’re x show horses & burned out & lazy from being ridden by beginners . I don’t mean to be Anthromorfic sp? but they take advantage & are desensitized. The first such horse started out that way but I joke & say we came to an agreement & he was wonderful. I learned & looked forward to riding. I took a 6 year break- we moved. I’ m not getting anywhere with this new horse. I should be jumping by now. I call him a slug & lazy. I’m incredibly frustrated. Maybe my trainer put me on him because she knows what I am capable off. I don’t know. I’m not a quitter but I go in with a combative attitude as in today you’re going to listen. I’m angry I’m on this horse. Do you think it’s me or the horses personality or past treatment. BTW he’s an appendix QH but I don’t know what he’s crossed with. I ride stock seat too & if he neck reined he’d be perfect. Kind of kidding.

    1. Hi Melissa, how long have you been on the new horse? It might take some time for you to form the same bond that you did with the last horse.

      -Julia Burdy, CRK Training Community Manager

  32. I have a 26 yr old Haflinger gelding. He’s been with us for three years. We hit a brick wall every.single.time. we ride. We do fine in the back yard near where all the other horses are. The minute we point in the opposite direction all heck breaks loose. He gets angry, stomps, becomes head strong, fights me etc etc. I’ve watched countless videos from countless professionals, tried all of their methods and had a trainer out to help me. Nothing works. I’ll never know if we get past this behavior because I expect it at that certain point. I start thinking about it and become anxious therefore he does too. In this case, I believe we’re feeding off of each other and are mirroring negative emotions. However, I do agree with you that generalizing takes away each horse’s individuality. I’m hoping that following Andrea’s Pure Liberty will give me a clearer insight into his perspective.

    1. Sheri, I would definitely recommend following the Pure Liberty workshop – I think you’ll learn a lot about your relationship and your horse through that work!

      -Julia Burdy, CRK Training Community Manager

  33. I think it is much like people. They say you hear mostly what a person’s body language says and very little of the person’s actual words. I think it is similar with horses. The mirror thing is more like projection/reflection. I project how I feel about myself out to you and you reflect that feeling back to me. Because horses are highly sensitive this could be the case. In the past we have always made the horse enter the human world. Imagine someone speaking another language and using physical movements we don’t understand. We are learning more and more that the best communication is to enter their world and learn their language. They are much slower, calmer and subtle in their communication and we should respect that and go along with them. To me, this is the way to have the best relationship with your horse. Bond on the ground, respect the horse and you will have a friend for life.

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