The feeling of connection is one that many of us strive for. We want to hear a nicker when we walk in the barn, have our horse greet us at the gate, walk easily by our side when leading, and to feel them attentive as we ride, responding with lightness to our most subtle cues.
But how do we achieve connection with a horse? Is it gaining their affection feeding treats and scratching their favorite spots? Is it long hours of training and work? Can connection be formed or does it simply happen?
In the past, horses were used for work. They had a job to perform, whether that was providing transportation, working the fields, or hauling heavy loads. Spending time with horses was, for many people, a necessary part of life. This is no longer the case, riding and working with horses is now recreational. Even for professionals whose work still revolves around horses, their industry is based on fun, pleasure, and sport. With today’s riders, most choose to pursue riding over other hobbies because riding offers something that most other activities do not – the opportunity to connect.
To connect to a large and powerful animal whose mind works very differently from our own, but to whom we are often in-explicitly drawn.
Connection is a feeling, and so it can be described in different ways. Over the past few weeks, I’ve asked many people when they feel most connected to their horse, or the horse they are with, even if it’s just for a lesson. The answers vary, some may feel most connected when just standing with their horse in the stall, while others may find it racing across an open field. The most common description of connection is moments of moving in unity, a feeling of oneness and togetherness.
Both horses and humans are social species, seeking connection to others is an important part of our emotional and physical well-being.
I believe that true connection is felt by both horse and person. A person may feel connected to a horse for many reasons, but for that connection to be meaningful from the position of creating a relationship, wanting our horse to enjoy time spent with us, and even feeling safe as we ride, the connection must be reciprocated by the horse.
I see a horse who is connected with a person as one who is engaged, attentive without tension or anxiety. They are attuned to the requests and needs of the person, and vice versa.
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When a request is made, the horse may not always get the right answer, but they actively try to figure out what is being asked. At the same time, the person is attuned to the horse, noticing signs of discomfort, worry, or tension.
Connection is different than association. We can create good associations about us for the horse through doing things that generally make them feel good – feeding, petting, etc. However, while an association may help the horse understand that we mean good things, food, for example, and therefore is happy to see us walk in the barn, a connection goes deeper.
Of course, that raises the question, what creates a true connection?
At times connections between a horse and a person can seem to happen almost spontaneously – we don’t understand it but something just draws us to a particular horse and they seem to reciprocate.
More often, I find that connections are built slowly. Connection is created through engagement, communication, and rapport.
Connection always begins with some sort of engagement. One individual takes the initiative to start something. It could be a friendly pet or scratch, or even just focused attention.
These simple initiations are really a request for engagement. When we have engagement, whether positive – think the horse looking at us, moving closer, or touching – or even engaging in a not-so-great way, with pinned ears or a hind foot, engagement is always the start.
From engagement, we look to build rapport. Rapport is defined as a close and harmonious relationship with understanding and trust.
We build rapport through communicating. It’s about requests and responses. Just as when we spend a lot of time with one person and learn the subtleties of sensing how they are feeling or what they are about to do by reading both direct and indirect communication, the same can happen with a horse.
Requests can be as simple as look this way, walk forward, back up, or head down. Trust is formed and comfort levels are raised as both horse and person become more confident in how to communicate with and what to expect from each other.
Good communication isn’t just about making requests, it is also about listening. When we can notice the little ways in which our horses tell us things – a cocked head when we hit an itchy spot during grooming, or tension in their body if we push a bit too hard trying to get a new movement during training – we can change our own behavior, pausing to scratch that itchy spot, or doing a few easy walk circles to ease the tension.
As communication becomes easier, rapport is developed, connection deepens, and a history of good interactions and memories are formed.
This process can be more difficult than it sounds. As I alluded to earlier in this article, liking a horse and feeding him treats may help the person feel connected and create positive associations about the person for the horse, but it is unlikely to establish the kind of two-way connection we need for safe riding and a relationship with a horse.
Because connection begins with engagement, maintaining that engagement from the horse sometimes requires using pressure, being assertive, and being insistent.
This often requires some work on ourselves and our own emotional control as well. Because maintaining a connection requires some enjoyment of the other’s company, we also need to think about what we are offering the horse to connect to – a calm, mindful person is more inviting than someone frantically rushing around, stressed from a hard day at work.
I am reminded of the quote from Mark Rashid, “The qualities to be good with horses are the same qualities required to be good at life in general, and vice versa.”
Wherever we find and feel it, connection is the essence of riding, the joy that is found spending time with horses. It is what keeps us coming back, scraping mud off dirty horses, shoveling manure from stalls, and struggling with the physical challenges of balancing atop a moving animal, for those times of feeling acknowledged, accepted, and at one with another being – the horse.
I’d love to hear from you – how do you view connection, where do you feel it, how is it created?
See you in the comments!
p.s. I'm adding this section a week later, to a respond to several questions that essentially asked, “How do I maintain connection if I need to establish leadership?”
This is a great question and I felt it deserved a thoughtful answer.
I find “leadership” to be an interesting term, especially in the context of horse training. It is often used as justification for getting rough and aggressive or as a sort of prerequisite that needs to be established before any useful exchange with the horse.
I don’t agree with either of these interpretations of leadership, but there are other styles of leadership and as we are the ones most often deciding what we want to do and directing our horse, we are, by definition, in the “leader” role.
In my experience, thinking of both horse and human relationships, the kind of leadership that fosters connection is the kind where there is input from both sides.
Here’s a specific horse example: I ask my young horse, Noel, to go over a 2’6” jump – for her stage of training, that’s the high end of the height we work over. She takes the jump but is apprehensive on the approach. I can think “I need to be a leader and continue to push over this jump until she respects my command to jump and trusts me to do what I ask” or I could think “I can sense Noel’s insecurity at that height, I’m going to drop it back to 2’ and do it a few more times until I feel her confidence returning”.
I’m certainly not perfect, but in my riding and training, I try to always look for that second option – listening to the input of the horse and perhaps adjusting my approach or request.
Now, on the other hand, there is nothing wrong with being very assertive about setting boundaries for behavior. Personally, I like the terminology of “setting boundaries” because we don’t need to be a “leader” in order to set a boundary.
An example would be that I am not going to allow myself to be bitten. Even if the horse is frustrated or upset, if they come to bite me, they will meet an elbow or something else unpleasant.
Setting a boundary and saying “no” to a behavior, or being persistent in saying “yes, you will do this” (perhaps crossing a stream, loading into a trailer, walking into the barn, etc.) doesn’t have to be in opposition to connection, in fact it can make the connection stronger because it is still a form of communication.
I think that perhaps a misconception about connection is that it is always created by warm and fuzzy moments – hugging our horse’s neck, petting their soft nose, feeding carrots as a summer breeze comes through the barn.
These kinds of moments are very special, but when I think about it, the connections in my life that are the strongest are often those that experienced the most challenges.
For example, my best friends are those who I can argue with about beliefs or ideas. We can have some real debates, but we don’t get emotional towards each other – we communicate our beliefs and feelings, we feel heard by the other person, and we end up with a stronger friendship because of it.
It is the same with many of the horses I have felt most connected to. They are often the ones that seem the most difficult – we struggle together to understand what the other wants and how to work together, but in the end, that greater intensity of engagement and communication connects us.