What is connection?
A word that is so commonly used, yet so widely interpreted.
It is essential but can be experienced in many different ways.
As social species, we strive for connection, but how do we know when we are there, and why does the sense of connection often seem to fade as quickly as it comes?
Does connection require two? If I feel connected to my horse, but my horse does not feel connected to me, is this a true connection and how does it change so the feeling goes both ways?
In this article, we will explore these questions, coming out the other side with hopefully a clearer view of what is perhaps, the most special component of riding.
Why We Seek Connection
Connection matters, to us and to our horses, on a biological level. We are wired to seek connection because it is integral to our safety. Social species, which both humans and horses are, are not designed to be independent. We are wired to be part of a group, and the social cues from others tell us what is safe and what is to be feared, as well as how accepted we are amongst others.
Our internal programming, our unique tapestries of experiences and beliefs, gives us all a different sense of what connection is. How we have experienced connection in the past is how we will seek it in the future.
These differences in how individuals seek and recognize connection creates enough problems for members of the same species, and those challenges can become even greater when connections attempt to form among members of different species.
For both us and our horses, it is possible that there is a deeper level of connection than we have experienced in the past. But connection is not something that is attained and can then be forgotten. It is not constant, it is either strengthening or weakening. However, mistakes are not to be feared, because as I will explain later, rebuilding from those mistakes is what creates an even stronger connection.
The Two Elements of Connection
I believe there are two main elements to connection and either one of these without the other is often misinterpreted as connection, to the detriment of horse and person.
The first of these two elements is caring. I can care about my horse, loving them, wanting the best for them, thinking of them often – what field should they go in, what blanket should I purchase, does their saddle fit… But caring is not connection.
The second is awareness. I can be aware of my horse, I can notice every ear twitch, muscle tightening, and change in affect with the precision of a scientist, but awareness, on its own, is not connection.
No matter how deeply I care, if I am not aware of the other, of my horse, if I am not seeing how they feel, if I am not recognizing what they need or want, true connection will not occur.
Likewise, even if I am acutely aware of my horse’s state, but I don’t actually care about how they feel and I don’t care to want to bring positive feelings and changes, connection will not occur.
If I have both caring for and awareness of my horse, that is attunement. When I am attuned to my horse I notice what they need, I notice their requests, and I respond to them.
However, even with total attunement, connection may still not occur… because true connection requires this on both sides.
Connection can be talked about in different ways, we can connect with ourselves, we can connect with nature, but to find true connection with another… that requires awareness and caring from both.
To put it bluntly, caring without awareness is the doting owner with the miserable horse. Awareness without caring is the skilled trainer who creates exactly the behavior they want, but there is no love lost between them and their horse.
When we are seeking connection, we need to stay in the place of being attuned to our horse – of noticing what they do and caring about how they feel, whether that is a grimace as we run the brush over a certain place on their body, or a fear of the south end of the arena.
We cannot force connection from the horse, they have to choose to join us in that place. But we can keep ourselves in the state where connection is a possibility and an invitation. Whether or not the horse chooses to accept that invitation is their choice, and the moment we try to force it, the possibility for connection is gone.
Mistakes will be made. Because we each come with a slightly different blueprint for what connection is, we may ask for it in ways that our horse does not find particularly inviting. The same may happen when our horse asks for connection from us. We may not find their request inviting either.
Continuing to attempt to push through ignores the state of the other and will only serve to erode the relationship. Even the smallest of responses, when ignored over and over, can destroy a relationship.
But if we are attuned, we will see the response from the other, recognize our mistake and make a repair. Each of these repairs can serve to make the connection stronger, as trust is created on both sides and safety is found in the freedom to say no.
Connection is the real joy of riding, when it is absent, a certain spark will always be missing, but when horse and rider are connected, it doesn’t matter what they do, it's going to be a great ride!
As I write this article, I recognize that you may not be able to even visit your horse right now and that the distance can feel long and lonely. Connection is still possible with distance, find an item that reminds you of your horse, a lock of hair, strap of leather, a stone from the barn drive, and use that momento to think of your horse. Practice awareness and caring with all those you do have contact with – family members or pets at home.