There was a time in my life when I made myself ride no matter what...stressed, sick, hurt, exhausted...didn’t matter...I had goals to meet! I believed by pushing myself I would reach my goals faster and prove my dedication to reaching them. These rides almost always resulted in being counterproductive, full of frustration, and left me feeling like we regressed.
These days one of my everyday horsemanship goals is to show up as my best self for my horses. Before I handle my horses I do my best to let any stress from the day go, I make sure I physically feel well, and I work to be present—not letting my mind wander to things that have happened during the day or things I still need to do. If I can’t manage to find this calm, present state I don’t ride or work with my horses...I just sit and watch them instead.
I’m in no way saying I don’t have goals anymore or that I don’t work hard to reach those goals. What I’m saying is that over the years I have learned I will reach my goals faster if I take time to work on myself first.
Horses are masters at reading the subtlest body-language. If I’m stressed my body-language subconsciously shows it. Horses ALWAYS notice this level of subtle body-language. In a herd situation body-language is how horses communicate. If one horse notices a potential threat his stressed body-language communicates this to the rest of the herd; the other horses in the herd will respond by also becoming stressed. When the horse sees the threat is gone his calm body-language will communicate this to the rest of the herd; the other horses in the herd will respond by also calming down. In other words, horses notice body-language and then react to it accordingly. Knowing this you can understand how the way you feel impacts the work you do with your horses.
When you arrive in a stressed state your body-language is subconsciously communicating to your horse there is something he should be stressed about. Conversely, If you arrive to work with your horse in a calm state your body-language is communicating to your horse there is nothing to fear.
Horses live in the present moment, so to them your stress always translates to something they should be worried about right now. They have no way of understanding you are stressed from something that happened earlier in the day or by something you're worried about happening in the future...they just know you’re stressed right now.
If you can train yourself to show up in a calm state and remain in a calm state during work with your horse you can use this mirroring instinct to your advantage. For instance, if you go to work with your horse and notice your horse is worried about something you can use your calm body-language to communicate to him there is nothing to fear. This is much easier said than done as you can’t fake it—you have to actually be calm. It takes much practice to be able to remain calm when your horse is not calm. It is much easier and more natural to become anxious around an anxious horse; in this case, your anxious body-language will only confirm to to your horse there is indeed something to be worried about.
This subtle body-language is one of the reasons a horse can be extremely anxious with a student and then seem to miraculously change for the better when a trainer takes over handling the horse. The student was most likely anxious and thus her body-language was subconsciously telling the horse to be anxious. When the trainer took over, the trainer’s calm body-language told the horse there is nothing to fear resulting in the horse calming down.
The next time you notice your horse acting anxious or stressed check in with how you feel. It is likely your horse is merely reflecting you. Make it a goal to show up as you want your horse to be...your horse is your mirror.