“It’s like a vacation. You’re open and curious, out to have fun, and more receptive because you’ve got time to stop and smell the roses.”
– DR. PENNY LLOYD
In the Hollywood blockbuster “Avatar,” when the blue cat-like people of Pandora want to ride, they simply plug their ponytail-like nerve endings into a complementary organ of their six-legged horses, much like a USB port on a computer.
But on this planet, we’ve got just two reins, our legs, and verbal commands.
Anyone who has ever tried riding or driving a horse for the first time soon realizes that it’s a lot like trying to win friends and influence people in a foreign country where you don’t know the language or customs.
Progress is achieved bit by bit in a similar fashion, but instead of each new word or phrase learned that makes it easier to get along with the locals, a person working with horses learns how to read subtle signs indicated by the horse’s ears, breathing and head position.
SPEAK THE LANGUAGE
In both situations, the better you speak the language, the more successful you become.
According to Dr. Penny Lloyd, who presented a series of workshops entitled “Ride as One” at the recent Horse3 equine educational event at the Keystone Centre, there are more – albeit less commonly understood – communication tools for understanding and working with our four-legged companions.
“The whole weekend we’ve been talking about connection,” said Lloyd, who grew up on a farm in Darcy, Sask., and worked with horses for almost a decade as a conventional veterinarian before switching to a holistic approach that integrates chiropractic and acupuncture theory 15 years ago.
“It’s a buzzword for people, who are talking a lot these days about connecting with your horse.”
The trend is part of the whole Natural Horsemanship movement, which has abandoned the often brutal “horse-breaking” tactics of the past in favour of more gentle training methods based on two-way communication and building a trusting relationship with the animal.
Humans who are able to create a “calm presence” when working with their horses are able to maximize the animal’s performance under the saddle or in harness, as well as increase their own enjoyment of the time spent.
“It’s a state of being that you bring to everything. You can bring it to your riding, or the way you brush your horse, or any interactions with the horse as well as your daily life,” she said.
Lloyd describes her approach as a conscious effort to generate an internal state akin to being on the “best vacation you’ve ever had,” when spending time with a horse.
“You’re not in a rush, you’re in the moment, you’re not thinking about your problems, you haven’t got a ‘to-do’ list,” she said. “It’s like a vacation. You’re open and curious, out to have fun, and more receptive because you’ve got time to stop and smell the roses.”
The best professional trainers, as they fish for the response that they seek, adopt a “playful attitude,” she added. “It’s a two-way conversation, and that’s what happens when you’re connected.”
Horses are herd animals that communicate mainly through physical cues, such as ear, head, foot position and stance. Humans should remember this at all times when around horses, and conduct themselves in a similar fashion, because the animal’s acute hearing is also able to detect “mood” and “intent” via signs as subtle as a person’s heart rate and breathing.
That means “being in your body, not just your head,” she added, so that they can “read” the horse with “all of you.”
Being mindful and in the moment means staying calm while paying attention to everything all at once, much like one does when driving a car on icy roads.
“That’s what I mean by getting in your body,” said Lloyd.
Her philosophy of horsemanship has a scientific basis, based on Electro-Encephalogram (EEG) studies of brain waves emitted during different states of consciousness.
Humans, when thinking, talking or anxious, are in the “beta” state, which ranges from 14-30 hz. When calmly undertaking a creative task requiring extended concentration, such as painting a picture, it is seven to 13 hz, or the “alpha” state.
Deep trance, the state occupied by a guru meditating on a mountaintop, is three to six hz.
“I think animals are in an alpha state most of the time,” she said. Studies show that people swimming with dolphins find it very pleasurable because the sonar clicks they emit help them enter more relaxed, “alpha” state of consciousness.
Humans can induce a similar state in their horses, just by remaining calm in their presence. The effect works both ways, as equine-facilitated therapy with autistic or troubled kids shows, she added.
“People can understand what their animals want or need, if they are more connected with them.”
The working relationship with horses must be balanced, however. Demanding too much control and compliance – which she calls being a “Hitler” – is as much a potential pitfall as asking for too little, which she once saw manifest in a woman who was giving her horse 80 treats a day in a misguided bid to make it like her.
Horse lovers often fall into the latter trap. But horses live in a hierarchical world where there’s no law of reciprocity. They quickly move in to fill a leadership vacuum opened up by unnatural human behaviour by becoming the boss themselves, which leads to all sorts of problems, some of which are dangerous.
The best trainers use pressure and release to push the animal to respond, but generally pull back before they “blow up” and enter an agitated state where learning is nearly impossible, she added.
“There’s a time to relax, and there’s a time to work,” she said. “Connection can be used in both.” [email protected]