Living in-relation with horses: support

In this post, I want to introduce one of the most basic issues for living in-relation with horses, that of support. From the relational perspective of inter-being, giving support is our key responsibility in this relation.

Working with Corey Ryan, I am continually learning the significance of support in a horse-human relation, and how this is analogous to that called for in a student-teacher relation. When I am with Corey, I find that I am able to let go of any worries or fearful anticipations and remain present to what is at hand, open to possibilities and confident in trying things out. Quite simply, I feel supported in this learning experience. I am also very aware that, in Corey’s presence, horses remain or become calm and relaxed, and, in that state, curious about their environment and capable of learning new things. Clearly, then, we are sharing this experience of support and calmness.  And, so, I make the rather obvious connection: Corey is giving me the sort of support that I need to give horses, and through his support I am developing the capacity to support them.

Before going any further, perhaps I should reiterate something I said in the last post in response to the question ‘how do I know what a horse is seeing and, in this case, feeling?’ And the answer is that I know through the connection, because ‘I’ am part of our shared experience of feeling supported, safe, calm.  Furthermore, it is important to recognize the relational logic of supporting-and-being supported, which means that in giving support we participate simultaneously in the experience of being supported. This has crucial implications for every encounter we have with horses.

Horse trainer Tom Dorrance, 83, gently holding arms around neck of young horse. (Photo by Acey Harper/The LIFE Images Collection via Getty Images/Getty Images)

Taking inspiration from the legendary horseman, Tom Dorrance (1910 – 2003), Corey says that in everything he does with horses he is aiming to provide help and support. Above all else this involves a calm, consistent reliability. These are the qualities of a teacher who encourages students to be creative, that is, to be open and curious and confident in exploring possibilities. Like good teachers in the classroom, in any field, our role is to provide a safe space so that horses can maintain their curiosity, be relaxed and happy in being with us and learning with us, and feel safe and confident in unfamiliar situations.  Corey insists, then, that support does not involve a propping up or ‘micro-managing’, but rather giving just what is required to help a horse find its way, and then getting out of the way.

This trustworthy support is a form of leadership. However, it is very different from what is commonly understood as leadership in the horse world. While trustworthy leadership is based on a connection and togetherness between horse and human, many understandings of leadership in both conventional horsemanship and what I shall call conventional ‘natural horsemanship’, are based on the logic of separation. This is true of all approaches that involve domination and control, requiring submission, obedience or ‘respect’ from a horse.

Whenever ‘we’ are acting on a ‘horse’, trying to make ‘it’ do some thing, we are living the logic of separation. While this logic might be obvious in the case of forceful methods of training, it is also at work in more subtle and kinder approaches. For example, a lot of natural horsemanship people engage in practices of driving and pushing horses away, rather than finding ways of inviting a connection with us. I’ll be returning to this issue in a while. The logic of separation also governs approaches which teach horses to work off cues: I do this (make a sound, a gesture or whatever), and you do that. Although some work done using this approach can look impressive, once you get your eye in, you can see clearly that it involves control and domination rather than communication between horse and human. Awareness of the use of cues is important because it can also easily be inadvertent and, then, without realizing it, we are no longer communicating in connection.

Mark RashidFor an understanding of how a supportive form of leadership works through connection, the work of the contemporary horseman, Mark Rashid, is a good starting point. Mark is renowned for his observations over many years of the social dynamics and leadership in both domestic and feral herds. Through these, he has seriously challenged the view common amongst trainers and instructors that humans need to be like ‘alpha’ horses in a herd. He says that he has always been particularly interested in the question of why some horses get along so well with others, while others not so well.

A horse’s world is not really one of pushing and shoving and fighting, as some folks might want us to believe. But rather it’s one of wanting to get along, whether with other horses in the herd or with the people they come in contact with.  … horses just want to find a place of solace and comfort…. all we have to do is find a way to create that place for them. (Horses Never Lie p. 51).

To approach a horse with an ‘alpha mindset’, he says, often involves having the horse’s discomfort as the primary goal. And then what he sees is resignation rather than contentment.

Horses in domestic herds that might be described as ‘alpha’, that is, those that push other horses away from food and water and exert their dominance, are not leaders – horses keep their distance from them. A ‘chosen’ leader is one that has a quiet and consistent manner from one day to the next. When they begin to drink for example, others will follow them and they will all drink together. There are no threats, attacks, or fearful reactions. These leaders keep out of scuffles between ‘boss’ horses and wait till the dust has settled before moving to food, water, shade. And, with their leader, all horses in the band get along together. (Horses Never Lie 44-47).

Mark observes that in domestic herds there is a lot more pushing and shoving, biting and kicking than in herds in the ‘wild’. He puts this down to the disruption of horses coming and going all the time, and ‘people causing turmoil’ (Horses Never Lie 81). If pushing behaviour is exacerbated through interactions with humans, this raises the question: might it be the case that the ‘horse’ behaviour that trainers suggest people emulate is in fact more typically ‘human’ behaviour of dominance and control?

In a feral band or herd, the leader is likely to be an older mare (in domestic herds it can be a gelding). While males come and go, mares stay in a band for life, rearing and socialising foals, and older mares obviously have more experience – they know, for example, where there is water, food, safety and shelter. A male band might be at a little distance, but they will still follow the mares. All are looking for reliability, trustworthiness, comfort and ease. The social dynamics of a herd mean that the lead mare is not acting as a separate entity but rather leads, cares for, the herd as a whole. (Whole heart, whole horse 94 -).

From his herd observations, Mark advocates ‘passive leadership’. To reiterate, he says that ‘all we have to do is find a way to create that place of solace for them’. This is true leadership. It is not about doing things to horses or making them do things. Rather, it is about the capacity to be with them, and to listen to them, and to provide what is called for in creating that safe space, with this horse, in this situation. And, as he says, horses know the difference between when you are doing something with them and when you are doing something to them (Whole heart, whole horse 198-9).

Look at the photo above of Mark with a horse. I don’t know anything of the circumstances of this photo, but something has obviously caught the horse’s attention and it is on alert. You’ll notice that Mark isn’t doing anything; he is just standing there calmly, being with the horse, with his hand on its withers, in a supporting gesture.  That gesture, and his whole being, is saying in a way: ‘I’m here, you’re safe, you can rely on me’. When horses are distracted or fearful, they get lost, just as we do when we are distracted or fearful. And so, we have to be there for them, calmly bringing them back to the connection. They need to be able to trust us to guide them.

This brings us back to the importance of having an awareness of our state of being and the capacity to remain in a mindful connected state ourselves. It cannot be overemphasised how sensitive horses are to our state – they are attuned to very subtle changes, and so can teach us a lot about how we are, about who we are. If we listen. (Hence the title of Mark’s book: Horses Never Lie.) This is a starting point then for our developing the capacity to provide that safe, supportive space in which a horse-human relation can thrive.

In the following post, I will give just one simple example of support through connection.

PS In response to this post, a friend who is not familiar with the horse world raised a very good question. She said that I spoke about how horses learn but not what they learn. This simple question made me think about what I was taking for granted. Fundamentally, horses and humans are engaged in a never-ending process of teaching and learning how to communicate with each other. Through this communication, we hope to teach them how to move with balance and rhythm in all paces (and, to be able and happy to do so with humans on their backs!). Moving with balance is in fact the most comfortable way for horses to move. However, instinctively, they don’t necessarily do so, particularly when they are running out of fear. And so we come back to the importance of  a safe space where horse and human can be and learn together.

With thanks to Andrew, Anita, Corey, Suzi and Marisa




2 thoughts on “Living in-relation with horses: support

  1. Thank you dear Ann

    I am getting my first dog in a week (for my 40th birthday) and it’s amazed me how many people have referred to it as ‘my baby’ as a single woman without children .

    The thing I am most excited about is ‘living in relation’ to an animal (noting of course that I am one too). She is not my baby. She is her own.

    Your introductory paragraph sung to me as I had thought the very same thing about being with an animal. I had thought to the way I teach and also how I learn best.

    In these times of covid-19 the puppy school I had booked Indiana into has closed but it essentially the training is all off lead and recognises many of the things you are talking about in regards to support and listening.

    I am grateful as the owner of the school has given me some tips… the major one is to look at them in the eyes. This reminded me of another teaching/learning experience… a lecture and subsequent tute at UNSW with yourself and Andrew about ‘the gaze’. Funny now, again in the age of covid and as a single who lives alone… how important being seen actually is. I look forward to greeting Indiana in the eyes.

    With love during these transformative times to you both x

    1. Dear Kate,
      lovely to hear from you in these difficult times, and I am so glad that the piece spoke to you. Yes, I have a sense that there will be a lot in common with approaches to being with dogs and horses. You might be interested in the paragraph I’ve just added at the end in response to a comment from another friend.
      Enjoy playing with Indiana, and best wishes for your birthday.
      with love, Ann

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