Living in-relation with horses: being grounded

Gardeners speak of the transformative effect of having their hands in the earth. In gardening, we connect with a life bigger than ourselves, with life-and-death cycles of plants, with earth and air, and worms and bees. But, typically, it’s the grounding experience itself that is spoken of as the moment that brings about a change in our being. Having our hands in the ground has a wonderfully calming effect, alleviating anxieties and chatter in our heads, allowing us to come out of ourselves and into relation with the world around us.

The ecological state of being grounded is essential to our capacity to connect with our horses. It is essential to calm presence and stillness. Interestingly, the metaphor most commonly used by horse-people to describe being grounded is that of a tree – we need to be like a tree for our horses, reliably there, with our feet-roots firmly planted, in connection with the environment. This is the case whether we are working ‘on the ground’ or in the saddle: in our horse-human body, we feel right down to our hoofs-feet. Acquiring this state requires slow, deep breathing, a relaxation of our shoulders, opening of our chests and hearts, and a lowering of our centre of gravity as we ‘get out of our heads’. It also involves a softening, for being grounded is a state of strength with that softness essential to our capacity to provide a safe space in which our horses can soften and relax. (For an excellent account of being grounded with horses see N. Claremon Zen in Motion, 1991.)

The tree metaphor is typically used in situations when our horses are worried or distracted, when they are ‘up’ with adrenalin and in particular need of calm trustworthy leadership. Unfortunately, it is in those situations when we most need to be grounded for our horses, that we can find it most difficult to maintain this state. For example, if my horse is worried about something, I can easily become jumpy myself, unhelpfully identifying with her, thus making matters worse for both of us. Reacting self-protectively, I might start to subtly crab away, or move my feet anxiously, or get into a rush. When riding, if, for whatever reason, I go into a self-protective mode, I’ll lean forward, hunching my shoulders and closing my chest. When in that ungrounded position I distinctly feel like a separate ‘human’ being, which tells me just how unsupported my horse must be feeling.

In challenging situations, Corey will tell me that I need to ‘dig deep’, which I take to mean ‘be grounded’ and establish those connecting roots in the depth of my horse-human being. Here is an example of a ‘digging deep’ scenario: I’m going to work with my horse Peridot, but all the horses on the property are a little unsettled by things happening in the environment on this day. Before entering Peridot’s paddock, I breathe deeply, clear my head of chatter, take care to slow down, and, allowing my weight to drop, have awareness of my feet on the ground. I imagine Peri and me happily meeting and then grooming together. With trust in the connection, rather than anticipation of difficulties, I go in to meet her.

Peridot is generally pretty relaxed, but on this day she is on alert. As I put on her halter, I invite her to soften and then stroke her. I wait till there is a little change before I walk off with calmness and confidence – ‘there’s nothing to worry about here’. We begin our grooming routine. Now grooming is always an important groundwork activity in itself. Never merely a chore to be got through before the real thing, it is crucial for establishing a trustworthy connection. On this occasion, I know that we could be grooming for some time, that, indeed, this might be all we do today as Peri is up and down with what is going on around her. When she gets distracted, I just keep the same grooming rhythm going, and keep my feet still. Eventually, she really softens, her head dropping and her eyes closing with pleasure. Together, we relax into the grooming-being groomed.

Throughout this process, Corey has been there, a calm, unobtrusive presence, grooming his horse at the same time. In this way, he supports me in maintaining a groundedness and awareness of my state of being. When both of our horses have relaxed, we head off down the hill, down the road to the ‘play’ area. To keep myself grounded and avoid getting into a rush, I take things step by step, breaking activities down into parts. So, we are just going through the gate, then, we are carefully walking down a slippery slope to get to the road, and so on. I hold expectations lightly. After doing various things on the ground – some turns and transitions – I decide that we have a sufficiently good connection for me to be able to ride her. And, I maintain exactly the same state of being as that on the ground.

When riding, if I maintain a ‘having faith’, grounded state, breathing deeply, keeping my chest open, weight down, I can feel my whole horse-human body, and the difference it makes for my horse is unmistakable. She will relax and get in-tune, rather than try to take-over or look for things to worry about out of lack of confidence in my trustworthiness. And, if I imagine-feel the placement of our hoofs-feet on the ground, I notice that she will start to take care with her-our feet, placing them carefully rather than rushing over or knocking poles or logs. In short, being grounded means that I’m better able to maintain a connection, and in a better place to respond to whatever arises. It makes us both safer.

With thanks to Andrew, Corey and Trish

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