Along for the Ride: How do you form a deep connection with your horse?

by Robyn Schiller

Robyn is the wife of horse (and people) trainer Warwick Schiller. She invites you to join her as she journeys through her life as trainer’s wife, mother, businesswoman and nationally competitive rider.

I’m guilty of not really taking the time to fully understand a horse’s nature in the past. I’d get upset when they didn’t do what I wanted or act how I wanted. I took it personally. I got mad. Sometimes I took it out on them with a jerk or kick. It’s only been in the last year that I’ve become a real student of the horse. I feel bad about not taking the time to fully understand my horses and truly listen to what they were trying to tell me. I wish I could change what I’ve done with them. Like I’ve said before, now that I know better, I try and do better. However, it is now one of those see/unsee topics!

I’ve come to form the opinion that if we are going to own or ride or interact with horses then it is our duty to learn about how they think so that we can honor that commitment to them. We need to learn where they are coming from. We need to empathize with them. I have to thank Warwick for looking outside of his comfort zone and sharing what he’s discovered with me and everyone else in the last year. Really, I think it is very brave to open himself up and say so publicly that he doesn’t have all the answers and that he is seeking a deeper connection with the horses.

I think the biggest thing that we need to understand about horses (because it is the biggest hurdle that I see) is that they aren’t looking for a friend or a lover like we are. Many of us use our horses as an escape of some form and when we do that we are thinking about what we want and not what the horse needs. I’ve come to believe what a horse wants most is to know they are safe. If you are to become a dependable “herdmate” then they want to know that you are someone they can count on to keep them safe. They want someone to be mentally present and aware of what they are doing and feeling.   Yes, I’m sorry to say, you might have to put your cell phone away and actually pay full attention to what your horse is “saying” to you.   Further to that, you really need to listen to what they are telling you.

Spooky and anxious horses are often that way because they do not feel like they have control over what happens to them. Think about that for a second. They are giving you valuable information through their actions. The anxious ones feel like they have to be on the lookout for themselves because nobody has proven to them that they “have their back”.  So, they are on high alert all the time and it can show itself to us as a spook or bolt.

Warwick told me a story from his Africa trip that really brought this concept home for me. He said that this happened while he was there, in Kenya, over the summer doing clinics and working with some individuals and their horses. It just so happened that one of the venues was closely situated to where herds of wild zebras and wildebeests roamed around. This gave Warwick an opportunity to observe some of their behaviors and he related those behaviors to horses.

He said that he noticed that while the herd of zebras were together, there was always one zebra who was “on duty”, keeping watch for predators. While the one was on guard, the others would graze, sleep or roll. The zebras never did any of these vulnerable actions if there wasn’t another keeping an eye out. They traded this duty amongst the herd. Each zebra had proven that they were to be trusted through their consistent actions. If the one was on lookout duty, that is what he did, he kept his eyes peeled for predators. He didn’t wander off or chase butterflies or otherwise disengage. He was on the job!

Just like the zebra, a horse’s safety is always top of mind for them. Warwick said that I should think of my horse as a zebra who wants one of his herdmates to ensure his safety – and I am that herdmate! I have to prove to my horse that I’ve got this part handled. I have to become the lookout Zebra! That means paying attention, really paying attention, to your horse.

Once you prove to your horse that you’ve got his back, you will begin to form a relationship with him that allows him to relax and count on you.  Just like people who are close to us, they want to be able to confide in us that they are feeling a little on edge or scared and have the response be one of reassurance and empathy.

There are many ways to start working on this relationship. First you have to forgive yourself for the past. Horses are very forgiving and when you start showing up in the way that your horse wants you to, they will be present with you and not dwell on the past. But, it may take time. Just like any relationship, you have to show your horse that you mean it. We’ve all heard that old adage: Actions speak louder than words. I’m sure we all know someone who has told us that they have changed and maybe even convince us with their words. They fail with their actions and the next time they tell us, we disregard it. Consistently showing your horse that you’ve got his back, that you are present with him, you “hear” what he is saying to you, all of these things will forge the deep connection we all crave with our horses.

Forging this connection with your horse starts with showing up and being mentally present. Take the time to see what he is telling you. Your horse will notice and if you do it consistently enough, there is nothing that the two of you cannot accomplish together!  Be forewarned though, once you start being present with your horse, you may find it happening in other parts of your life!

If you want more details on this process that we are calling “Focus work”, there are several videos in the library that show you what to do.

Have fun!

Thanks for reading.