Thursday, 14 August 2014

The Centaur Principle

Like anyone who regularly rides lots of different horses I'm very aware that, on horseback, something unique happens: you and the horse cease to be 2 separate entities and can, however temporarily, however partially, become something closer to a single unit - what I'm calling the centaur principle.
While this can, at its best, lead to some of the most magical and harmonious partnerships between horse and rider there are also inevitable communication breakdowns because we and our horses have very, very different ways of viewing and interpreting the same world. 
Lucy Rees says it best, perhaps, in her fantastic book "The Maze":

"Primate societies, and most human ones, are often based on a hierarchical system. It is a pattern repeated among carnivores which, though potentially lethal to each other, need to come together for co-operative hunting...the strong arm rules, might is right.

It is not the only human social pattern but it is one that we and dogs intuitively recognise.
Horses do not. They come together for security and what keeps them together is love, the bonds of friendship and family we also recognise."
When we ride or work with our horses we inevitably influence each other, consciously or unconsciously, and respond to each others' behaviours and emotions. As we try to make sense of our shared experience there are bound to be times of confusion.  

This is partly because we have these contrasting ways of interpreting the world. It can also be because we hold our horses, often, to higher standards of behaviour than we require of ourselves. Kate Sandel put it beautifully in a blog post on her website, Soft and Sound, this week: 

"We hold our own breath and keep tension in our shoulders, but want our horses to relax. 

We come with a mind full of nonsense, but want our horses to concentrate. 

We turn up expecting our horse to provide us with a ‘nice hack’ as we have had a hard day, and then feel disgruntled when our horse doesn’t completely comply with our expectations.  

We spend a lot of time, money, and effort keeping our horses, and very often expect them to ‘perform’ in return.  I don't think they signed up to that deal."
Despite our inability to process our thoughts in the same way, its undeniable that at a physical and emotional level - especially when riding - we and our horses can't help but affect each other's behaviours. 
Our own horse, Charlie, is a brilliant example of this. He tunes in incredibly accurately to his rider's emotions and reflects them faithfully, whether you like it or not. If his rider is frightened he becomes frightened; with a relaxed rider he revels in having a shared purpose and thoroughly understanding the job he does so well.
If you take Charlie out hunting you don't need to be the most perfect rider in the world (luckily for me!). All you need is to be cheerful and confident, do your job (don't lose hounds!) and trust him to take care of his, and then you will both have a wonderful day - you fulfil your side of the bargain and Charlie will more than fulfil his; here at least we have a common objective that we both understand. 
Conversely, its possible to see a horse become steadily more worried and fearful not because he is aware of danger but because he is picking up on the worries and fears of his owner or rider. 

To the horse, it doesn't necessarily make any difference why the human is worried. It may be because of some external problem - a tractor approaching too fast on a single track lane - or it may be that the owner is worried only about the horse's reaction - will he be nervous or unpredictable, is he about to spook or spin? 

Typically, all your horse will pick up on is the level of worry - something is frightening - and ironically, the closer your bond to your horse, the more strongly your own worry will transfer to him. 
Worry, or fear, can then become a self-fulfilling prophecy between horse and rider. The horse is worried because the rider is worried. The rider feels the tension in the horse which feeds his fear - he could be about to explode! The rider has a fear of falling and for the horse this can be equally catastrophic because then he is on his own, left to face a frightening world. 

So whether or not there is really something to worry about becomes immaterial as they are embroiled in a mutual confidence melt-down.  This is the downside, if you like, of the centaur principle - you can't expect your horse to be able to switch off the emotions he feels emanating from you because he can't help but respond to them.

At its worst, this can lead horse and rider into a destructive spiral of tension but this is never inevitable and it can almost always be reversed.
I enjoyed spectating at a clinic recently - run by Kate Sandel as part of her "Head and Heart of Effective Horsemanship" series - where the focus was not only on the horses but also on helping owners and riders to be more confident, positive and creative in themselves and in their relationships with their horses. 
Over 2 days, the difference in the partnerships - as the riders' own mindsets changed - was striking. 

The partnerships were already harmonious and gentle but as the riders' confidence, relaxation and ability to be positive grew their horses became simultaneously calmer, more engaged, more focussed and more expressive. As horses and rider were more in tune they could explore together and push the boundaries in a truly co-operative and rewarding way. 
Its the blessing and the curse of working with horses - we receive true and immediate feedback, whether we like it or not, from our horses who will mirror whether we are confident, fearful, excited, intimidated, bored, distracted, purposeful or confused. 

Its up to us, then, to manage our moods and our outlook as best we can if we want the most positive, productive and peaceful partnership with our horse.

The last word goes to Lucy Rees, again:

"A horse gives you his loyalty because your steadfast good sense, especially at times when his small courage fails him, impresses him, not because you dominate him. If you are safe and unafraid, he wants to be in the same place.


Anonymous said...

Lovely, Nic, and very timely for me. Hope you don't mind that I've posted a link on my blog.

Nic Barker said...

Of course not, Kate - thank you :-)

gina said...

This post is so timely for me. Thanks for the reminder. Recently I had a wonderful day (unrelated to my horse) and went to the barn and rode. She was light, responsive and we had one of the best rides in months. My life in general right now has a bit more worry then that one bright day and the difference in my horse is so striking. Your post helps to confirm my own observations with Drifter and I.

Calm, Forward, Straight said...

"...ironically, the closer your bond to your horse, the more strongly your own worry will transfer to him."

Ironically, this bit makes me feel better about the occasional fear spiral. ;D

Beautiful, timely post Nic - thanks.

Nic Barker said...

:-) Its all about understanding it - glad its made sense to you guys too!