Equine Self Expression
October 3, 2012
I feel each horse is a delightful individual. When I go to work each day with this in mind I have a great time with every horse I meet. Expression is the way each horse makes itself known. Just like us, horses have postures and eye movements, breathing patterns and ear positions, which tell us a lot about who they are and how they feel. As a trainer, my main work is to listen well and to enlarge my powers of perception. That may sound simple, but it has taken my lifetime to keep improving on it and to help others begin to develop their own powers of perception around their horse. Movement is a large part of the way animals communicate. As a trainer who has built a career around the health and happiness of the equine athlete, I listen and watch horses move very carefully. Listening is a funny way to think about movement, but sound is one of our main sensory perceptions. Each hoof beat will have its own sound, and knowing how to influence the weight and fall of a hoof while riding is something horses respect and connect to. The softer the sound of the hoof meeting the ground, the more balanced the horse and the more graceful the movement. Sound helps me identify where a horse places more weight in each given gait and in each movement it performs.
Listening to the sound and rhythm of breath also allows me to understand each individual horse and how it feels about the work I am asking it to do. Breath has been used for centuries to steady or enhance the "chi" or energy in a body. Breath work is a known healing modality and is practiced by many across the world, yet in the horse world so little is written about breathing patterns as reflections of healthy movement and healthy minds. Listening to a horses breathe while learning a new task or movement is one of the clearest indicators of how well a horse is able to understand your request and how well it will be able to perform that particular movement on that particular day. Listening to the horses breath therefore informs me when to release an aid as well as when it may be ready to receive an aid. This is particularly true with younger, greener horses as well as with hotter, more excitable horses.
I am most concerned when there is no breathing pattern at all and the horse holds its breath. This often comes along with us holding our own breath, but it also comes when a horse is stressed, confused and frightened. A horse who holds its breath needs our utmost attention, and when it can let down enough to take a breath we honor it carefully and with true compassion. Listening to breath is much more than an indicator of fitness or fatigue. It takes patience and heightened powers of perception to slow down long enough to hear what your horse is saying with its breath. One good riding exercise is to go out by yourself, just you and your horse, to a place you feel really safe together. The only purpose of this ride is to listen. First you will listen to each foot fall at the walk, trot and canter. Can you hear the sound of one foot landing harder than the others at any ot the gaits? When you change direction does this hoof still land harder? Is the rhythm an even four, two and three beats in each gait? Is there a hurried pattern which creates a broken ryhthm? After a while change your focus to your horse's breath. Can you hear it? What is the quality of its breath, and how does it change when you are in the three different gaits? How does your horse's breath sound when its head is high or when its lower? Listen, listen, listen. At the end of this ride listen to the sounds of the world around you, because that is what your horse is hearing as he rides around and plays with you.