Check out any kitschy or cliché horse movies or children’s television shows and the word spirit will appear regularly. Prior to employment of this word the horse in question will have done something extreme, such as a rear, or a strike, a buck or a kick and is often accompanied but those cheap, canned neighing sound effects.
“He is high-spirited!” Wrote a scriptwriter who may or may not understand the horse.
It is a word people tend to shy away from as we get older. As our abilities with horses progress we become focused on technique, upon our training and discipline. We consider the method we choose to apply and the horse becomes the catalyst for the method we chose on their behalf. Words like spirit, have no place in such a grown up reality. It is far too ‘Woo’ and naive in its genesis. By the way, what we used to call ‘high-spirits’ we now have a slew of smarter words for, thanks to our education. What we once called the spirit of the horse we now can categorise in a variety of different ways, the vernacular will depend largely upon your discipline of riding, your country and your culture.
You may think this is all just semantics. But I believed Maya Angelou when she said,
“Words are things. I am convinced. One day scientists will be able to measure the power of words. You must be careful of the words you use. Because they will get into your wallpaper, your upholstery, your clothes and eventually into you!”
The words we use, both our internal monologue and those we are brave enough to speak out loud, are an accurate reflection not only of our expectations, but of what results we will get. If you call a horse crazy, that is what you will get. If you call a horse stupid, that is what you will get.
For me, spirit has a deep meaning with horses. I am not a religious person but I do consider myself spiritual. Horses are like a spiritual practise for me. When I work with them or spend time with them, I find myself entering this expansive, timeless awareness where everything is both quieter and more amplified at the same time. Working with them I am able to meet with my authentic self. This ‘self’ is the one that is devoid of ego, anxiety or conscious thought. Through being with horses I am able to shed the spirital cloak that this life has burdened me with and I am able to become myself in the purist sense. This maybe be an uncomfortable overshare for some people. But generosity is the seed of connection and I am trying to send this energy out there into the world… and hope it connects with others like me.
With horses, I enter an almost medative state. Which is why I so much prefer riding alone and being with horses in the absense of other people (for now). My words come slow to me because verbal communication pales in comparison to the whole body communicative experience that is horsemanship. Words absolutely fail to encapsulate the minutiae of what can pass between a horse and a human if you shut up long enough to allow it. A whole essays worth of meaning can pass between the human and his horse in the matter of a few seconds. Whether or not you can pay attention to that and apply meaning to it, is your responsibility.
I am not afraid to say that a horse has a spirit, in a spiritual sense, just like a human does. I believe that it is not only possible to use the metaphysical world in horsemanship, but I believe it is the key difference between quality results and results that are purely mechanical. Mechanical results with horses lack a special quality that becomes more than the purely tangible but the artistic and interpretative. The top horsemen and women of today, I believe understand this… whether they are at liberty to admit it or not, is another matter.
Say to a sceptic that your horsemanship has a spiritual significance and function, and you will lose clients faster than the horse flies of August find fresh stable scrapings. But you may also encourage others who feel the same to come out of the woodwork.
Indeed traditional ‘horse breaking’ is intended to do just this. To break the spirit of a horse. I know what this feels like. I had a ballet teacher who openly admitted to me when I began training with him that, and I quote verbatim;
“I need to BREAK you.”
As he said this he mimed cracking a stick over his knee. He was tall, black haired, eagle nosed, very German, with dark brown eyes that in reality were black. I will never forget the chilling way he lowered his gaze and held my eyes unblinkingly as he said this, a sinister smile spreading across his square features.
He then embarked on a 10 month mission, from 9am to 12 noon, six days a week, to break my spirit. In hindsight, though this treatment gave me superior mechanical function which allowed me to find professional work as a classical ballet dancer, he didn’t break my spirit but he did mortally wound my love for ballet. He training also broke bones in my feet that required surgury to fix and nearly ruptured the tendons of my knees had I not insisted on sick leave.
Before this ballet was like horses are to me today. The center of my universe. It was the first thing I thought about in the morning. And the last thing on my mind when I went to sleep. After that year with this teacher, that love never returned. I do not hold resentment to my teacher for this. Quite the opposite. I believe he is in his heart a good man, but he was teaching me the only way he knew how. Through dominance, aggression, spiritual and mental warfare and intimidation.
There is a ‘new school’ of horse training which I believe has the same effect on horses, although the methods are totally different. Both result in a horse who is disconnected from their spirit, and by spirit I mean their innate character, purpose, energy and expression which was their birthright. Not all abuse is obvious. And sometimes I respect more a trainer who is ‘ugly’ than the other type I am about to describe. Because at least the ‘ugly’ trainer is open about what they are doing, one can clearly identify them and easily avoid them. The other is far more insidious and far more dangerous.
I speak of the manipulative trainer. The wolf in sheep’s clothing. This person is experienced, educated, well spoken and highly recommended. This person has a loyal following. A following of people almost cultish in their devotion. This trainer, when you watch them, will rarely be seen as being openly violent. But I do believe they are being emotionally violent to the horse. The abuse is invisible, long term and very real.
What is worse, the slap on the face, or the person who manipulates you over time to slap your own face, as they watch?
Such a person will tolerate and accept the horse only through a certain prism of behaviours and expressions. If the horse deviates even slightly from these accepted formulae then the retribution is subtle, swift and finite. The horse learns that he can only have peace and acceptance if he shows the human only one side of himself. He must hide his authentic power, potential, thoughts, opinions and energy from the human. Because that human wants to see only the pretty, the (bio)mechanically ‘correct’, the easy to witness emotional states and the parts of the horse that make them feel safe, secure and successful. Spirit? What is this now but a long forgotten memory of innocence?
If he is ‘calm’, ‘obedient’ or ‘correct’… the trainer gives carrots, praise and encouragement. If the horse shows something equally important to the horses development, such as anxiety, fear, or rage, they get a smack with a stick, a slap, a firm NO. NO, do NOT show me that. I don’t want to see it. Sometimes these difficult emotions scare that trainer or human so much that their embark on a journey of horsemanship where they NEVER even encounter such states in a horse. But these are the same horses that are ‘perfect’ most of the time, and then abandon their rider when the rider needs them most. They are the same horses who take the human to a certain level and then fail to reach their utmost potential. These are the horses who eventually need coercion to progress rather than communication.
I have witnessed the effects this has on a horse and it feels like riding concrete. The horse has ONE GEAR. One mode of expression and energy. It is like driving a car that has first and maybe second gear and that is ALL. The same horse actually NEEDS a stick to get going. The horse learned that if they showed the human their TRUE energetic potential or SPIRIT that they would be manipulated and disciplined back inside a box which allowed this trainer to feel safe and successful.
This is not my modus operandi. I welcome ALL forms of expression from the horse. I am the same when I work with people. Dancers who have worked with me on a choreography can attest, that I fully welcomed that dancer if they became frustrated, angry or annoyed either with me or with themselves. If their ‘difficult’ emotion was directed at me, it was valuable information for me to properly understand the needs of this soul, and therefore provide for them authentically going forwards. If the difficult emotional was about that souls unhappiness in themselves, I knew that I was likely the only safe place they could find to express this, without being alone.
The result was ALWAYS a dancer/horse who was more willing to be GENEROUS and TRUE with me. More willing to be creative. Keeping the door open for ALL expressions, though made my life more difficult in certain moments, always gave a better quality of rapport, and results later.
The manipulative trainer, no matter how nice they appear on the surface has a deep mistrust, loathing and confusion for creativity. They do not want surprises. They do not want to be confronted by reality. They only want the nice things, the pretty things, the things which feed their ego and percieved sense of success.
Have you ever sat on a horse who was never openly abused, but who you felt to be ‘lazy’, without energy or without the willingness to contribute with the human? These horses seem ‘far away’. I have counted to this date three sticks per horse sometimes. One for ‘each shoulder’ of the horse apparently, held by the rider and one lunging ‘aid’ held by said trainer. All three sticks apparently necessary tools to get the horse to simply trot in balance.
I have never found a stick to be a long-term training need or solution. If I used them it has been for safety or for development of my energy and were always thrown into the mud at the soonest possible moment. If you have to hit your horse with a stick to get simple transitions, or worse merely hold the stick as an open threat to obtain basic communication with a horse then there has been a serious misunderstanding somewhere. You call the horse lazy? Maybe the amount of effort and work it takes to understand that horses energetic needs is too much for you, and it is much more expedient to use a stick. How lazy of you.
There are no shortcuts to equestrian excellence. In this sense I am old school believe in time, persistence, courage and patience.
A horse with a broken spirit is not always the sad drooping creature in a kill pen. Or the shaking and abused creature you ‘saved’ from previous owner. Sometimes these creatures can have their spirits taken away slowly, peicemeal soul crushing. Overseen and encouraged by manipulative owners and trainers, who are more concerned with how there are perceived by others, than they are about their horses deep inner world.
I belive this so fully that I am willing to admit that it is highly possible I have slid into this pitfall myself at times. I am humble enough to admit that. I am aware enough to BE AWARE of this potential that all of us have. I have a contract with myself to be aware of this potential at all times and through this awareness make hundreds of tiny choices that avoid this reality.
If a horse shows me their ‘spirit’, I never feel afraid or worried about this. No matter how hard it can be to witness. So long as the boundaries for the horse and human are safe, and we are both physically protected, I allow all modalities of expression in the horse. How else would it be possible to obtain the WHOLENESS of the horses trust, love and partnership?