The Filly, The Mare and the Good Story of Stress

We have ALL been there.  Myself included.

In fact I fight with it daily!

Doubt.  Self doubt.  A noxious gas that creeps into your lungs, your mind and your heart.  One day you are a confident, easy going person, sure of your choices, confident in your actions and going about your business with clarity and ease.

The next thing you know, you’re sitting at home scared to leave, because if you did go out what might happen?   You find yourself unable to make a choice, because you’re scared to do the wrong thing.  What if being scared of doing the wrong thing is the wrong thing?  What if I am doing more damage by inaction?  The vicious cycle starts.

Horses have a way of amplifying our faults.  Whatever ‘Thing’ it is which we have a problem with and need to work on, simply being in the presence of a horse will bring that ‘Thing’ to the surface.  There is a really good explanation for this phenomenon.

Horses hate tension.  They absolutely avoid- if they can- stress, fear, trouble and problems.  Which is funny because so many of our horses seem to actively choose to be troubled around us… at least that is what it feels like sometimes. Right?

What if you are wrong!  Your horse is not a dickhead.  Your horse is being a horse.  He feels what you feel.  He also feels what youdo not knowthat you feel!  Read that again if it twisted your mind a bit.  It’s very straightforwards!

It has nothing to do with them trying to wrong you!   It is not personal.  It is biological.  Horses are not TRYING to make your life more difficult.  Even those horses labelled as ‘naughty’, ‘cheeky’ or ‘a bit of a shit’, when you really get passed all of that human judgement that troubled horse if left to his own devices is mostly an alright kind of guy.

Of course horses have characters, some more spicy than others.  Spicy is a new word I use to describe horses since now living in Spain.  I love a SPICY HORSE!

Horses are hardwired to sense tension in their environment.  Once they sense tension, they will display that tension.  That tension may or may not originate from their personality.   Why?  How?

Imagine a herd of wild horses.  Imagine open pastures, true wildnerness and non-domesticated horses roaming unchecked as nature would have them.  Imagine a herd of about 15 horses.  Mares and their foals, a few yearlings, that colt who is almost too old to remain in the herd and will soon be pushed out to find a bachelor band, and a stallion.  All are spread out over a couple of acres of grass and grazing.  Suddenly, a young filly by the edge of the group catches a smell in the wind.  That smell is not from a herbivore, it is a carnivorous scent, a predator maybe.  Horses are prey and do not have time to consider maybe in such a circumstance.  Bang!  The fillies posture changes from long and low, breathing deep and grazing, to head high, eyes wide, nostrils flared, body tense.  Ready to move.

Like dominoes, the herd members, many of whom she has been with for her whole life, and those members been with each other for life, particularly the mares, immediately feel that filly’s change in tension and they mimic her in kind.

Many herd members had heads deep in grass, blissed out horses grazing to hearts content and could not see that filly’s posture change.  But they felt it.   Once they felt it, they mirrored exactly the same alert and aware posture of the filly too.  They do this to be safe.  If a friend senses a threat, it could be a threat to them too!  I will say that again:  if a FRIEND senses a threat it might be a threat to them too!


Your horse might be sensing your stress, your emotions, your tensions, because they see you as a friend… not as an enemy!  But SO many horse people take it the other way.  Their horse behaves or ‘feels’ badly, and they take it as a sign their horse dislikes them!

If they saw you as an enemy they would not want anything to do with you.  If they know you are gentle, kind and ‘one of them’, they then allow your inner state to mirror their outer state.  A horse absorbing their humans ‘negative’ energies is a sign of the growing connection, the bond.  The important part is that the horse is FEELING the human and responding to what they feel.  Training what we FEEL is important in this case.  This is why I relentlessly say that I train with Emotions not Behaviours, though behavioural change is the ultimate result.

If you had a smart trainer, they would wrangle the pair of you to start reflecting each others POSITIVE energies, instead of negative.  But so many trainers are taught to shut down these systems of connection, so their teach this to their students as well.  Because when I horse displays such mirror emotional behaviours is CAN be unsafe… for a short while.  Few that come from a traditional training background (I hazard to say!) have seen what happens if you ALLOW the horse his FULL EXPRESSION, for better or worse, and wait for the storm to pass.  Few from tradition know what is on the other side of that.  Many have felt it, but do not know how to articulate it to their students and are scared to do so.  So they stay quiet, it was a private journey for them and a special horse.  Their students remain in the dark with their struggle and continue to think behavioural ‘correction’ is the answer.  Whilst broad rivers of unaddressed emotion run unchecked through their relationship with their horse, silently damaging their heart for their horse.  These ‘secrets’ should not be only for those who have struggled and survived.  I do not believe that we should encourage the struggle more than we have to.  Just give people information that they need to feel better!

This is the part I need to be careful and where I often lose people, because I start to dabble in an area that for many feels like some kind of vague magic or superstition.  It’s not.  It is biology.  Whether you believe me or not, many horse folks with more experience and brains than me seem to agree, that horses can SENSE the emotions, energy or state of tensions versus relaxation of their comrades without even having to make visual confirmation.

I believe it is a sense that humans do not understand because we are schooled as children to eliminate all of our instincts.  This is why children have such a natural ease and understanding with horses.  As adults, we can ‘re-learn’ our instincts.   Instincts also translate into horse-sense or feel.   Indeed, hundreds of schools of Horsemanship deal with exactly this topic:  FEEL

Returning now to our wild horse herd, the Alert Filly, nostrils flaring can still smell the carnivores scent in the grass.  Now, a rustle in the grass not far from the herd matches with the direction the wind is blowing the carnivor’s scent from.  A young horse, The Filly doesn’t have the experience to know what to do.  Hollow yet dynamic, she trots high headed and full of extra energy into the centre of the herd.  In her anxiety, she catches several other yearlings with her wheeling them off grass and towards the herds center… but where is the centre now?  Now, the herd is disintegrating into early stages of panic.   Some older horses who got caught in the foray, but are stiffer, slower to respond are none the less equally worried and some stumble among the chaos.  The Filly told her herd with her tension that there might be a serious problem, prepare to flee.  They all heard, sensed, saw and felt her alarm!

An older mare, has been observing this ‘change of emotional status of the herd’ and been paying attention.  The Older Mare has been through this before.  If you have smelled the carnivore, herd the carnivore, probably that carnivore is either very young and bad at its job, or not an immediate threat to her or her family.  It is the predator you never knew was coming that you need to be scared of.   In that case, she knows that her herd is mostly healthy and ready to run with barely a seconds notice… biology is on her side.  If worse came to worse, she knows she can kick or bite, and stand her ground if she really must, especially for her foals.

The Older Mare stands her ground.  Taking loud snorting scents through flared nostrils. The ever increasing tension through the herd brings all members from peaceful grazing to tense movement, they wheel and adjust and stand behind the mare, her stillness is a sign that she is still thinking… not yet panicking.  The herd craves a calm, thoughtful presence to guide them when they are scared.  The Older Mare is this for them now, they stand behind her, mimicing her alert and still posture.  Through doing nothing, the mare has brought a dangerously mobile and chaotic herd to an organised standstill.  She continues to smell, to wait and observe… what is that scary scent and noise in the grass?  Are we in danger of predators now?    She adjusts her head, wanting to assess the potential threat.

Out of the grass emerges a juvenile fox.  Just having gone out on his own, the young fox is certainly not big enough to be a threat to her herd.  He is curious, but not hungry.  He smells of meat from the dead carcass of a rabbit he scavenged the night before.  He is tired and hunting mostly for a den to sleep and be safe and start his adult life.  He scared the horses through his presence, but is not interested in them.

Ah, the mare has indentified the fox.  He is small.  He is lethargic.  No threat, at least not immediately.  The mare moves her herd away, just to be sure!  Not because the young fox is a direct threat, but because his presence makes her herd tense.  Tension, the mare knows, is not healthy for her herd.    Death is the ending of life quickly.  But stress is a slow death.  Stress would make her herd stop eating, drinking or behaving normally.A predator comes and goes.  Stress comes and stays.  She moves them away from the travels of the fox, so her herd can relax again and return to normality. 

I believe that Horsemanship is now moving in this direction.  A lot of trainers have evolved way past the Prey vs Predator theories of behavioural conditioning and have gone deeper into understanding the deeper tensions, stresses, fears held by horses and humans alike.  Understanding how deeply held problems, that the horse or human may or may not be aware of, and how these forces interact is an incredibly interesting and powerful way of working with horses.  It has personally brought me some amazing moments and great personal satisfaction.

Plain talk:  if you are a stressed out person generally, you may not be fully aware of HOW stressed you are.  Just like a fish is not consciously aware of the water they live in- a stressed person does not always know how deep, high or wide is the river of stress they have built their life upon.

Put that person in the path of a horse, and the horse will ABSOLUTELY feel that stress too.  Your body is sending stress signals to the horse.  Increased heart rate, breathing, sweating.  Your smell, the quality of your voice.  The quality of your movements, especially your unpractised movements or casual movements.

Sadly, before the stressed person even put a hand on a horse that horses knows if that person is sending out radio signals of:




or if that person is broadcasting signals of




Upon this fact alone, Horsemanship techniques can succeed and fail.

It can be a difficult truth for us to admit; ‘ I am not aware of the energy I bring to my horse’.

Before I lose you, to any guilt or shame you might feel, if you think you fall into that catagory, the good news is, YOU CAN CHANGE ALL OF THIS!

If you are brave.

If you are honest.

If you are willing.

YOU CAN CHANGE YOUR INNER STATE!  It is a simple process.  Not complicated.   Please, when I say simple, I do NOT mean easy.  Changing yourself is difficult.  It is mountain climbing for the soul.  The degree to which you will succeed depends on your fitness and how much you enjoy climbing that mountain!

Perhaps we should be interested in helping ourselves be less stressed, less fearful less neurotic just for the sake of our own health and well being.  Personally, I would not really do this just for myself.

I would do it for a horse. I have done it for a horse.  For more than one.  In fact, each horse I have met has given me gifts.  These gifts from the horse show me EXACTLY and PRECISELY what it is I need to work on inside myself first, in order to succeed with them.  Impatience.  Sadness.  Apathy.  Stress.  Fear.  Indecision.  Confusion.  Ignorance. Just a few of the lessons individual horses have brought forwards for me!  I thank them for that.  I honour them for that.

Horsemanship is a journey of working on yourself.  Then the work with horses after that is really very straightforwards and can be full of such joy!

Letting go of the chaos can be hard.  Chaos might not feel ‘good’ but it feels familiar.  Better the devil you know, then the devil you don’t.  For this reason many are too scared to let go of their negative emotions, stress and behaviours.  Because they define themselves by these inner states… they do not know who they would be without them… empty?  Empty of emotion?  Many enjoy the struggle.  They need stress to feel alive.

What would happen if we just let that all go?  If we sought for a way forwards with ourselves and with our horses that does not involve going from one crisis to another?

I am very much on the cusp of this myself and it is SUPER exciting and the results are BLOWING MY MIND!

The awareness I have of my inner states, identifying what doesn’t work anymore or belong in my future and letting it go.  The horses are like;

“Oh!  Hello!  I see you now.  I can see you clearly.  So, what are we doing now?’

One thought on “The Filly, The Mare and the Good Story of Stress

  1. I love this! Highlighting the importance of interconnection between horse and horseperson. Intelligently and thoughtfully written.


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