Clémence Lesimple, PhD, researcher at the University of Rennes in France, found that horses emotions (particularly their negative emotions) can result directly from their interactions with the humans who care for them. You can read an article about the study here, published in The Horse.
We’ve all encountered a horse that seemed shy, standoffish, or even aggressive who was transformed by the love and dedication of a new owner or trainer. This principle of loving care and kindness is referred to as Ahimsa in the yoga tradition. It is one of the main principles which must be integrated into the practice of asana (yoga postures) and into a practitioner’s life as one steps onto the path of yoga.
I think back to the miniature horse we lovingly referred to as Mini Cooper. He was neglected and malnourished, and when my Mom adopted him from Blue Ridge Rescue in Iowa, it was hard to get near him. We took him to Sanborn, the amazing summer camp I was working at as a wrangler, and taught the campers how to be very patient, gentle and slow with him. At first when approached, he’d run to the other end of his turnout area, so campers learned to get centered and calm, and practiced radiating love from their hearts. Slowly, sometimes with the help of a handful of grass, Mini Cooper would turn toward the kids, and walk closer, closer, and close enough to eat out of their hands. After just one summer, Cooper was transformed from a mini who ran from people and did not know how to trust them to a happy-to-be scratched bud of many, many campers.
I also think about my sweet wrangler horse, Pete. When I met him, he was really just a bit misunderstood, and had a reputation that likely colored many former wranglers’ approaches to working with him. Man-handled or jerked around aggressively, he was eager and capable to respond in kind (even unloading riders he wasn’t fond of). But when approached with softness and with an intention of loving connection, he became a snuggly, happy, willing-to-please and eventually camper-friendly mount. So much of what we do–and who we are–impacts the horses we find ourselves among. So keep breathing deep!
Before we can effectively and deeply help to transform the emotions of our equine partners, we must first dive inside to our own inner state, cultivating loving care and kindness toward our selves. I can’t tell you how many times I have walked into the barn feeling a certain negativity and realized that as I worked on the horses ~ grooming or even just turning them out or filling their water buckets ~ I found that they seemed to be working on me, helping lift my spirits and demanding my presence in each moment. How lucky we are that horses can be these emotional stabilizers for us! In yoga, we can learn to do this for ourselves, turning within and growing Ahimsa from inside.
Another element of the study I found notable regarded not only our emotional state and how it impacts our horses, but also our physical bodies and training methods:
Certain training techniques and positions—as well as poor equitation style, especially of novice riders—can lead to chronic pain. Horses with chronic back pain showed more signs of depression, aggression, or learned helplessness (when they seem to “check out” of the environment that they have come to perceive as negative), she said.
Christa Lesté-Lasserre in The Horse
Our position in the saddle, our habitual movement patterns (whether we are aware of them or not) are always influencing our horse on both a physical and emotional level. Consider Amy Cuddy, social psychologist’s study on the hormone responses and social implications of physical posture in humans ~ here is her Ted Talk called Your Body Language Shapes who you Are (it is one of my very favorites):
We know that a low head is calming for horses, we can read ears, facial expressions, lips, eyes, and body tensions. How are our approaches to training and the positions we ask our horses to embody impacting their emotional state? What is your experience in this arena? I would love to hear from you!
Wishing you and your horses a sense of collective Ahimsa ~ the yogic principle of loving care and kindness ~ throughout your times together.