Your horse: the frame of his body = the frame of his mind

Learn to use your own body language to shape your horse’s body, so he feels good mentally and wants to be with you.

Horses are physiologically hardwired so their bodies, minds and spirits work together as one. Simply put, the frame of a horse’s body is also his frame of mind. The truest definition of horse training literally means using your body language to shape the horse into a frame of body that corresponds to a good mental feeling.

Some equine body shapes feel better than others. In fact, some feel wonderful because their physiology creates endorphins and oxytocin that move through the central nervous system. But other shapes produce adrenaline and cortisol, which cause the horse to feel horrible. The vast majority of both positive and negative behavior and performance is a direct reflection of how our own body language affects the horse’s body shape, which in turn affects his biochemistry, which then affects his behavior.

The vast majority of both positive and negative behavior and performance is a direct reflection of how our own body language affects the horse’s body shape, which in turn affects his biochemistry, which then affects his behavior.

Training your horse to maximize his potential during both groundwork and riding means you must clearly communicate through your aids, body shape and gestures, at every moment you are with your horse. This way, you can work his frame of body into shapes and movements that make him feel good. When a horse consistently experiences that you make him feel better than he does on his own, then he focuses on you and wants to be with you.

In the most logical definition of what might be called “natural”, this is how you tap into the horse’s intuitive need for survival of the fittest. It needs to be that simple – does your horse feel better with you than he does on his own or when he’s with other horses? If he doesn’t feel better with you, why would he want to be with you? Why would he want you to take him away from the other horses and allow you to ride him?

Four factors to keep in mind

These are the most important factors to be aware of when working with your horse:

1. Be here now

Consistent self-awareness, every single moment, helps you stay mindful of the most subtle body language from both you and your horse. People usually cause or contribute to problems with their horses due to a lack of awareness of their own body language.

Be here now.

2. Only control how you respond to your horse

The only two Olympic sports in which men and women compete against each other are sailing and equestrian. What both these sports have in common is that men do not have an advantage over women when it comes to controlling the wind, the waves or the horses. Both sailing and equestrian disciplines require working with natural forces beyond our control. A sailor can’t hope to control the wind or waves, so he controls how he responds to the changes in these elements. So it is with people and horses. Horses respond much better to people who do not try to control them, but instead control how they respond to the horses. An example of this is the use of contact.

3. Use contact instead of pulling

Block the directions you don’t want the horse to move in by using contact instead of pulling. Sure, you can use your right hand to try and control a horse by pulling his head to the right. Most people do. Or you can control your responses, and instead of attempting to control the horse by pulling right, only use the right rein as a blocking boundary, preventing an unwanted left turn. Conversely, only use the left rein to block an unwanted right turn – don’t use it to pull left.

Think of a horse moving through a stock chute – two narrow parallel fences. The fences do not pull the horse’s face in the direction you want him to go. The fences only block the directions you don’t want him to go. A horse needs to be like a river flowing between the riverbanks of the blocking energy provided by your legs and reins. The chute does not tell the horse where to go by pulling on his face; it tells him where not to go by blocking unwanted turns.

Further, when was the last time you saw a horse pull another horse by the neck or head? Never!

4. Ride the bend

Another factor requiring critical awareness is controlling how you respond to a counter-bent horse. We’ve all heard that “your horse must respect your inside leg!” Some trainers say this as a justification for aggressively kicking and spurring the sides of a horse. Yet kicking and spurring is a blatant contradiction of the warm and fuzzy empathy trainers talk about with words such as “harmony”, “willingness”, “respect”, “love” and “leadership”. It’s bullying and abuse to kick horses.

My point is that it is vital for you to define inside and outside legs and reins as the bend in the horse, instead of the direction you are riding. Just because you are riding a horse in a turn or circle to the left, does not guarantee that your left leg or rein is the inside. The vast majority of horses go into counter- or contra-bend away from arena walls or corners. It very much stresses a horse when a rider attempts to turn left while he is flexed to the right.

Use your awareness to respond differently to a horse in counter-bend with a dropped shoulder:

Picture a horse being ridden in an open space away from any walls or fences. Look at his spinal column. Without the distraction of the arena, you will define inside and outside as the bend in the spine and which way the horse is flexing his neck. But when most people ride in arenas and near fences they automatically – without thinking, awareness or mindfulness – assume that inside and outside are defined by the walls. In fact, you may have heard the saying “rise and fall with the leg on the wall” when it comes to posting at the trot. But you are not riding the walls – you are riding the horse’s spinal column!

When trotting, adjust your posting-diagonals according to the bend of the horse. Just because you’re trotting your horse into a left turn or circle does not necessarily mean you should be posting up and down with the right shoulder.

Consider this: if your horse is bending the correct way at the trot, then the correct diagonal is the correct diagonal. But if your horse is bending the wrong way at the trot, then you must ride the wrong diagonal in order for him to be balanced. It makes no sense to ride the wrong bend on the correct diagonal. If your horse is looking left, create balance by posting up and down with the right shoulder. If your horse is looking right, post up and down with the left shoulder.

If you think you need to turn right – but your horse is flexed left in the corner – don’t kick him with your right leg trying to force a change of bend, or pull on the right rein to make him look into the turn. Instead, just do a left leg yield and your horse will move so much better and be more relaxed. And once your horse relaxes his body because you are working with him instead of against him, then he will allow you to change the bend!

Balancing focus with self-awareness

The challenge for many people lies in balancing focus with self-awareness. That’s because understanding something theoretically in the mind using awareness is no guarantee that knowledge will be demonstrated appropriately and consistently through behavior. For instance, we are aware that it is both illegal and dangerous to drive through a red light. But human beings can become so distracted that we may drive through the red light anyway when we are not completely aware and focused on what we’re doing in the moment.

Be aware. Be mindful. Be the horse you want to see!

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Chris Irwin is an internationally-renowned horseman, best-selling author of Horses Don’t Lie and Dancing With Your Dark Horse, and a leading pioneer in the evolution of horse training and Equine Assisted Personal Development. The FEI recently asked Chris for consultation by saying: “We are reaching out to you based on your tremendous experience and reputation as a horseman. It would be an honor to receive your thoughts and opinions on developing the necessary skills and attributes for competence to improve the screening and education of FEI officials.” From transforming wild mustangs in America into 18 National Championships in riding and driving, to becoming the trainer of trainers in Europe, Chris is boldly going where horsemanship has never gone before.