"The body language of someone 'putting on a happy face' is incongruent with the rise in blood pressure, muscle tension, and emotional intensity transmitted unconsciously by an individual who's actually afraid, frustrated, or angry." - Linda Kohanov, “Riding Between the Worlds”
As a prey animal, a horse’s very survival depends on not taking things at face value. A pile of brown leaves could be a mask for a copperhead snake ready to strike, or some dry underbrush could hide a coyote poised to spring. Or on a daily basis a human could approach them, trying to talk smoothly and softly to them, while internally she is an emotional volcano ready to erupt at any second.
My best friend Wendy is highly perceptive and when she asks, “How are you?” she can always tell the times when I say, “OK” but I’m not. Then she’ll say, “Yeah, but how are you, REALLY?” with an intense gaze that won’t take okay for an answer.
My best equine friend Sportie is also highly perceptive. The intense gaze I get from him every time I enter his stall first asks, “Where’s my apple?” and once he gets that his eyes look through me to my very heart, wondering if I’m going to be real with him today. I might force a smile in front of my co-stableworkers on a bad day, but that won’t fly with Sportie.
If my horse can’t trust me, he won’t feel safe listening to me on the ground or when I’m on his back. If I try to pretend everything’s okay when I’ve just brought the aftermath of the worst week ever into his space, he will want to escape from that.
I make it a point of making his grooming time my therapy time, softly voicing whatever my present struggles are, maybe crying into Sportie’s mane or giving him a hug as required, but he always knows by the time I mount up what kind of riding partner he’s getting that day and he can take that.
Sportie doesn’t ask for much but he always asks for an apple and no pretense. Horses require authenticity, with absolutely no snakes pretending to be leaves.
Image courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons via Moyan Brenn.