Communication or Control?

A discussion on bitless bridles inevitably brings up the subject of control. I am not passing judgement on anyone who rides in a bit, everyone has their own reasons for doing what they do – I have spent more years using a bit than not, I am just sharing my own discoveries in recent years.

I believe that if a horse is in a high emotional state they are unable to “hear” you, meaning your requests have no effect. You then have 2 options:

  1. To shout louder – in other words use stronger aids or equipment. This I would call CONTROL.
  2.  Reduce the horse’s emotional state so that they ARE able to hear you on a more subtle level, you are then able to hold a dialogue. This I would call COMMUNICATION.

High emotional states may be caused by fear, pain, misunderstanding or generally feeling unsafe. If my horse becomes emotional in certain situations, instead of trying to control her (which would mean I could get her to do what I want, but wouldn’t necessarily help her feel any better about it), I would question should I be putting her in this situation where she is unable to cope?  How can I help her to feel better/safer so that we can retain a comfortable level of communication, so neither of us has to go louder or stronger?

Grace can be a highly emotional horse.  In the days when I tried to control her she could frequently be seen standing on her hind legs or galloping away without me, lead line trailing in the wind….. Over the years I have put an enormous effort into understanding how she feels (and how I feel for that matter) and making it a priority to help her feel better, safer, giving her more freedom and more choice; even if she does become emotional, she will now choose to stay with me – as long as she can trust me to listen, understand and have a conversation; not force her into situations that are more than she can handle. If you cannot help a horse to cope then they will engage their own coping mechanisms – which we know as fight, flight or freeze – unfortunately also commonly known as bad behaviour.  Then you are back to the above 2 options again, CONTROL it, or know that all behaviour is COMMUNICATION and continue the dialogue.

Meditation and The Trust Technique

Inner stillness – a place of quiet confidence, free from judgement, expectation or attachment to outcomes, where we can reduce our thinking levels and find space for our intuition to come to the surface.

This is the mental/emotional state we can access through meditation practice. The value of this practice is that it gives us the tools to access a more mindful approach when we are interacting with our horses (or other animals in our life).

The Trust Technique is a meditation practice that we can do WITH our animals. As well as focusing on being present we “listen” by observing behaviour, with a time frame that is led by them, teaching us to work at their pace.

Then when we interact with them, focused presence in stillness becomes focused attention in action. We continue the practice of listening through observation and working at their pace from a place of quiet confidence.

The Trust Technique can be taught in one session, but it is not the learning of it that creates change but the practice. What is it that can make it so difficult to be still for a few minutes each day, just holding space and observing an animal that needs your help? Whatever it is, it is what gets in the way of real progress – that desire to be doing, getting on with it, wanting to be or feeling you should be somewhere other than where you are right now, that makes us push on regardless.

We are so over-stimulated in our modern world that sitting quietly can be a challenge – it appears as if nothing of interest is happening. But when we can find that inner stillness we notice the subtleties of communication which we miss on a daily basis. That is why horses can surprise us with sudden unexpected behaviours – they were telling us something all along, but our minds were too full of chatter for us to notice. They have to do something big to drag us back into the present moment and get us to listen.

Be present, create the space to listen to your horse and yourself and learn to work at their pace – it’s all you need.

Not Knowing is a Gift

It used to be one of my biggest fears – not knowing what to do. I felt I should have all the answers to everything, and the answers had to be the “right” ones. The ones I’d been taught, or read in a book, or heard from some expert of other. But what happens when you don’t know what to do, when you’re left with that helpless feeling, or even feeling useless?

The journey I have travelled with Grace has included learning to tap into my intuition or “inner knowing”, and this starts with listening. When you think you know all the answers you’re not necessarily open to hearing something new.  Having no idea what to do can be your greatest gift.  Time to pause, ask the question, “What do you need from me right now?”

This is when just being, and not doing, can open doors, ideas may spring from nowhere. This is not the time to analyse, or ask if this is the “right” thing to do.  Just follow your gut and do it, you may be surprised by the outcome….

The biggest hurdle to this “trusting your gut” is self-doubt. Why should I believe this idea that has come from nowhere? It’s not anything I have heard before so it cannot be right. What if it is the wrong thing to do and I make a big mistake? It is the opposite to what everyone else is doing, it cannot be right. Then you may find out down the line that someone else has tried something similar with great success. Then the validation of another human being makes it OK. It is human nature, we all have doubts at some point, it is all about learning to trust and believe in yourself, this is what gives your horse the confidence to trust in you.

Closing the Gap

I have just spent two inspiring days at The Donkey Sanctuary at The Trust Technique’s Practitioner Day followed by their open I Have a Dream Day. I have heard James and Shelley’s message over and over again during the last 2 years, but on each hearing there is a realisation of how much I still fall short of the ideal and the inspiration and motivation to continue to do better for the animals (and people) in my life.

I want to focus on something James said which really struck a chord:

“There is a gap between what we say we feel about our animals and what we actually do.”

Everybody says they love their animals – and they truly do, but do their actions genuinely support their words?

I have been aware of this gap in my interactions with Grace for a long time, but I saw it in a slightly different way – on one side my agenda – what I want from her, and on the other side what she wants from me and how she feels about what I want. I really love this different perspective – on one side what we say and on the other what we do. This has brought to me some clarity about this gap. Like many of my species I am often looking for instant gratification. I jump out of bed in the morning motivated to do better, I work really hard at it,  I don’t see the results I want quickly enough, I get a bit frustrated, maybe even “give up” a little bit and then have to start again.

It’s easy really – all we have to do is listen to our animals – they tell us with their behaviour and their actions everything we need to know to close that gap. But we need to listen, hear it and act on it. Sometimes we listen and we don’t hear. Sometimes we hear and we don’t act. Sometimes we listen and we pretend we haven’t heard because it doesn’t suit us. I’m as guilty of that as the next man.

It’s very easy to watch experts at work and think that Rome can be built in a day. We can then set out on our new journey with some high expectations which are soon disappointed. This is why approaching every session as if you are seeing your animal for the first time and being present and acting in the moment is so important.

Don’t get me wrong some people can get incredibly quick results with the Trust Technique. I have seen changes in an animal with quite extreme issues within the space of a week – “co-incidentally” their humans committed fully to the practice – they really put their animals first and stuck to it.

Like many others, I don’t find it so easy. All sorts of things can slow things down – lack of commitment, lack of trust – in the animal, the technique or yourself, lack of self-belief, impatience, frustration – the list goes on. The animal may be highly sensitive – it is then so much easier to make a mistake as we misread or mishear.  And of course every human is different, every animal is different, every combination is different and every situation is different, so results will vary widely and is no reflection on “how good you are” at this.

Maybe like me you sometimes pretend you don’t hear what you don’t want to hear – so your actions don’t support your good intentions. Then you have robbed something from the relationship bank account which now needs paying back before you can get back in credit.

What I do know is the more time you are in the present moment, the more awareness you develop, the quicker you can get back on track and the more you close the gap.

If the gap is 100 miles wide and you can only close it by a few millimetres at a time – you are still doing better for the animals and people in your life, you are still shaking off the shackles of your conditioned past, the rules and beliefs that you have followed (even if they didn’t really feel right) and moving ever closer to honouring your true self.

What is Graceful Horsemanship?

Of course it is named after my horse Grace, but the word grace has multiple meanings. The obvious ones are clearly appropriate to training a horse towards the ideal, both in terms of our aims for the horse but also the behaviour of the human.

 “Elegance and beauty of movement or expression”

 “A sense of propriety and consideration for others”

 “A disposition to kindness and compassion”

But recently another definition has come to my attention

 “Bring honour to someone by one’s attendance or participation”

I would say that for me without doubt this is the most important of all, and you would be hard pushed to achieve the others without it.

 Does your horse grace you with their presence? Or do they avoid connecting with you through avoidance, distraction or closing down?

Do they honour you with their participation? Or do they comply through coercion and bribery?

Are you focused on the outcomes of your training or the honour of your horse?


Before you can expect your horse to trust you, first you must trust your horse and even before that trust yourself.

What does this mean?

It means accepting that whatever is happening right here, right now in this present moment is O.K. You don’t have to like it, but no amount of resistance to it or wishing for something else will change anything.

It means looking at your horse and understanding how they are feeling right now and knowing what you can do in this moment to help them feel better.

It is knowing that you can let go of any expectations of yourself or your horse and any “what if”s or “I should”s.

It means neither attaching yourself to or fearing a particular outcome, allowing yourself to be open to the inifinite number of possibilities that could arise in the next moment.

It means not blaming yourself, your horse or anyone else if you make a mistake – it happens!

The only thing you can ever do is your best in any given moment and that is always good enough.

Waiting not Wanting

It was almost 2 years ago that I was listening to “Pause for Thought” on the radio in the car. It was all about WAITING NOT WANTING and I immediately realised that I was hearing an important message. To become more of a human horses needed me to be, I had just started out on the long process of consciously transforming from a “Human Doing” to a “Human Being”. I had been mulling over how I was having a bit of a wobble because I felt like I was not able to do what I WANTED with Grace if I was going to give her the time and space that she needed. This is what I wrote at the time…

WAITING not WANTING has become my mantra. I have too much WANT for outcomes, success, recognition. It is this that has underpinned everything I do. When things are not going well all my fears are around not being good enough, not being successful, how others will view this, fear of not achieving my goals, being afraid to step back and wait because my progress will falter and I will never succeed if I don’t keep working away day after day to solve everything that isn’t right, like an obsession. And it happens straight away,as soon as one tiny thing doesn’t fall into place, as soon as perfection starts to leave me behind. Telling myself none of this matters – it’s just Grace and me,means the nagging voice kicks in and tells me it does matter and feelings of anxiety and even panic start to arise. So now I can catch myself wanting to be somewhere else in my journey, wanting to do something else, wanting to be better, wanting Grace to be better – to satisfy my nagging ego.

Then I remind myself of WAITING not WANTING

I need to re-calibrate my dreams and goals, so that our success is in the beauty of what we do together and not the results for everyone else’s benefit.”

Looking back this has been one of the most important lessons I have learned and is still very relevant today, although by comparison I WANT a lot less and WAIT a lot more. I am much more prepared to work at the horse’s pace even if it means dropping my own agenda.

Horses have no concept of time and our need to get things done yesterday or to boost our ego has no meaning for them, and the energy we project at this time is not appealing to them.

If we can WAIT for them instead of WANT something else our energy is much more attractive to them and they will be far more willing and motivated to join with us in our activities without worry or stress. This is what I practice on a daily basis and how I like to support others who may feel as if their horse does not do or give them what they want.

Happy New Year to all.

Wishing you Peace and Patience in 2019!