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Mindfulness – Is it Good for Your Horse?

The mindfulness movement is everywhere these days. CEOs, counsellors, even school teachers are using daily meditation and mindfulness for its mental, physical and emotional benefits to humans. But is it good for horses? A growing number of people think so and are incorporating it into training and relationships with their horses with impressive results.

Australian horse trainer, Ross Jacobs, talks about a concept he heard years ago of horses having a ‘cup of worry’. Perhaps it is windy, or we throw the saddle on them and that puts a little worry into their cup, but the horse can handle it. A little more might be ok too; maybe we do the girth up faster than usual, but they are still fine. But then a branch cracks and a rabbit jumps out and eventually their cup of worry is full. It may only take something as small as a bird flying by to make their worry cup overflow, the horse explodes, and an accident happens. Many owners say that their horse was perfectly fine and then ‘out of nowhere’ he just blew up. Jacobs suggests that if we had been more aware we could have seen it coming and been able to prevent it. Mindfulness to the present would certainly help the horse (and the human) in this instance.

Mindfulness is a mental state achieved by focusing awareness on the present moment, calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations. There is no expectation or judgement. Spiritual leader Thich Nhat Hanh adds, “Through mindfulness, we avoid harming ourselves and others.”

Although it may seem like the newest and greatest fad, mindfulness has actually been around for thousands of years in ancient Buddhist and Hindu practices. Modern mindfulness was only recently pioneered in the 1970’s by Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. Kabat-Zin demonstrated scientific proof that meditation and mindfulness had significant benefits in treating stress.

From here, Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) was developed to treat depression, anxiety and eventually Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Today, MBCT is an endorsed therapy by psychological associations worldwide. Certainly, in Equine Assisted Therapy mindfulness is central to the process and experience.

But what about the horses? Does our being present and focused in the current moment without expectation or judgement do them any good? Is it even safe? And what possible use could it have in training? Well, according to a number of horsemen discovering this mindfulness movement, it is revolutionising their training and partnership with their horses.

While horses do make noises, they do not use verbalisation as a primary method of communication. Body language is their way of interacting and, for a large animal, some of that body language can be very subtle. Equine advocate Anna Blake calls them ‘calming signals’. A horse may look away slightly, lick his lips, blink more; all very small things that are actually speaking volumes if we bother to be present with the horse and listen.

Harry Whitney, American trainer and clinician, talks about watching for the horses’ thoughts and their associated feelings. It is that thought/feeling combination that holds the key to their performance.

“So often, we focus on what the horse is doing, and miss the fact that the horse’s mind

will affect what he does and how he does it. If we give attention to the horse – how he is

feeling in the moment, where his thought is and offer him the help he is looking

for – many of the things we thought were problems will be cleared up.”

Harry Whitney

As humans we can be so task-oriented and focused on getting things done that we are often imposing our will onto the horse without any regard for their thoughts or feelings. Whitney says that if we were more mindful of our horse’s state we would be of far more help to them.

So many times, horses are judged to be ‘naughty’ or ‘disrespectful’, but judgement is not a part of mindfulness. Are they disobedient or are they uncertain of what we are asking? Did they buck because they are trying to get out of work or because we expected and demanded something of them that they don’t feel they can do? Are they even in pain? Again, the calm present rider will be looking for these things, but the loud, distracted dictator will be pressuring the horse perhaps too much and then get angry when the horse doesn’t ‘obey’.

Warwick Schiller who represented Australia on the World Equestrian Games reining team in 2018 has radically changed his approach to horses over the last few years. Many of his training techniques remain the same but it is the mindful and meditative spirit behind them that has revolutionised his horsemanship. He laughingly now calls himself ‘the hippie horse trainer’ but says he could never go back.

Schiller says that he used to be very good at getting horses to be obedient, but he started to notice that they weren’t necessarily happy or relaxed. He stumbled onto some of the same trainers I mentioned above and began to focus more on how and why his horses were doing things rather than merely working towards accomplishing a movement or task. His emphasis became more on the relationship with the horse rather than performance from the horse. It took him far down a ‘rabbit hole’ but his new approach has helped increase calmness and relaxation which, in turn, enhances their performance. Warwick also says that this is a far more rewarding experience for both he and his horses.

From there he decided to include the focus work in his clinics to see if it would help clients’ horses. Even he was shocked when, by doing nothing but having the owner focus and be present with her horse, a previously skittish mustang actually lay down and went to sleep in the middle of a crowded arena, not once but three times! This happened in several clinics and his training subscription Facebook page has multiple stories each day from owners who are seeing dramatic transformations in their animals.

How does this work in the practical world? It is well known that horses are fight or flight animals; if cornered they will fight but if they can, they will run from danger. The sympathetic nervous system regulates this survival reaction which is triggered whenever the horse is stressed, even mildly. Schiller reasons that signals such as trigeminal nerve (on the side of the nostril) and lip twitching, uneven nostrils or sometimes blinking rapidly is a sign that the horse is coming down from the sympathetic nervous system. When they sigh or blow out, lick and chew or otherwise relax, they have returned to the parasympathetic nervous system where they can think and reason (and learn) again. Even asking for something as simple as taking two steps backwards might cause stress. If we look for stress signals and wait for the blow, the lick and chew and the let-down, the horse will actually learn how to relax faster, and their learning rate will also improve. By far the most difficult part is the waiting process for the human. Some horses can take over an hour to let down the first time.

You might think that this is all touchy-feely stuff, but a recent scientific study backed this up. A presentation at the 2018 International Society of Equitation Science (ISES) conference in Rome demonstrated that licking and chewing is a sign of release from stress. More and more ISES research is finding that mindful training methods are far more ethical and effective than the old dominance methods.

Mindfulness has certainly made all the difference in the world to my horses. I used to be the stereotypical Type A perfectionist, driving myself and my horses mad with my incessant demands for performance without much regard for how they felt. It wasn’t until I came down with a severe case of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder that things changed dramatically. Slow mindfulness was an integral part of my recovery and I carried that over to my horses and, in fact, my horses became a huge part of my therapy. And yes, the results in them are amazing too. My previously tense, spooky Arab became far more confident, relaxed and loose in just a short time, not bad for an 18-year-old horse. But far more than that, the two-way relationships between me and my horses is infinitely more rewarding. Like Warwick, there’s no going back for me.

Mindfulness-based horsemanship isn’t for everyone. Professional trainers need to get results in short time-frames to pay the bills. Some people have no desire or patience for such a long and difficult (for the human anyway) process. However, there is growing evidence that mindfulness with horses is not only an effective ingredient in their training, it is also very good for them.

It’s not bad for us humans either.

(c) Robyn Gillies Tabrett