by Tanya Shah

My love for horses began early on in life.  I started riding at the age of four and I’ve had the good fortune of owning my own horses since the age of 6.

My passion for horses has led me to go riding on a variety of horse breeds around the world; from cross-country rides near the Margalla hills in Islamabad on a fiery Marwari gelding, to a lazy afternoon walk on a towering Shire along the beaches of Cornwall in England. I’ve admired the sunset from the back of a Heavy Draft horse meandering through the cornfields of Bonn, Germany and enjoyed a coastal gallop on Seychelles ponies. I’ve even ridden a lovely Thoroughbred gelding in the rainforest of Madagascar and taken a dip in the Persian Gulf atop a stunning bareback chestnut Arabian, with nothing but a rope halter.

As a child, I remember wanting to climb on my rocking horse before I could even walk. When you’re young you have no fear and no inhibitions. Size, strength, power – none of that matters. What matters most is the raw connection you feel with a horse. Children riding for the first time often have a look of awe and wonder in their eyes – they aren’t worried about posture, or holding the reins just right. They’re totally absorbed in the experience of being one with the horse.

Now, fast-forward to adulthood. As with many things in life, the simple joys of an activity become overshadowed by what to do and what not to do – semantics take over and the state of being one with the horse is pushed aside. Many horse riders know the basic four commandments when riding a horse; knees in, thighs gripped, heels down, back straight – but do we know what it means to actually partner with a horse? Because, at the end of the day, that’s what it boils down to - a partnership.

Whilst the rest of the world embraces new techniques, we, unfortunately, cling to our old ways of  “breaking” horses and training riders.  I’ve seen “trainers” rope up young foals (hardly 2 years old) and force bridles in to their mouths. Without giving them a moment to get used to the taste of the cold, hard metal between their teeth, these foals’ faces are yanked back, a saddle is placed upon their tender backs, and they are set loose in a corral and whipped until they run themselves to exhaustion and ultimately give up. This process will be repeated for weeks, and/or months, until the horse loses the will to run and succumbs to whatever the trainer wants it to do. This is not a union. This is forceful dominance, and this will scar your horse for the remainder of its life. It will learn at a young age to be highly distrustful of people and associate them with pain and fear.

During this archaic process, we forget to view the horse and rider as one, and focus solely on the end result; how to make the animal do what we want it to do. The union of human and horse is unique and should be treated with respect and sensitivity. Research worldwide has repeatedly shown how intelligent and intuitive horses are and how complex their range of thinking is. In a herd, communication ranges from the slightest flick of an ear to an all-out explosion of movement, with flashing hooves and sharp teeth as a stark reminder of what powerful animals they can be.

While many of us have grown up learning the basics at riding clubs in our respective cities, we have not been equipped with the type of knowledge that is causing trainers worldwide to adopt contemporary and gentle ways of training and riding horses. You may have noticed club horses have a lackluster look in their eyes, or what many perceive as ‘laziness’ when brought to do rounds in the ring. This is not laziness; this is the look of having given up. On the flipside, riders may feel that when they get on a “hot” or “excited” horse it means that the animal is enthusiastic and raring to go. This could not be further from the truth – an excitable horse is a nervous horse; a nervous horse is a worried horse and a worried horse can turn into a dangerous horse. When a horse is “up”, its fight or flight response is at an all-time high and anything can be a trigger, even plastic bags or twigs on the ground. A horse needs to remain calm and aware at all times, be it during a heated game of polo or a nail-biting round of dressage. It all comes down to a lack of ground-work with the horse at the start of its training and a lack of empathy as to what each individual horse needs in order to mentally prosper and grow.

We, as riders, are taught that the bigger the animal, the more pressure is needed to get them to cooperate.  This is an outdated theory. It is imperative that we embrace more effective and gentle methods of horsemanship, such as Liberty Training and Join Up.

Liberty training allows the horse and rider to become one, and paves the way for a deeper understanding. When you're connected with a horse, you are able to feel the truth of the partnership and it paves the way for an emotionally agile and unique dynamic between both horse and rider. Liberty Training often starts in a round pen or paddock, with just the horse and the trainer. No equipment should be used in this ring and it is meant to act like a ‘safe zone’ for the horse. Here both partners are able to learn more about each other through a few key exercises based on how horses communicate and interact within their own herd. The point of no equipment is so that the horse feels that it has the freedom to leave your side if it feels too much pressure. Then, once you give it space, it will choose when to come back to you, led by its own curiosity. As Karine Vandenborre of Horsefulness Training says: “It is important to convey good intentions, give off the right attitude, empathise with the horse and understand his natural characteristics and behavior during Liberty Training. Horses first need the opportunity to become curious about “their human”. Trust and friendship grow from there. At liberty, we also establish hierarchy and develop our leadership skills. If the horse notices that you can lead him in a grounded, calm and assertive way, its trust in you will grow even more. Liberty Training is a first step to partnership and natural leadership.

Horses learn to assess new students and riders and mould themselves to what the rider needs without taking on the energy or emotion of another being. It is all about energy work and the ability to read a horse for trapped emotion and any other issues.

We should all want a deeper connection with our horses, spiritually and intuitively. Our connection to our horse is an intuitive response and one that the horse reciprocates. We need to be more sensory and energetically aware – more aware of the horse’s body and less of the clutter in our mind. Certain exercises help to hone in and cultivate that relationship through the mind, body, and soul relationship between rider and horse.  The soul relationship is what keeps us safe because that’s what identifies us as a member of the herd. The horse is  “hooked on” and engaged with us.

During riding, there should be ultimate ease of movement and oneness. Both rider and horse should be connected intuitively and in a heartfelt space. When you create a solid foundation you can go without riding your horse for a year and yet once you get back on with a bitless bridle, the horse will intuitively know how to handle it. Lunging is just as important because it encourages a horse to stretch his muscles and promotes balance in motion. Strong core work, flexibility, and awareness are key aspects in having a horse that can give you what you ask for, whether it be polo, jumping, cross country, etc. There should be “softness” in the mouth and neck, and the horse should be aware and responsive without you having to tug on the reins. If we as humans are trapped emotionally, there’s tightness in our body, from our tissues and muscles, to your cells. Humans carry trauma and so do horses because of their high level of emotional and social intelligence. People overlook this and assume that horses shed their past experiences, but this isn’t true. When you begin working with a horse, you need to be the calm leader. Any emotion apart from love and/or acceptance should be discarded before entering a ring with your horse. Consider horses mirror images of your emotions – if you’re apprehensive, they will channel and project your apprehension. If you are calm and collected, you allow the horse to feel safe in your space, thus creating a foundation for trust. Without trust, an animal of roughly 1,000 pounds can seriously harm you, and accidents are almost always because of the rider mishandling the situation on their horse.

Horses are transparent – their actions reflect exactly what they’re thinking about an object. If we’re not sure about something, the horse sees it as uncertainty and becomes distrustful. You have to be fair with your horse – you need to be unbiased and free of judgment when you’re training or working with your horse. You cannot be personally attached to an immediate outcome from your horse, because that is when you allow the ego to take precedence and stop listening to the subtleties of your horse and what they need from you.

It is imperative to stop dominance training and forcing the horse in to a panicked flight mode. People run the horse to exhaust them to the point of giving up or submitting, but this is not the way to establish a partnership of trust.

Monty Roberts (also known as the world-famous ‘Horse Whisperer’) spent his life developing a technique called Join-Up in which he uses equine behavioral patterns and communication to partner with his horses. This is not the traditional “do what I tell you or I will hurt/pressure you” method. This is an innovative, gentle, and non-traumatic way of asking the horse to identify, acknowledge, respect, and ultimately accept you as their herd leader, all the while communicating with them through body language that they identify with in their herd. Roberts has also compared horses to children, saying that if you constantly frighten/reprimand children if they do something wrong, you will lose their trust and their willingness to cooperate and learn. Positive reinforcement is key in understanding and getting the best out of your horse.

The time has come for us to move forward and adopt these new techniques and strategies in training and working with our horses. Only then can we really establish a true partnership with our animals, in a relationship based on trust and understanding. I, myself, have been engaging and learning from contemporary horse-trainers worldwide and am in the process of creating a center both for horse-riding and horse rehabilitation. We have the power to choose how to connect - let us start today and improve our horsemanship, knowledge, technique and spiritual connection with these magnificent creatures.