For some of us the relationship with the horse is the main thing that keeps us involved with the sport. And then there are the relationships that we have with our friends, coaches, and in dressage there is the relationship we have with the judges. Of course, there is a huge body of research that can inform our thinking about relationships. We can think about our equestrian relationships in the context of these relationships.
We start to learn about relationships right from the first weeks of life. The template for all relationships is the relationship we have with our mothers or primary care giver. This is true for all mammals, who can only survive if they have a carer. Often mothers come to the important job of parenting wanting to do it perfectly. They want to meet their new baby’s needs so well that the baby has minimal discomfort. The feed is ready as soon as the baby wants it; the mother is available as soon as the baby wakes up.
When this relationship is working well, the baby comes to know in his being that he can safely explore the world with Mum’s support; that she provides a secure base for exploration. And the baby knows that she is the safe haven he can return to if he is frightened, tired, or just needs a top-up of the sense of connection. These are the hallmarks of secure attachment, the gold standard of relationships that we want for our children.
However, what the research shows us is that actually babies can do very well psychologically, even when mothers match their babies’ needs over 30% of the time. The other up to 70% needs to follow the principles of “rupture and repair”. When the mother does not deliver what the baby/child needs in a timely fashion, or when the mother is tired, grumpy or otherwise involved in normal life (rupture), then ideally the rupture is noticed and repaired. Repair might mean a soothing acknowledgement or a cuddle and meeting the need. This pattern of rupture and repair is absolutely fundamental to ALL of our relationships. Good relationships are those where misunderstandings and mis-attunements are negotiated easily and repaired. This is true for all our relationships.
Luckily for us, I believe that horses generally are very forgiving of our mis-attunements. They are not so forgiving if we frighten them because they are so aware of danger and potential threats, but generally they are very tolerant of us being much less sensitive to how they express themselves than they are to us. Attunement is reciprocal. In my experience, the more sensitive you are to your horse, the more sensitive he will be to you.
Those of us who have enjoyed years’ long relationships with the same horse will have experienced the way a horse will seem to know what you want before you ask it. You can teach a horse to be more sensitive by asking with a light aid and being very quick to release pressure when he responds, or when possible use the positive reinforcement of a treat. Try to stop him only with your weight. When he slows reward him. You can start with the groundwork. A touch with a finger, or pressure applied with only your posture, and removing the pressure and rewarding him.
Trust is one of the foundations of any relationship. When we behave in a predictable and kind way, trust in us develops. We need to feel safe to have trust. A horse, being a flight animal, is quick to feel fear, and so quick to lose trust. Trust becomes more secure when ruptures are repaired. Trust can be quite fragile. One angry slap in the face, or a rough hand on the rein that punishes a horse, can wreck trust in a moment. This is true when it is applied to your horse’s trust in you, or anyone else’s trust.