From the Ground Up: Keeping Instinct and Intention Central

In the summer of 2022, I found myself on the back of a semi-feral Mongolian horse in the middle of a forest with a massive storm rolling in. As I noticed the darkening clouds catching up to our group, I felt my hands beginning to sweat, my heartbeat quickening, and a knot in my stomach clenching in anticipation. As my nerves grew, my horse began jigging underneath me, seeming to sense the energy shift in myself and the atmosphere.

Photo by Dulguunsuren Sergelen.

As the storm closed in, it quickly and completely wrapped around us. I heard the thunder right as I saw the flash of lightning and the rain quickly rushing over the deteriorating muddy path beneath. However, as temperatures were quickly dropping below freezing, we had to push on to find a safe place to camp for the evening. My efforts to hand walk my horse through the roots, boulders, and mud proved to be too slow as I stumbled along, keeping my fingers crossed that I didn’t break an ankle. The herder guiding me begged me to hop on, told me to trust my horse — he was made for this; he knew the terrain. I turned to my horse, forced to hand over control to him as I hopped on. Very quickly, he cut our time in half, effortlessly navigating the terrain based on instinct and experience, so long as I stayed out of his way.

That experience is just one of the countless memories I have from that two-week horse trek through northern Mongolia. I had gone on the trip as a fun, adventurous, and unique experience to push myself out of my comfort zone, and had no idea how life-changing it would become. As I reflected on the trip, and navigating those storms and terrain with gratitude for the horse that got me out safely, I realized how drastically it changed my approach to my professional life with horses too. Feeling how much my feelings and thoughts impacted my horse, AND how capable and knowledgeable he was, I was forced to consider and examine the relationships I had with instinct and intention in working with horses.

Photo by Erik Cooper.

As I considered the role that my intention had on my horses and my session with them, I began to consider: when does a session with a horse begin? Is it when I swing my leg over my horse? When I halter them in the field? The more I thought about it, the more I realized that it starts before you even get to the barn – the mindset, emotions, and experiences that you have shape what comes next.

Many horse people have acknowledged experiential evidence of horses responding to the state of another being — we often say that a horse can tell when a rider is anxious, or fearful. Research has supported this evidence, suggesting that horses respond to a person’s state of being, and cues, from our heart beat, to our expressions, and our vocal cues.

Let’s try this: close your eyes, picture a day at the beach. You’re with friends and family, enjoying the gentle sounds of waves as you build a sandcastle and read a book in the shade of your umbrella. What does your heart rate feel like? Your breathing? Now picture something else: you wake up, only to realize your alarm didn’t go off. You’re late for a meeting with your new boss, and hurry to get ready only to get stuck in traffic on the way to your office. How does your body change?

Our experiences have an impact on us. But they also have an impact on the horses around us. In the study “Investigating horse-human interactions: the effect of a nervous human” by Linda J Keeling, Liv Jonare, and Lovisa Lanneborn, the heart rate of horses and handlers were observed as horses and handlers were asked to walk from Point A to Point B four times. The researchers told participants an umbrella would open as they made the fourth pass. The umbrella never opened, but heart rates in both horses and humans increased during the fourth trip between the points, when the human expected the umbrella to open. This suggests that the change in the humans’ heart rate has an impact on the horses’, and therefore the state of the horse in work.

Photo by Julia Dillavou.

Furthermore, Ayaka Takimoto, Kosuke Nakamura, and Toshikazu Hasegawa collaborated in a study that explored whether or not horses integrated facial cues with expected tone of voice. The study suggested that they do, showing that horses cross-modally recognized the emotional states of their caretakers and strangers.

Creating a space with a lower stress, comfortable environment in the training process is important, as there is evidence to show that experiencing stress can impair memory and learning in horses, as seen in Henshall, Randle, and Francis’ “The effect of stress and exercise on the learning performance of horses”.

These studies support what many horse people have already experienced: how we show up does affect how our horses feel. By recognizing the power and ability we have in setting and maintaining our feelings, thoughts, and emotions, we can set intentions going into a training session or time with our horse that will promote learning in a comfortable environment.

While we can only have control over ourselves and our intentions in the partnership, it is important to recognize the strengths, emotions, wants, and needs of the horse in effort to make it a collaborative, mutually beneficial relationship. During my experience in Mongolia, turning to, and trusting the strengths of my equine partner allowed me to pass through terrain I was ill-equipped to handle on my own.

Photo by Cody Cole.

Horses are built to travel distances, forage for sustenance, and live in a herd setting. Giving space for our partners to meet these needs of their species, around and within the work with which they do, will not only lower stress, and therefore improve learning ability, but will allow them to show up with their own strength and ability in the training process.

Based on experience and science, how we approach horses, and how we feel while we’re around horses does have an impact on what they feel, and therefore what they retain in the learning process. If we can focus on regulating our emotions and mindset as we go into our work with our horses, we can set a tone that’s confident, open, and receptive to experiencing new ideas in a way which promotes individuality and learning calmly and appropriately.

Being aware of the intention, or the mental state in which we commit to a course of action, we bring to our training sessions and our days can change the physical response a horse has, such as their heart rate, their emotional state, their general demeanor, and their learning retention. Creating such a mindset can then allow us to listen to, empathize with, and trust the instincts that the horse experiences. Encouraging these instincts to remain intact through the training process not only has helped in situations where I’ve needed a horse with the clarity and self-confidence to navigate a challenging question, but also has created space for the formation of a true partnership between horse and rider to form, allowing for and celebrating the strengths that each partner can bring to the equation.

It can be challenging to set aside time to set intentions, or encourage your horse’s instincts when days can be so full and busy. A few weeks ago, HorseClass hosted a demo day, and I was invited to discuss the importance of instinct and intention in training. I so appreciated the opportunity to discuss these ideas and provide some examples and exercises to practice looping both intention and instinct in your daily work.

For more insight and guidance on how mindfulness practices, longeing exercises, groundwork routines, and management practices can help in this process, send an email to [email protected]. This speaker series through HorseClass, which includes topics such as riding transitions, the Masterson Method, Reiki with Horses, and more, was made in effort to fundraise for Healing with Horses. Any donation towards the effort and for the recording of these demos are appreciated!

Photo by Julia Dillavou.


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Working with horses provides us with the opportunity to connect two individuals, with their own strengths and weaknesses, together. This affords us the chance to accomplish tasks we couldn’t otherwise do alone, cross new terrain, finish difficult tests, and gain more of an insight into who we are and what we experience.

Through science and experience, emphasizing and focusing on clarifying our intentions and encouraging instinct within the training process can help us to achieve a deeper and more collaborative relationship with our equine partners. By recognizing the power of our energy, and holding space to utilize our intentions, we can create space for our horses to explore their instincts and learn in an environment that promotes their needs and strengths.

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