My Horse, My Mirror
Dogs and their owners start to look alike after they’ve spent enough time in each other’s company. Something similar is true for horses and their riders. No, we don’t really start to look alike - we might as well admit that even the most attractive of us will never look as beautiful as any plain horse. But in spite of this, we still mirror each other to an astonishing degree. Horses go the way we ride them. It’s a simple truth that happens on every level - physically, mentally, emotionally.
Horses compensate for their riders’ imbalances. My working student had a lightbulb moment when she realized the horse she was riding hollowed his back in canter transitions, not because he was resistant to her aids, but because her elbows were rigid: “He doesn’t have a hard mouth! I have hard hands!” she realized. I know how she felt because horses point out my bad habits to me all the time. They never lie. When my back gets tight, my horse’s back gets tight. When my right shoulder drops, my horse quits bending to the right. When I slump in the saddle, my horse loses cadence and forward energy. But when I sit tall, straight, and relaxed at the same time, my horse’s movement becomes rhythmic and elastic, which makes both of us much happier.
A similar mirroring process happens mentally and emotionally. This may be because our bodies and our minds are not as separate from each other as we’d like to believe, or it may be because our horses are so sensitive they can literally read our minds. Regardless, we’ve all experienced days when a horse feels more tense or anxious than usual and when, on reflection, we’re the ones who made them that way because we brought our worries into the saddle with us. I make a conscious effort to not listen to the news on my way to the barn, because I don’t want to arrive there feeling helpless and frazzled. My horses pick up on these emotions, which is not fair to them. But when I ride with joy and serenity, my horses will reflect that, too.
Because horses mirror us, I can get on a horse someone else has been riding and find out a lot about that person - not just about her competence and educational level as an equestrian, but about who she is. Anyone riding my horses will learn just as much about who I am. Horses know whether someone is calm or nervous, confident or insecure, trustworthy or just pretending to be. Horses reflect the human on their back, without flattery or calculation. They can reveal what we try to hide from others, like anger management issues, or deep-seated fears. They don’t lie to us. We can’t lie to them. They see right through us.
Of course, it’s a two-way mirror. The way we ride today reflects all the horses we’ve ridden before today - and, by extension, the people who have shaped them into who they are. Quiet, sensitive riders usually have a sensitive horse to thank for developing this talent. All tactful riders have become that way on horses who would not tolerate anything less. Educating young horses or re-educating troubled horses is not something we can learn from watching videos, or from riding only well-schooled horses. This skill set is reserved for those of us who spend lots and lots of time around such horses. When I think back to all the horses I’ve worked with, the ones who stand out are not the ones who made me look good because they were easy. I feel a huge debt of gratitude remembering all the complicated individuals who did not respond to my usual approach and made me question everything I thought I knew until I expanded my horizons. These horses have taught me more than any dressage clinician ever did.
Whether we’re aware of it or not, we leave our mark on every horse we ride, like footprints on wet sand. The longer we ride a horse, the deeper our prints become and the harder they are to erase again. But horses also leave their marks on us, in the form of patience, humility, confidence, and connection. Maybe that’s what building a partnership means: becoming aware of the power we have to shape a horse’s body and mind, and the horse’s power to shape ours, we can make a conscious effort to leave positive impressions on our horses, while thanking them for giving us the qualities we need to do more than just survive in today’s world.