Trust, responsibility and awareness

On learning from and with horses –

By Christiane Schwagrzinna, the horse lady

Contact with horses has been a significant part of my life since childhood. Horses were what helped me to overcome difficult personal and professional crises and they helped me to grow through these experiences. Horses have been a source of strength for me again and again. They have taught me to develop trust in areas where fear or skepticism had previously reigned. They have taught me to take full responsibility for myself and for shaping my life. The have taught me to perceive with all senses and stay true to myself even when life gets hectic. Work with horses gives me self-confidence, strengthens my self-reliance and awareness and without them I would still be a prisoner of my emotions: despite significant professional and athletic achievements, despite my partnership and family, I was not happy. It was the horses that first helped me to overcome my depression, fears and addictions. Psychological diseases such as these often stem from a lack of trust, self-responsibility and awareness. Dealing with horses helped me to heal my psychological diseases and helped me develop the stability of personality that I have now. Today, I accept myself as I am, with all my strengths and talents but also with my weaknesses and faults. Today, I take the responsibility that my basic needs of love, wholeness and harmony are fulfilled.

 I would like to share and pass on these positive experiences which I have gained through contact with horses. In my profession as an attorney, I often discovered that, for example, a legal dispute, an argument, was merely an expression of the general dissatisfaction of the client. And thus, winning the case did not give the client any lasting peace; the next dispute was already in the offing. Instead of continuing to treat the symptoms in court, I would like to accompany people on their path to greater personal satisfaction. The prerequisite is openness to the wonders found in the cooperation between horse and human; in short: risk contact with the horses, acquire the ability to handle them in the right way – and learn to handle yourself along the way!

How I work: experiencing trust, responsibility and awareness

My understanding of horses today was molded to a great extent by Monty Roberts. This well-known Californian, the “horse whisperer”, has studied the nature of horses and their form of communication for over fifty years. He derived his nonviolent training approach for horses from how wild horses behave in their natural surrounding – Join-Up. Join-Up enables a person to establish a trust-based relationship with a horse within a relatively short period of time. This relationship makes outstanding athletic success as well as a harmonious partnership with the horse possible.

Join-Up can also be applied to many areas of human thinking, experience and behavior. The human can also develop a trust-based and self-reliant view of himself, his interpersonal relationships and the world as a whole. In this context, trust means a loving acceptance of things as they are. Self-reliance concerns the ability to differentiate between things that can be influenced and those which are unchangeable, and to handle these things accordingly. In order to develop trust and self-reliance, awareness, i.e. the ability to perceive with all senses, is needed. Handing horses can help us to reacquire or strengthen our awareness. Practicing awareness means becoming aware of your environment and your impressions and bringing both of these into alignment with each other. Authenticity and natural authority arise from this state of mind quite naturally; both of these are indispensible leadership qualities. And the horse also shows us immediately if we have these qualities or not:
It follows us voluntarily when it perceives us as trustworthy and when we offer it security.

Cooperation between horse and human –

How does the horse think and behave and what can we learn from this?

Since the Eocene Epoch, for approximately 56 million years, the horse has lived by the principles of trust, responsibility and awareness. Horses are creatures with a highly developed sense of awareness. A decisive factor for the survival of horses is how aware they are of their environment, but also their ability to regard their needs for rest, nourishment and social contact. It registers every minute movement in the bush and every change in the herd. The horse must be poised to flee just as quickly as it must be able to relax again, in order to avoid unnecessary energy expenditure.

 This ability sets an example for us of what Buddha considered the central attribute on the path to awakening: awareness, which means being present with all senses in the current moment. Only the person who actively perceives what is happening in him and around him in a state of wakefulness is able to respond appropriately and learn from his experiences. For the horse herd in the wild, a strict hierarchy is necessary and the herd is led by the lead mare. Whether finding a new feeding spot or fleeing from predators, the lead mare is followed without hesitation. She communicates solely through body language, without discussion – the herd has complete trust in the lead mare. If the horse does not follow, it has no chance of survival. In the wild, the horse needs the intact herd. As prey and flight animals, they can only relax or eat when the other members of the herd offer him protection and make sure that no enemy is approaching.

The most important horse, the lead mare, expects respect from every member of the herd in the form of the adherence to the due physical distance from her. When she moves, the other horses move out of the way. Gestures of humility such as this are continually demanded, in order to ensure that the ranking would enable them to flee in an emergency and not scatter into all directions. A horse which, however, does not obey in the everyday activities is chased out of the herd by the lead mare. It is only when the expelled member herd displays its submission that the horse is allowed back into the herd. If this does not happen, the horse risks death as prey. And so, each member of the herd learns what it has to do to belong to the herd and to survive. And, of course, only a competent, strong mare is suitable as the lead mare. Trust in the strength of the lead mare is engendered only when the lead mare behaves in a manner which is worthy of this trust. This also includes being consistent in insisting on adherence to the ranking system within the herd. Horses demonstrate for us the (survival) principles of trust, self-responsibility and awareness in their genetically-defined behavior, developed over thousands of years.

“Join-Up” mimics the behavior of the animals and enables effective and nonviolent communication with the horse. Thus, the coercive methods still common today, used, for example, in breaking in a horse, become superfluous. The horse decides for itself, if and when it will join the human, have unconditional trust in the human, and cooperate. The horse will, however, only follow when the human behaves in a manner worthy of trust, speaks with the consistently and predictably in its own language because the horse simply does not understand any other language. Horses which behave uncooperatively primarily have understanding and hierarchy problems with the human.

Join-Up’s individual steps; how communication works 

The horse and the human are in the round pen, a circular, closed space with a diameter of approximately 14 meters. The horse and the human can move freely. The relationship created is marked by lack of interest, rejection or also affection. The horse will express these through its body language and perhaps even verbally, in whinnying at his fellow horses.  

The human also communicates using body language, gestures and movements (how he moves his hands, how he looks at the horse, if the shoulder of the human is or is not twisted towards the horse, etc.) and also through his emotional state. The horse reacts immediately to the human’s relationship offers. It understands the body language of the human.

The human defines the relationship to the horse in the round pen. He initially shoos the horse away from him, just as the lead mare would send the uncooperative horse out of the herd. Now a very special form of nonverbal communication begins.

Which posture must be adopted to set the horse in motion, how many rounds should be run at what pace, when should the direction be changed. This requires the active awareness of the human of his own body language, his own feelings. It is important to closely observe the horse, because it shows the human, how he is behaving.

After approximately 10 minutes, the horse begins to make cooperation offers, it seeks contact: the horse turns its inner ear towards the human and starts to listen. It decreases the distance between itself and the human. The circles become smaller, the horse becomes more relaxed.

The human responds to this by reducing the pressure, which is exerted solely through his body language and direction of gaze. In the end, the horse makes it clear that it recognizes and accepts the leadership role of the human: it sinks its head until its nose almost touches the ground, chews and licks, as it continues to circle the human. This is the moment where the horse can be invited to join the “herd”, which is led by the human.

The human turns away, takes away all pressure on the horse and allows the horse to join him: the horse draws near to the human, touches him with its nose and follows him without being forced. A partnership based on mutual trust has been created, in which the horse recognizes and accepts the leadership role of the human – without violent subjugation. The human impressively experiences the enormous effects of nonviolent communication which is based on trust, responsibility and awareness. 

Christiane Schwagrzinna - Naturopathic Practitioner for Psychotherapy