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What can horses teach us about communication and empathy?

Through the eyes of a horse, a moment of frustration unfolded into a profound lesson on communication beyond words, revealing the healing power of empathy and connection between us.

On a rare, clear spring day in March in the UK, I found myself with a precious 45 minutes to ride before we had to leave for the vet's with another horse for a set of front feet x-rays. The lorry was already parked, ready for departure. I walked down to the field to fetch my horse, basking in the unexpected warmth of the sun. It was a moment of simple joy, watching him lift his head, close his eyes, and soak in the sunlight, a serene expression spreading across his face.

Leading him across the field into the barn and towards the tacking up area, the transformation was sudden and startling. This beautiful 16.2 gelding, usually relaxed with his head and neck by my shoulder, became a bundle of nerves. He rushed ahead, head and neck high, the whites of his eyes flashing panic. Instinctively, I slowed him down, placing my hand on his neck, whispering,

"What's wrong?"

But the silence was deafening; no sound, no visible trigger, yet here was a horse in the throes of anxiety.

As I stood him up in the tacking area and removed his rug, his agitation became more apparent. He pulled at his hay with such ferocity that it made me stop and wonder. This wasn't the calm, rhythmic chewing of a relaxed horse; this was the anxious gnawing of a creature on edge.

The drama escalated as I moved to pick out his feet. He was fine until I reached his right side. In a split second, he moved away, his expression sly, almost cunning. He turned so quickly he nearly fell, leaving me stunned, questioning the environment for clues.

Then, it hit me.

The sight of the lorry had triggered him. This horse, once a high-level Eventer with a successful career, had been retired due to an injury. His association of the lorry with leaving his comfort zone had brought on a wave of anxiety.

Understanding his history, I knew that adding pressure by riding him would only deepen his distress. My intention shifted, embodying calm leadership, a silent promise of "I've got you."

This was our breakthrough moment, not just for him, but for me as well.

In the arena, I chose to step away, not demanding anything of him, focusing instead on my breath. This simple act, a deep, intentional breathing, became our shared language. It was a way to tell him, without words, that he was safe, that the ghosts of his past didn't need to haunt him here. As I inhaled and exhaled, exaggerated and slow, I watched him transform. His body relaxed, his head lowered, and the whites of his eyes, once wide with panic, softened into a look of trust. It was as if he was exhaling his fears, letting them go with each breath I took.

The specific groundwork exercises we embarked on weren't just about physical movement but about assessing the horse I had before me that day and adapting our work to meet him where he was. We focused on postural exercises like rein back, which encouraged him to step back gently, engaging his hindquarters and back in a way that promoted strength without stress. Small circles helped with ribcage mobilization, encouraging suppleness and flexibility, while flat walking poles, arranged in patterns like the fan and the triangle, challenged him to move with careful, deliberate steps. These exercises weren't just physical; they were conversations, ways of asking him to trust me, to believe in the safety of the moment.

For a visual guide on these postural exercises: Send me an email to with the title FREE POSTURAL INHAND GUIDE

Most people might have pushed forward, demanding more, asking questions that a tense, frightened horse couldn't answer. But in that arena, I chose a different path. By focusing on my breath, I invited him to slow down, to match his energy with mine. It was a gentle reminder that not all work has to be hard, that sometimes the most profound progress comes from quiet moments of connection. As we moved together, his nervous sweating began to subside, replaced by a calm focus. The horse that had walked into the arena, tail high and eyes wide, was now moving with a relaxed neck, his ears flicking back to me in quiet conversation.

It was a testament to the power of empathy, of choosing to lead with understanding rather than force.

Reflecting on this experience, I'm reminded of the profound impact we can have on each other's lives. For this horse, the arena became a place of healing, a space where he could lay down the burdens of his past. For me, it was a lesson in leadership, in the strength that comes from compassion and the understanding that true connection requires us to meet others where they are, not where we want them to be.

This journey through the arena was more than just groundwork; it was a shared path to healing, a reminder of the deep bond that forms when we choose empathy over expectation. And as we left the arena that day, it was clear that the magic had indeed happened, not in the moments of physical exertion, but in the quiet spaces between, where trust was rebuilt, and fears were released.

I'd love to know if you resonated with this experience?

Please do comment below ⬇️

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