Most of us know when we need a little refocusing. But how often do we remember that — for lack of a better term — our horse “is a person, too.” They can be just as unfocused, overwhelmed or down-right moody as us. That is where having mental and emotional grounding techniques for both you and your horse are handy tools to have in your toolbox.
What does mental and emotional grounding look like?
In a word, focus. For the rider, it means paying attention to your horse. Not your cell phone, or barn drama, or even the extremely cute new pony. I love how Nancy Wesolek-Sterrett said it in her article, A Relaxation Toolkit,
“Talking to someone and concentrating on the horse at the same time is a learned skill.” And on those days when we can’t walk and chew gum at the same time, it’s best to put the conversation on hold while with our horse.
And for the horse? It’s a balance of respect (herd hierarchy) and focus.
Though hierarchy is an entire topic for another post, it’s worth mentioning here. Keep in mind when horses feel secure with their rider as the “leader,” they are much easier to work with. In addition, though most of us want our horse primarily focused under saddle, it starts on the ground. Western trainer Clinton Anderson teaches his students that if the horse doesn’t respect his rider on the ground, he ultimately won’t under saddle either.
Now, I digress. About these techniques… It’s a good idea to use them before and after your training session. It creates a atmosphere of relaxation and promotes bonding.
First, take an assessment before you begin.
It sounds dry, but it’s worth the few seconds. Before approaching your horse, it’s a good idea to take a personal assessment of your own mental and emotional status. How many of us have tried to ride while stressed out and distracted? Hm-mmm, it usually doesn’t go well. I’m not trying to be a killjoy, because often our equine partner provides amazing stress relief. But there are time where we’re both having a bad day. Let’s save ourselves the rough ride and take a little objective assessment first.
Take an assessment of your horse, too. When you go to catch and tie him, does he seem agitated? Sleepy? Any sense of discomfort or pain? Know what you’re working with.
Let’s talk legs.
While grooming the horse, use a little massage therapy technique called “stroking-down the legs.” Start with the near front leg. Using your hands — and not a brush — keep constant contact with the horses’ leg and gently stroke down the leg for a few seconds.
It’s not about pressure, but light contact with your whole hand. Use 6-8 strokes going down and 3 or so on your way up. Repeat 3 times. Keep up the stroking motion along the horses’ body as you move to the back leg and do the same thing.
Restart on the off front leg and repeat. This helps relax and “ground” each leg (as well as provide mild fluid drainage).
Breathe with your horse.
Probably the easiest of the techniques. I see young riders do this unconsciously all the time, especially while hanging out with their horses in the pasture: one arm over the horses’ back, standing rib-cage-to-rib-cage and just being quiet.
It’s not really about the breathing technique; just use relaxed, even breaths. For the first few times, stay at the horses’ heart girth. As long as the horse is comfortable, you can move back on the rib cage until nearly on his flank — where the most breathing motion is.
Take it a step further and place a hand over the horses’ heart, right behind the elbow.
You can breathe with your horse for 2 minutes or 10, it doesn’t entirely matter. As long as you and the horse are both relaxed and breathing normally, it can be a very intentional connecting time.
Think “oily horse.”
This is one of my favorite — and most effective — tools in my tool box. Essential oils have countless physiological and emotional benefits for both horse and rider. Having a small “barn stash” is extremely useful.
Just like in humans, when a horse smells essential oils the molecules take a straight shot to the limbic center of the brain.There, they directly effect the emotion center of the brain. And give you a leg-up on encouraging a focused, positive attitude.
A note about introducing horses to essential oils: only use quality, therapeutic grade essential oils (I use Young Living because of their Seed To Seal standard) and only try a couple of oils at a time. Too many can overload the horse. Also, give the horse the option to turn away if they want. They have preferences, too.
Here’s what I like to do: grab my oil of preference (suggestions below). Put a drop of two in the palm of one hand. With the fingertips of my other hand, rub the oil in a clockwise motion (it gets the molecules spinning). Apply to desired area such as your temples, back of neck, across shoulders or over the heart.
Then I’ll cup my hands near the horses’ nose to allow them to inhale the oil. If they seem happy with it, I’ll take the same oil and apply it directly to the same location on the horse.
- Peppermint: focus and mental clarity. Apply to your temples, behind ears or center of forehead. Do the same on the horse.
- Frankincense: emotionally grounding, spiritually uplifting. Apply over the heart.
- Present Time blend: emotionally grounding. Apply over your heart and on the horses’ chest over the thymus gland.
- Stress Away blend: stress relieving and calming. Apply across your shoulders and drop directly on the horses’ pole.
- Valor or Valor II blend: promotes grounding and confidence. Apply over your heart and on your horses’ pole.
Not sure where to get essential oils? Check this out.
This is a good — though slightly unorthodox — way to start and end your ride.
On a loose rein, lean all of your weight into one stirrup until your horse begins to circle, nearly stumbling over themselves. The goal is for your horse to become familiar with your weight cue, keep a slow and even pace, and begin to bend their body in an arc.
As always, do the exercise on both sides. This can also be a good way to regroup in the middle of a ride if you or the horse gets nervous.
Last but not least, remember a serving of grace.
Sometimes despite our best efforts, lack of focus or distractions happen. It doesn’t mean anyone has failed, but that life still happens. Just remember to give your horse — and yourself — the grace to have bad days. And keep practicing good techniques. Because one day you’ll notice those bad days happen less and less frequently.