Observation is the act of collecting information with the intent to learn something. To observe effectively, you must do your best to set aside your judgments, attachments, and analysis. All information that we take in is filtered through our beliefs and we cannot become a completely unbiased observer. We can, however, learn to be conscious of the power of observation. Your horse communicates with his body. You must learn to listen with your eyes.
Observation of group dynamics at a distance
Spend time watching your horse out in a herd. Watching horses interact with one another is invaluable in learning how they communicate. It is even more powerful to watch your own riding partner as a member of a herd without human influence.
Where does your horse fall in the herd rank? Who does your horse tend to buddy up with? Are there any horses he doesn’t get along with? What body language does he use the most? How is his movement at liberty? What is his favorite activity? What is his personality like?
Observation of group dynamics in close proximity
Spend time observing your horse within the herd. Watching how the horses react to you as a newcomer in the herd will give you more information about herd dynamics. You can learn a lot about how your horse relates to you and others. For example, my horse Radar was in charge of his herd and when I approached he would greet me and incorporate me into his group. His interaction with me and the other horses gave me a lot of feedback about his personality, our relationship, and the way that he is going to deal with circumstances.
Please note, you have to spend plenty of time with the horses to get over the excitement if they are only used to seeing people when it is time to be caught or fed. As always, safety first! Make sure you are comfortable in a herd before entering the group. Remember this is about observation, not interaction, so just be present amongst the horses.
How does your horse react when you enter the group? How does he interact with you once things have settled down? Has his body language changed at all? Are the dynamics and alliances affected by your presence? Do you notice different things about their body language up close than you did from a distance? How do you feel emotionally? Is this more or less powerful than observing them at a distance?
Observation of the individual at a distance
You can also learn a lot by watching your horse alone. Without the influence of other horses you could see different aspects of his personality. Perhaps you will learn valuable information comparing your horse’s behavior with others and alone. Some horses feel more insecure alone while others will express a new aspect of their personality. This will also give you feedback about how your horse may react to riding out alone.
It really helps to watch at a distance if your horse does not know you are there so that he is not influenced by your presence. You can also try with or without hay, with or without toys, or with or without horses in sight. You may get different reactions depending on how you set up the environment.
Is your horse’s body language different when alone? Does he seem anxious or relaxed? What is he doing? Do you see any new behaviors that are unfamiliar to you? What is his primary body language? Is he curious about his environment?
Observation of the individual in close proximity
Spending time hanging out with your horse without an agenda can be one of the most powerful ways to build bonds and trusting relationships. Your horse spends 24/7 with fellow herd mates. You have to spend some time just getting to know one another. Try sitting in the arena with your horse at liberty while you read a book and he munches on hay. Or come up with other ideas about how you can just hang out together without having to do anything or even interact.
Is your horse affected by your presence? Is he more or less interested in you than when you interact within a herd with him? Is he observing you? Is he curious about what you are doing? Is he motivated to interact with you or keeping his distance? What is his body language? How has his attitude changed? Do you notice anything new or different observing him without trying to get him to do anything?
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This post is part of a year-long series of heart reflections based on the book Soulful Horsemanship, A Path to Emotional Freedom for the Horse and Human. Soulful Horsemanship is a spiritual approach to working with horses with the goal of developing empowerment, authenticity, and inner peace for the horse and human alike. The entire collection of heart opening essays is available as a book – check it out.