Without question, there is a connection between women and horses. This bond lures both young girls and older women into a web of seduction. My humble beginnings with horses has enlightened me not only to the ways and wiles of horses, but also to a greater understanding of how it is that women are so inextricably intertwined with them, for better or for worse, and why horses are so powerfully attractive to women.
Growing up on a small horse farm in central Florida, my education of horses began at an early age. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to develop and explore my passion for horses, which was passed on to me from my father. Being one of four siblings that all had the same opportunities and exposures, I was the only one in my family that was caught in the web. To say I had an interest in horses is a gross understatement, for if I had been able to transform myself into a horse, I would have gone to live with the herd in a heartbeat.
As av very introverted child, my days were spent hiding out in the pastures with the horses. I was very shy and quiet in my youth, but came to life with the horses. Some of my fondest childhood memories are of the hours and days spent in my fort in the huge tree out in the pasture. My sanctuary also provided a refuge to our horses from the hot Florida sun and we spent a lot of quality time there, hidden in the shade of the huge oak. While my parents worried that I did not have many friends, I found camaraderie with the herd. While my parents were concerned that I never seemed to talk much, the dialogue with my herd mates was never-ending. My infatuation turned to a lifetime passion.
It wasn't until I was a young adult that I began to question where my connection to horses came from and how I had gained the ability to understand horses so well. How was it that I knew the things I knew about horses that no one had ever taught me? Was it genetic memory? Was I born with some sort of sixth sense or mystical ability that allowed me to communicate with horses in a way that others couldn't grasp?
I remember a big brown Thoroughbred that belonged to a timid middle-aged rider. They were a bad match for each other and their relationship was troubled, to say the least. Both of them were anxious and struggling to communicate. I was drawn into this tumultuous relationship in an effort to help both of them. At the age of 14, I was a very competent rider, but no one had ever taught me how to train a horse. I knew how to jump big fences and I could ride just about anything with four legs, but I had not been taught much about horse behavior and training. As I worked with the brown horse, I somehow I managed to connect with him and find the source of the horse's anxiety and help them both find confidence in each other. Using my intuition, I was able to provide the horse with an understanding of what was expected of him and give the owner a sense of how to relate to the horse.
Gradually, I came to realize that my understanding of horses -- my "horse sense" --- had come from the horses themselves and my days spent loitering with the herd under the big oak tree. By immersing myself in their lives, I had learned their rules, and learned the communicative gestures and the various behaviors of the individuals. Armed with this invaluable but sub-conscious understanding, I began my career with horses and started on the infinite path toward greater insight.
Having spent the last 25 years as a female horse trainer in a traditionally male industry, I have spent many hours thinking about how it is that women and men are different in their approach to horses. Having spent most of my life as a trainer of horses and a teacher of people, I know that there are clear differences between the genders. For the most part, women possess qualities that enhance their relationship with horses, but some of these traits can get in our way. So what is it about women and horses that can account for the unique bond between the two?
In general, women are much more intuitive than men and are more in tune to emotions. Since horses are largely non-verbal communicators and highly emotional animals, I think women have a leg-up on men when it comes to being able to understand the horse and connect with and understand its emotions. Not only can women sense the emotionality in others, but also we tend to take on those emotions more easily, thus making us more empathetic.
Women are nurturers by nature. We are programmed to take care of our herd. We are more inclined to function in family groups and watch out for the greater good of the group. Like the boss mare in the horse herd, we are inclined to find food and shelter, provide discipline and structure and guard against threats to the safety of those in our care. In essence, we have a tendency to be herd-bound ourselves.
On a deeper level, I believe women can connect with horses from a shared understanding of what it is like to be a prey animal. In spite of the fact that humans are considered to be predators and, in fact, the number one predator of horses for more than 150,000 years, women are more accustomed to being prey than being predator. Throughout history, women have been oppressed and victimized by individual males who are physically stronger by nature. Throughout history society has oppressed women in many ways. Both women and horses understand what it means to be vulnerable and I think that as a result, the psyches of both horses and women are connected deep within as strong, spirited animals with true vulnerabilities that lie just below the surface. As women, we know what it is like to have our rights infringed upon. We know what it is like to fear for our own safety and survival. In some cases, we understand what it is like to be captive and powerless to determine our own fate.
I spent my college years working at the racetrack and gaining a whole new perspective than what I had learned on the show circuit. I loved the riding; I loved the excitement of busting out of the starting gate and running like the wind. I loved the challenge of riding young vigorous horses and staying with them through their transition from young gangly colts to mature and resolute athletes. I loved the power and the veracity that I felt riding racehorses. Yet walking through the back barns at the track, I would cower from the catcalls and the harassment emanating from the seedy track workers. As a rider, I felt strong and empowered. As a woman, I felt vulnerable and frightened.
When a horse feels frightened and trapped, he sometimes forgets that he is strong and powerful and capable of defending himself, because his nature is to run not confront. Sometimes a horse will quietly accept his fate and endure endless abuse, forgetting he has the power to fight back. At the track, I could handle the powerful and exuberant horses, but one pathetic and meaningless man could make me run for cover.
Just as men tend to approach life with bravado, women tend to approach life with cunning and finesse. I believe this accounts for why horses relate differently to men and women, for better or for worse. Whether it is a fact of biology or society, men tend to be stronger and more confident than women and therefore tend to approach horses more from the perspective of muscling the horse or "conquering the savage beast." While women, with a keener sense of survival and an understanding of vulnerability, and knowing that our brute force will not count for much against a thousand pound animal, tend to approach horses with greater finesse and thoughtfulness.
I believe it is this very difference that accounts for the fact that often horses are said to be "afraid of men." I do not think that horses can intellectually distinguish between the genders of humans, but rather react to the body language, attitudes and intentions of men, who are more imposing and intimidating in their demeanor. It has been my observation that horses that are supposedly afraid of men will not be frightened of men that are quiet, calm and humble in their approach to horses. In other words, horses will not be frightened of men "in touch with their feminine sides."
Although women seem to connect with horses through a shared sense of vulnerability, this sense of vulnerability can also manifest in a lack of confidence, which may interfere with a satisfactory relationship between the two. As men tend to approach horses with confidence and an air of leadership, women often approach horses with uncertainty and insecurity. Horses are very quick to perceive this difference and may take advantage of a woman more quickly than a man.
The structure of the horse herd is a linear hierarchy, which means that each and every individual of the herd is either dominant over, or subordinate to, each and every other individual. In essence, if you and your horse form a herd of two, you are either dominant or subordinate; you are either the leader or the follower. I have found that women often have difficulty stepping into the leadership role in their herd of two. Women are nurturers and not aggressors; therefore it is easy for us to fall into the subordinate role.
To earn respect and become the leader of the herd, a horse must control the resources of the herd (food, water, etc.) and control the space and actions of the subordinates. In our roles as nurturers and caregivers, women have difficulty stepping up to this plate. Women may be quick to let horses, and others, push them around and control their space, which only serves to convince the horse that he is, in fact, the alpha individual in the herd of two.
So while women have much strength that allows us to connect to horses on a deeper level, sometimes these strengths can become our greatest weaknesses. We are not as accustomed to defending our space and asking for what we want. We are more accustomed to giving of our selves to others.
It may be that the best lesson women can learn and apply to their relationship with horses is to remember that we share much with horses, and can naturally relate to them, but that our natural behaviors are potentially counter-productive to capable management of our horses. In other words, how we feel -- our emotions and intuition -- are positives; but how we react --- whether we are confident and direct, or less assertive and indirect --- can be negative. If women can learn to use their senses and feelings to understand and bond with their horses, and also learn to act directly and confidently, they will develop an extraordinary bond and will catch the horse in their web.
I have learned many things from my lifetime spent with horses and they will continue to be my teachers throughout my life. I have learned to be honest, forthright and clear in my communications with others. I have learned to follow through with what I ask for, an assertiveness that does not come naturally to women who are used to giving rather than taking. I have learned to feel confidant and act like the leader, even when deep down inside I do not really feel that way. Sometimes, you just have to fake it.
Above all else, horses have taught me to be patient. I have learned to be persistent, to hold my ground and wait and let the horse come to me. There is no greater satisfaction than to develop a relationship based on trust and confidence with a horse. Perhaps the greatest patience of all is the patience of knowing that I will continue to learn about horses for the rest of my life at the same rate that I was learning as a child under the oak tree. The tree fort has given way to my kitchen table, sipping coffee in the early morning hours and studying the herd right outside my window. And no matter how hard I try and no matter how long I work at it, there will always be another lesson to be learned from a horse.
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