Like any activity in which one can gain expertise, horse training has its own terminology and among the people I’ve learned with a critically important concept is “life” or “energy. A lot of people hear these words and think that they sound almost mystical, a key to the magical touch of the horse whisperer accessible only through years of dedicated training at the Jedi Academy on Coruscant.
Now I would hate to disappoint anybody, so you might not want to read on at this point lest I ruin your illusions, but ( from my limited but growing experience ) life and energy aren’t really like that.
The two terms can generally be used quite interchangeably and the way I understand them is really a matter of how you move and carry yourself and how you feel about doing that. Imagine you are sitting in a chair in your living room and you want to read the newspaper but it is just out of reach, so you get out of the chair step over to it in a leisurely way and return to your comfortable seat. That is a very low energy movement. Now imagine that you are walking to the station and you are running a little late- you’re still walking but now you’re walking briskly and with a lot of intent, you know exactly where you’re going and you’re determined to get there before the train leaves. The difference between the two is the amount of life or energy in your movement. You might think of energy in this sense as being simply the amount of energy you are putting into moving.
Horses, being living creatures, also have life and energy but as they are herd animals that largely communicate through body language they are very sensitive to it and naturally tend to reflect the energy that other creatures around them carry, particularly horses but they can learn to do it with humans too. There’s a good reason for this in terms of survival – if a predator appears and one horse starts running, the last horse in the herd to pick up that change is the one most likely to be caught by the predator. Of course, being able to read the energy of fellow herd-members is also valuable for getting along in a herd in general, in fact it’s the major way that horses communicate among themselves, so when we are able to tap into it that can really help them to understand us.
When we’re working with our horses on the ground, it is quite easy to use this reflective quality of horses to change their way of going by changing our own energy. If I want my horse to change from walk to trot on the line ( or at liberty ) I can just change my way of moving – increase the amount of life in my body – and they will make that transition. At first a horse might not know that doing that has any significance, especially if they are accustomed to humans and our tendency to fluctuate our energy arbitrarily, but once we start to consistently use this, they pick it up easily.
In the saddle, the same applies – by changing our energy level before we apply a direct cue, we can teach the horse to follow our energy without needing us to use our legs and hands or only needing them to add finesse or information about how exactly we want to go. This is an area where the principles are simple and yet they can be applied with limitless depth and subtlety if you are willing to keep working with them. I know I have only scratched the surface of this in my own horsemanship but then Ray Hunt, who took this further than anyone else I’m aware of, claimed that he was still only scratching the surface; this is one of the places that horsemanship can truly be considered an art.
Communication through energy goes in two directions – if something makes our horse emotional then that puts life in their body which can be a little nervewracking for us. My cob, for example, will typically pass pigs in passage. Sideways. They really bother him and that emotion puts life into him to a much greater degree than me putting my leg on ever does. When your horse has more energy than you can comfortably deal with the important thing is to avoid putting even more into the system. I have heard it described as being like a cup containing two liquids, one for the horse’s energy the other for the rider’s. Ideally we would like that to be half and half but if the horse is running at 9/10ths energy and the rider tries to put in their half, the cup is going to overflow, so if your horse is putting more energy in, you probably want to put a lot less in. At the same time, if a horse has a lot of energy then there is no point in trying to repress that- horses have a fundamental need to move their feet when they are emotional and if we try and stop them we create problems for the horse and for us. In that situation I prefer to just direct the life the horse is making available to me so they are moving, but they are moving in the way that I’m asking them to. The combination of movement and listening to my decisions rather than making their own can really help the horse to relax. Rather than trying to stop them I might pick a place where I will offer them a stop and then take them round in different figures and keep offering the stop at that place. When the horse is ready, they will choose to stop there and that will be more meaningful to them than if I try to close them down and make them stop.
At the other end of the scale, sometimes you need to put more life in – traditionally this is what we do with our legs and maybe with a crop or other secondary reinforcement. This is a bit like putting one’s foot on the accelerator – it gives us the movement that we can use to direct. If you are sat on a horse who isn’t moving, trying to steer them, then all you are really doing is pulling on your horse- you can’t direct life you don’t have.
My goal, ultimately, is to be in a place where the life in my body is connected to the life in my horse’s. That sounds a bit like I might be getting back to that mystical place that I was claiming to debunk and there are things that I see other people do with horses that look a lot like magic to me. But then the things I do now would have looked like magic to me a few years ago and I’m only scratching the surface- there is always room to go deeper.
I will certainly return to this topic as my understanding grows – it has many facets and lies at the heart of the communication that we can share with our horses.