Several months ago I wrote about the Lovey-Dovey Face (Car’enovio, in Spanish).
I use this phrase playfully and seriously, in order to remind people (and myself) of our tendency to erode our leadership with horses, when we dote on them and lose track of how they are taking in our love and tenderness.
Like I said in the previous article, it’s not about being cold or indifferent. It’s about being consistent in our leadership through emotional intelligence. When we play with a horse at liberty,leadership is a great aspect in which we take care of them, it’s the way in which we show them healthier ways to fit in with others (both humans and horses).
When we dote on our horse with loving looks and praises, even if quietly, as in the examples I quoted on my other post, we sometimes forget both ourselves and the horse, and we do not realise the behaviours we are feeding with our attention. Sometimes I get the feeling that, at certain moments, all that comes out is our inner child, and the horse becomes that teddy bear that we never got. In the meantime, our horse may not find the leader they need, and so, they may attempt to assume leadership. Except eventually, we want to lead them, either freely or imposingly. This confuses and frustrates any horse; and the ensuing behaviour we often interpret as distant, disrespectful or even aggressive.
So here’s a couple of habits we can build to help us balance our lovey-doveyness. I often use them with horses I am meeting for the first time, and I recommend them to new students. When I find a strong tendency to just “love on the horse”, regardless of how they are behaving towards us, I often recommend exaggerating in the opposite direction. It’s going to the opposite side of the pendulum, so as to counteract one excess with another, and then find a happy middle.
These are part of what I call Mirroring Movements
Leaving a Standing Horse
When the urge of looking at the horse, of wanting them to be close to us, is overwhelming, I find the easier way to begin with is walking away from the horse when they are standing still, for example, grazing. If you have trouble not looking back, do anything to focus your attention on your new path. You may just look away into the distance, or even set yourself a task, such as counting the birds on a tree, or the windows on a building. Once your attention is there, it stops being on the horse. Your body language shows this in more ways than you know. Your horse sees this, and they are much more likely to feel attracted by you. They may even follow.
Leaving Each Other
The second easiest context is when you are facing your horse, be it standing or approaching them from the front, and your horse turns to move away from you. If you turn around right then and walk away, not only are you reassuring them that you will respect their space and there’s no need to flee; not only are you earning their trust; you are developing your ability to allow your horse to leave you. This is a fundamental ability to have if you truly want to play at Liberty! If you are able to focus on something else, but you still feel a bit sad about leaving your horse, try kissing your own hand and saying “Boy, ain’t I just wonderful!” outloud. Worst case scenario, you’ll feel silly, laugh at yourself for doing it –and guess what: you’ll feel better! Not to mention, you’ll probably have forgotten about the horse by then.
Under this behaviour, I like to include a subtler version: when a horse merely turns their head to look away from me, I’ll turn in the opposite direction. I find this increasingly important the closer they are standing to me, even more so if I am holding them with a lead rope. If I am caressing or scratching the horse and they move away, I’ll withdraw my hand even faster. This article by Anna Blake offers an interesting viewpoint on a horse looking away from us.
Allowing a Horse To Leave Us
Finally, the most challenging moment for a horse lover is when the horse moves away from us as we are standing. We were there first, so we don’t want to leave in the opposite direction. More often than not, we’ll want to stay right where we are, and feel good about it. We may use a trick to refocus our attention: looking away, trying to find relatives’ faces in the dirt, looking for bugs… If we feel an overpowering urge to control our horse, we may even think ‘I order you to leave’ as they do.
Eventually, we may realise that allowing the horse to leave is just one more of the joys of Liberty Training. It is the way we open the door for them to, freely, choose to come to us.