A Humorous and Helpful Road Map to the Highly Sensitive Horse
Now that I’ve come out of the closet as a highly sensitive person (not that there was ever really any doubt), it’s time to get real about something else. Both of my horses are highly sensitive horses aka HSH’s (it has a nice ring to it). I know, you’re floored. This is shocking and wild news. To help you pick your jaw up off the floor, let me give you some context and a little look into how I figured it all out.
With Diva, my Percheron Morgan mare, the dead give-away came the fateful day, twelve years ago, when she spooked at a car that came too close on the road we were walking down, ran me over in her fear and dragged me (because my hand refused to do the smart thing and let go of the reins) down the road by my middle finger. To this day, I ponder the symbolism of the subsequent break and the rather unfortunate splint I was required to wear. But, pondering aside, it was that day, fairly new to our then blossoming/frustrating relationship, that I started to understand the extent of her sensitivity. Not surprisingly, this happened at about the same time as I was battling similar labels and losing…I was finally beginning to swallow the realities of being a highly sensitive person.
And so a highly sensitive love affair began between a girl and her horse, which was rather fantastic timing, considering Diva was one of my main teachers on all things energy and intuition, two highly important areas of study for any highly sensitive person who wants to feel good, rather than scattered to the four corners of the world and wildly out of balance. Also, tremendously important for someone who, much to her surprise, was being called to a healing career working with subtle energies and communication with animals.
Because Diva was highly sensitive and I was actually meant to be a leader to her, given that I knew more about keeping us safe in the world around us than she did (although at times I had my doubts about that supposed fact), I had some rather substantial stepping up to the plate to do, which she reminded me of quite regularly. I had to channel my sensitivity into something helpful, rather than something that turned me into a moody, anxious, ungrounded mess. I realized rather soon in our relationship that ungrounded chaotic energy makes for terrible leadership and even more terrible, often dangerous, situations.
In the end, I got massively humble, swallowed my pride and got to work on my own stuff. It would have been easy to call Diva a bad horse, a label she already carried with one of her then veterinarians, and after several of her early, often painful, escapades, with my friends. But that would have meant giving up on us and what I knew we had together, which I was not willing to do. The connection I felt with this horse, was and is, something that would be akin to a soul mate connection. Even when the shit was hitting the fan and I was walking about with a permanently upright middle finger and a deep bruise to the ego, I knew that the connection was real. Looking back twelve years later I am so very grateful that I was able to see past all the “stuff” to the truth. Diva was and is a deeply sensitive, tuned in, fully expressed horse who I am lucky enough to call more partner and there are more gifts in that then I could have ever imagined.
How do you recognize a highly sensitive horse? Here’s four give-aways:
- They are a barometer for your emotions. If you bring “stuff” to the barn, they know it – there’s no hiding from the HSH. And if you don’t get real with them about it (aka own the fact that you’re feeling a little off), you might just find yourself riding a horse-shaped kite or a jitterbug or a bucking bronco. Not so fun.
- They know when stuff is up. The HSH picks up everything in their environment, meaning that if Joe the horse from down the way isn’t feeling well or Sally the pony is upset, they know it and feel it. They are tuned right in. Diva knows it when something is up several farms over, even if she can’t see or hear anything.
- They often have some resistance to change and difficulty trusting. It’s not that they don’t want to, it’s just that, well, it’s tough trusting a human that is a little oblivious. And, sadly, most of us are – our intuition and instincts can be somewhat lacking if we don’t work with them often (thankfully we can improve that!). These are also the horses that are more affected by trauma and traumatic experiences.
- They tend to be more spooky and reactive than most. You see that leaf over there blowing across the road? A highly sensitive horse would be the one to decide that it was an absolute monster, bound and determined to eat him alive. These are the horses that have a harder time with confined spaces and limited turnout, with un-natural, high stimulus situations. These are horses that need lots of movement, lots of healthy leadership and that require gentleness and time spent connecting and building trust out of the saddle.
So today, my intention/goal is to give you a nice little road map to help you better understand your highly sensitive horse – what they need and what you need to be great partners and friends. When Diva and I found each other over twelve years ago, I was still employing my very traditional background of riding, a school of thought based on control and make and getting the result you want no matter what the cost. There were a number of flaws in this paradigm, especially when it came to my new highly sensitive horse, but potentially the biggest is the fact that there didn’t seem to be any rider accountability. What that means is that it was always the horse’s fault. Any issue, any unwanted behaviour, any resistance was seen as “bad” behaviour which needed to be curbed and eliminated. The result? Aside from some very unhappy horses, you also have many breeding programs that quite literally breed the expression and sensitivity out of horses, giving the market what it seems to want, which are horses that can wear pressure, block out pain, internalize stress, live in unnatural conditions, and that do what they are told no matter what. I have met a number of these horses in my travels and my heart goes out to them – it is not an easy life that they live. Many of these horses leave us all too early with lameness concerns, pain, arthritis, colic, ulceration, and more as their bodies and minds break down from a lifetime of internalizing stress. The natural way of the horse is sensitivity – this has how they have survived for thousands of years. Only since their domestication have we decided that this sensitivity is not a good thing, not something to be treasured and encouraged.
My preference always is a sensitive, expressed, tuned-in horse, one that feels safe connecting with me and safe to share when they are upset, in pain or confused. Enter the highly sensitive horse. Sadly, many HSH’s are labelled as “bad,” just like Diva was so many years ago. These misunderstood horses can find themselves moving from home to home, often (fingers crossed) arriving on the doorstep of a horse person ready for some deep learning about connection and compassion. If this is one of your horses, you may often find yourself shaking your head at how they managed to arrive in your barnyard, and you may even question whether you chose them, or whether they, in fact, chose you. And you may also feel a profound and inexplicable sense of connection with them, despite outward appearances and present-moment frustration. Many heart horses, those horses that are here to help us heal and connect deeply in the heart, are, by necessity, highly sensitive, able to tune into our deepest needs before we even know them ourselves and moving us forward on our evolutionary path towards our potential.
Some horses, like my dear Lily, have been recognized for their highly sensitive and wonderful selves since birth, feeling safe to express and be open and requiring a level of understanding and communication to feel safe – she’s currently teaching me a new level of this awareness in myself. Between her and Diva, I feel like I’m in school every single day, learning to be a more kind, compassionate and fair leader and partner and a better human being.
Here are a few of the big lessons I’ve learned from highly sensitive horses over my lifetime to make your time with them way more fun and fulfilling:
- More pressure usually isn’t the answer. If you’re lucky enough to have a HSH in your life (you may have a hard time seeing the blessing in this, but I promise you they are great!), it is important to recognize that the wrong kind of pressure for the wrong reasons can do damage, in some cases, permanent damage. It can also break their trust in you, a trust that is hard won. These kind of horses thrive on spaciousness and release, which doesn’t mean no pressure is needed. It means that the pressure has to be from the right place and has to always include release. This is not the kind of horse you want to send away to someone you don’t really know to be cowboy’d and “broken” (although I don’t believe that to be helpful for any kind of horse) so that you have a “good” obedient horse. Yes, they may need firmness and strength at times and they will definitely need healthy boundaries, but softness, kindness and understanding need to balance the scales, along with a healthy dose of humility in anyone who works with them. Yes, you may lose your temper with this kind of horse (in fact, I can pretty much guarantee it) – that is ok. We’re human after all. Just make sure to apologize afterwards and explain your point of view. Which leads me to my next big lesson from these kind of horses…
- They understand your thoughts and words. Just like highly sensitive people are more psychic than most, so are highly sensitive horses (and yes, all horses are psychic, just like all people are). I remember the first time I ever talked out loud to Diva – I was pretty embarrassed – here I was talking to a horse! But, after the subsequent shift that occurred I knew she had received my message loud and clear. Since then, I have had no qualms talking to my horses, as crazy as people might think I am. Thankfully I don’t feel quite so weird because most of my friends talk to their horses too. I share with my horses when I’m leaving on a trip, when I’ll be home, what we’ll be up to during a ride and what adventures are coming up. And of course, I apologize, because I, also, am human and get angry and upset and do stupid things. Thankfully, horses are incredibly forgiving.
- Connect with your heart. The horse has one of the largest heart fields of any animal on earth. It’s just one of the reasons why going to the barn feels like a big warm hug. The more we are in our hearts, the less we are in our heads – it means we’re meeting them where they live, on the level of the body, on the level of feel. Take a moment before going out to see your horses to bring your breath into your body, to ground your feet and to get connected to your heart. Do the same when you get in the saddle – you’ll be amazed at the change in you and your horse with just this one shift. It’s powerful stuff!
- Open your mind. If you have a highly sensitive horse in your life, you’re going to have to think outside of the box. And the sooner you accept that reality the better it is for everyone. Be willing to give up your current version of the truth for something else, be open to new ideas and ways of doing things, do your darndest to release your resistance to change and the unknown. This kind of horse is here to teach you a thing or two and that is going to mean traversing some unknown and possibly uncomfortable territory.
- Breathing is everything. I know, you’ve heard it before. But this kind of horse is going to make this point even more abundantly clear. Because if you don’t breath and find your centre, they won’t, and that means a bit of a wilder ride than you might have liked. Building lots of release and spaciousness into your time together, with deep, full breaths, will do wonders for your connection and their confidence, plus it’ll help you regain your balance if you start feeling frustrated or emotional. Nothing like a good series of deep breaths to drop you back into your body and shift your state – pretty cool that it does the same thing for your horse!
- Keep it natural. A highly sensitive horse will be, not surprisingly, sensitive to their environment, which means that the more natural you can keep it the better. My girls and I have an agreement about the electric fence – if they don’t push it, I don’t turn it on. They’ve both let me know that the consistent electric pulsing is tough on their systems and they’ve held true to their side of the bargain. Remember, wild horses are highly sensitive by necessity, so your highly sensitive horse will tend to be more similar to their wild ancestors in character and physiology than a less sensitive horse might be. With that in mind, lots of space for movement and expression and grazing, easy access to fresh water, natural hoof trims, the opportunity to live in community, and consistent access to forage, will go a long way to balancing their bodies and minds and making your time together way more fun.
There’s more and I could seriously write all day about this kind of horse. One day, I promise I will write a book on the subject. If you have a highly sensitive horse in your life, hooray! You may not see the blessing in this now, but man, this horse will teach you something cool every single day. Have fun. Enjoy this precious connection and love how it shows up in every moment, even if it’s not what you thought you wanted. And it will just get cooler and cooler.