A Question of Connection

connection (noun)

1 the act of connecting; the state of being connected: such as a relation of personal intimacy (as of family ties)

2 something that connects; a means of communication or transport

3 a person connected with another especially by marriage, kinship, or common interest

4 a political, social, professional, or commercial relationship; an arrangement to execute orders or advance interests of another

5 a set of persons associated together

Connection is a word you may hear a lot in the equestrian world. There is the mechanical connection of your body with the horse, when you are seated on their back. In Dressage they speak of “connection” as being the feeling that the energy generated in the hindquarters flows through the horses body to the bit and back to the rider through the reins. Then there is the psychological connection we may feel with our horse. It is this connection that I will focus on in this piece.

I started recently cogitating on this notion of connection when I saw this response by a world renowned trainer as to what he meant by “connection”:

“‘Connection’ is a simple way to define that act of becoming educated so as to fully understand the needs and requirements necessary to live with our horses as partners and not as adversaries against one another. Discipline is essential, however discipline should be an act that while uncomfortable is not painful. Continuing a work effort when the horse gets it wrong is desirable. Stopping that work effort, giving a rub and a quiet voice is advisable.

When we get it right, any of us can watch the horse celebrate with us. When we get it wrong, we will observe the horse tense, nervous and clearly unhappy. All of this requires an education in the silent language of Equus so as to translate to the human brain the actual feelings of the horse involved.”

Coming to say “Hi!”

The first thing that struck me about this response was just how human-centric it was. It speaks of connection as a list of things we do or do not do. While it speaks of the horse, it is only in terms of how they react to us – nothing about how they may or may not feel and what they may require in regard to making connections.

The next thing that struck me was that discipline – and in the terms used we can translate it to “punishment” – is a key part of how this person views making a connection. Think back over your relationships and the people you have felt connected to. How often were those connections made because someone told you that you were wrong, or actively punished you? We may, at times, value a friend who has the bravery to tell us when we have made a mistake – but there has generally been a lot of trust built up before that happens. Where the person wrote “discipline” I would probably put boundaries. Healthy relationships include some level of boundary – some element of personal space, time for yourself, lines that should not be crossed. They may be very small in really close relationships, but they are there.

I have intentionally left out the name of this person because this post is not really about that quote. I share it only as the inspiration for this post, and also as a model for how we often skew the view of our relationship with our horses based upon our needs, wants, and perspective. Just before starting to write this I saw a photo on social media of a high-level rider hugging and patting his horse, while the horse is rigged up with harsh bits and a too-tight noseband with his face reflecting pain and stress. Most people respond positively to the photo, as it shows “affection” from this top rider. Those of us tuned to the horse respond in horror as we can see the unhappiness in the face and entire aspect of the horse.

While I was pondering how I wanted to write this post, and address the idea of connection, my own Chase provided me the perfect scenario to describe it. My mother had gotten him out, in preparation for my working with him. I’d gone to the house to retrieve something, so I was not there. She attempted to give him some scratches, put he was focused on the haynet I always have in the grooming area. Try as she did, she could not find a good scratchy spot.

As I was walking back to the barn I said something to the baby goats as I approached. Inside the barn Chase immediately stopped eating and focused on the barn door. As I walked in I could see him on alert, and as I approached he lowered his head and reached his nose toward me. He no longer had any interest in the hay, and when I took the curry comb from my mom, he immediately showed me where to scratch. As I went about getting our equipment together, his eyes followed me everywhere.

How would I have answered the question about connection? For me, connection is:

  • The horse who comes running when he hears your voice; not because it is feeding time but just because you are there
  • The horse who chooses to follow you around an open field; not because you have trained that response, but just because she wants to
  • The horse who stands still as other horses bolt around her, not because you have a hold but because you ask her to
  • The horse who, when you have fallen off, will not let anyone else approach but stays by you until you get up
  • The horse who listens to your voice and stays under you when your body is too injured to physically guide him
  • The horse who, after fifteen years apart, greets you as if you are a long lost friend
Chase choosing to follow me while I set poles

That last one holds the key – for me connection is friendship. True friendship requires a big dose of trust, which takes time. We may fall in love with a horse upon first sight, but that is a love built on an idea or a visual. It takes time to know, understand, and trust that individual – even more so for the horse to develop these toward us. True connection cannot be forced. Pressure is uncomfortable, and discomfort is not part of a healthy connect. Learning and life will hold some discomfort, so it is not something you can avoid completely. But to believe that you will develop the connect through “discipline” that is “uncomfortable” but “is not painful” is to misunderstand just what connection really is.

Connection is the horse who watches you not because they are worried about you, but because they like you. It is built through time spent just being together, with no specific ask – not by chasing them until they turn to look at you. It is built through learning to speak to each other – and that means that you have to listen as much as you ‘talk’. It is built through kindness and compassion. It comes from genuinely wanting your horse to be happy and comfortable. They can certainly sense when they are an after thought, and when they are a focal point.

This is not to say that you need to tiptoe around or avoid asking things of your horse. Connection does not negate having a working relationship. In fact, working together will deepen the connection. But it takes work to step back from our human tendency for domination and control in order to open the door for two-way communication. There is no guarantee that your best efforts will result in the connection you dream of – after all, we don’t make friends with every person we meet. What I will guarantee is a better relationship if you try. And if you get ‘that look’ from your horse you will truly be blessed!

Chase watching me walk away

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