California Riding Magazine • March, 2008

Ask the Alpha Mare
Sculpting Self-Confidence

by Kathryn Kincannon-Irwin

Dear Alpha Mare,

I’ve had Noah for seven years. He was 6 months old when I bought him and he is a very beautiful and talented horse. But I’m a little frustrated because he just can’t seem to get over his insecurities. No matter what I do – i.e. taking him to shows and different places – they just keep happening. They are most pronounced when I take him to a new place and he doesn’t have a buddy that he knows to look to for support. At home I can ride him alone, tack him up in the barn alone and hack alone. If I bring him into the barn alone though, he panics. Then I have to bring in another horse to keep him company. He will go into the indoor arena and I can ride him alone, but he is tense for at least part, if not all of, the ride. He can be tense with another horse in the arena as well.

He doesn’t seem to like change of any kind but will tolerate some things better than others. If he is really upset he will stop, rear up slightly and try to turn the way he wants to go. Bottom line is that he is just so unpredictable. I’m not sure what to try next and I am thinking of selling him. What do you think?

-Frustrated in Fresno

Dear Frustrated in Fresno,

Noah’s issues are rooted in a severe lack of confidence, in himself as well as the two of you as a team. Just like people, horses are individuals; some are bold and some are meek. Even though they are all inherently prey animals, some horses will savagely chase a dog out of a paddock, while others will tuck their tail and run from their own shadow. Your horse was clearly cut from the latter’s cloth. He is a follower rather than a leader and as such has a strong need to find protection and safety in others – be that horse or human.

Unfortunately – but not uncommonly – you have not been able to fill this deep-seated need for Noah. So he looks to fill the void with another horse. Why? His reality requires constant vigilance for full awareness. Yours does not. His life hinges on the weakest link of his vulnerability. Yours does not. He wakes in the morning knowing he is at the whim of a being that does not walk, talk, behave or see the world the way he does.

It’s not a stretch to acknowledge that yours and Noah’s realities are yin versus yang. Which is why Noah is occasionally fearful of things you wouldn’t even notice and do not care a whit about (but to his mind appears monstrous). He lives moment to moment, filtering very little and living on adrenaline. Repetition and redundancy, time and doing, won’t change a thing.

How Noah “feels” at each show, in each new place and out on new trails is what matters to him. How you make him feel as he endures all of these experiences will determine how he feels about you.
This sounds simple, but it’s not easy. Here’s the catch: what makes sense to your mind does not automatically translate into your body. People, for all their superior intellect and technical wizardry, very often do not know what they do not know. When it comes to horses, multiply this exponentially. Someone may have the best of intentions, the biggest of hearts and the utmost in compassion, and still be totally clueless about what a horse is really looking for from them.

Even if they get the diagnostics right, how to give them what they really need can still be tricky. And yet there’s no trick to it, because there are no bandaids or quick fixes. When we get conned into such thinking the horse stays schizy and neurotic, or shut down and dulled out. Then people scratch their heads and wonder why.

Learn to Speak Fluent Horse

Here’s my advice: make it your New Year’s resolution to “learn horse.” Noah deserves it, and you deserve it. Know that it will feel awkward and unnatural, but vow not to give up. It’s a bit like learning Swahili and the Tango in one fell swoop. Like rubbing your belly and patting your head with a big animated “other” thrown into the mix. Your head will hurt and your body will feel spastic, but it will start to come.

Once you start feeling the groove, don’t stop with the ABC’s. Care enough to become fluent. With a horse as talented as Noah, kindergarten won’t cut it. Neither will inconsistency. Noah will start validating your body language as soon as you start making sense to him, and once you two are “talking,” you will realize the massive dialogue that has been going on all along. Except that before it was all one-sided. Noah’s been jabbering away and you’ve been blowing him off (in his mind), or giving him nothing but static in return.

What many people may not realize is that the way to a horse’s mind is through its body. A “level-headed” horse looks and acts completely different from one who is “uppity.” A horse “bent out of shape” may well be preparing to “rear its ugly head.” What originated from equine mannerisms has evolved into states of mind. Physiology is psychology.

That said, the fastest way to change a horse’s mind – for better or worse - is to change the shape of its body. Inverted horses are ticking time bombs. Low headed horses are blissed out. Level-headed horses take life in stride. Learning how to sculpt and mold Noah into the kind of physical shapes that have him sighing, exhaling and loving the fact that you are there to see him through his panic attacks and stresses – both on the ground and in the tack – is an art form. It will also prove a godsend to your relationship.

You have been Noah’s caregiver for all but six months of his seven years. I wouldn’t give up on him just yet. What Noah feels is just a larger than life version of what we all feel inside from time to time.But we rarely act out in such a way that others are truly frightened by us.
Learning his language will enable you to accurately read the signs and that will help you predict what he’s going to do next. From there you can effectively diffuse any inclination he may have to go over-the-top. You’ll stay calm and he’ll calm down, and, best of all, Noah will see in you the kind of proactive human being every horse is desperate to find.