Harmonize Your Horsemanship
Learn to match your level of energy to your horse’s for best results in riding and handling.
The connection you have with your horse can be greatly strengthened when you match your energy level to his.
Are you a high-energy person? Or is your energy lower-key? Is your horse high-energy? Or does he have more whoa than go?
We’re all familiar with the concept of extroverts and introverts among humans, but did you know these distinctions can apply to horses, as well? They do, and this can affect a horse’s sociability and level of energy, just as it affects ours. Moreover, how we manage our energy levels with respect to our horses’ energy can have a dramatic impact on the relationships we have with those horses—and how successful we are as riders and handlers.
In this article, I’m going to explain how you can maximize your effectiveness as a horseman by matching your energy level to your horse’s.
It’s easy to spot extroverts in the human world. They’re the ones who love to talk, be around other people, and socialize. Interacting with others energizes them. Introverts, by contrast, are more likely to be in the corner reading a book, or talking privately with a trusted friend. Interacting with a lot of people exhausts them.
When it comes to horses, feet tell the story. Equine extroverts have more go than introverts do. They’re eager to move their feet and spend their energy. Introverts, on the other hand, have more whoa than go. They’re perfectly happy standing or going slow…or eating grass!
Paying attention to your horse’s tendencies and energy level not only gives you a deeper understanding of his traits and needs—it’s also a powerful guide for learning the most effective way to communicate with him.
So, how does that work?
TOP: Though this is a high-energy horse, the handler has raised her own energy too high in response—note the erect posture as she leans into her “march.” This worries the horse—his head is up and his eyes are alarmed. ABOVE: Here the handler has lowered her energy to match the horse—note her more relaxed posture and lowered hand. The horse, in response, is attentive and in tune with the energy and tension, but his worry is gone.
Your Energy Has a Big Effect
If you’re an extrovert with a high level of energy, it’s extremely easy for you to push your horse’s “energy buttons.” Usually this is unintentional on your part—you don’t even realize you’re doing it. But if you’re high-energy and unmindful of your horse’s energy level—whether it’s high or low—you can drive him wild (see the chart on page 77). The result? Tension, impulsiveness, resistance, braciness…and it can even get as severe as bucking, bolting, and rearing.
If you’re an introvert, on the other hand, your energy may be so low that you find it hard to get your horse to do anything. It’s not that you don’t have energy, per se; it’s that yours is more internal than external. Horses may question your leadership and be less willing to respond to your cues. If you’re riding a high-energy horse, you may find yourself holding him back and riding defensively.
The good news is that if you can learn to moderate your energy to better match your horse’s, your results will improve dramatically.
TOP: This extrovert horse wants to use more energy, but the rider doesn’t want him to—note how defensive and tight her position is. She’s holding the horse back with her mind, body, and reins. But rather than calming him, this just makes him tense and impulsive—note his raised head and tight neck. ABOVE: Here the rider has raised her energy a little, riding more forward in her intention and body language. Note how much happier the horse is! It can be hard to “let go” like this on a high-energy horse, but when you do, the horse always improves. (Tip: It helps to start in a small space, like a round pen.)
Solution: Matching Energy
At Parelli Natural Horsemanship, we believe one of the most effective ways to connect and achieve harmony with a horse is to match his energy. We think of leadership as a 51:49 human/equine ratio. In other words, you want your energy level almost to match that of your horse, while still making it clear that you’re the leader. This creates what we call that valuable “2-point difference.” Overpowering the horse would be more like an 80:20 ratio or worse, and of course the opposite (with your horse’s number higher) means your horse is the one in control!
Matching your energy to your horse’s is a little like the old Goldilocks story: not too much, not too little, just right. Doing it well takes practice and a keen awareness of your horse and how he’s responding at all times. When you do get it right, however, your connection to him improves dramatically.
Be careful not to confuse energy with assertiveness. You can be low-energy and assertive or high-energy and assertive. The key is to use the right combination for each individual horse.
TOP: This rider is using too much energy on this low-energy horse, pushing him more than he’s ready to go. Note how his neck seems short and tense, its underside tight. Though he’s going forward, his movement and expression show he’s “thinking backwards.” ABOVE: Now the rider is matching her energy to the horse’s, keeping her forward focus but softening the activity and intensity of her seat and legs. In response, the horse has relaxed, his topline is rounded, and he’s stepping deeper with his hind leg.
How It Works
When you’re directing your horse from the ground, your energy is conveyed to him through your body language, positioning, facial expression, and sense of urgency. Squared shoulders, erect spine, lifted chest, and facing your horse directly with an intent expression all transmit high energy. Loosened shoulders, a more relaxed body position, angling yourself a bit in relation to the horse, and maintaining a softer facial expression all transmit lower energy.
When you’re riding, your energy level comes primarily from your sense of urgency and whatever tension is in your mind or emotions or muscles—positively or negatively. Tight muscles and a tight mind along with strong pushing from your seat and legs transmits high energy. A more following seat and softer leg cues transmits lower energy.
The energy chart shows the various combinations of energy that might exist, their effects on the horse, and how the rider/handler’s energy can be modified to correct and improve the connection.
Studying the photos will also help you better understand this process. Your goal, remember, is to match your horse’s intensity—or lack thereof—while still maintaining that 2-point edge.
Linda Parelli and her husband, Pat, own Parelli Natural Horsemanship and present clinics and demonstrations worldwide. Learn more about their philosophy and check their schedule of presentations at parellinaturalhorsetraining.com.