Horses Challenge Us to Change Ourselves


“When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.”
– Victor Frankl

For years I have taught a concept called The Learning Frame of Mind, applying it to both horses and riders in equal measure. The Learning Frame of Mind is only a slightly faster way of saying that the individual’s parasympathetic nervous system is currently dominant. The nervous system of a body affects all aspects of that body – the overall posture, energy levels, organ functions, circulation, immune system and what parts of the brain are being used. 

Making changes starts with the nervous system

When the sympathetic nervous system (fight and flight portion) is dominant, then the instinctual part of our brain fires up and all bodily systems shift towards immediate survival. We don’t make conscious decisions in this nervous system, and neither do our horses, we all react. 

When the parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest portion) is dominant, then the executive part of our brain fires up where we have access to conscious choice. The body relaxes, restores and rejuvenates healthy functions. 

On the most practical level, horses and riders are physiologically unable to make the conscious choices involved in changing habits of movement towards optimal balance unless both are working together in The Learning Frame of Mind. The quickest way to know if we or our horses are in The Learning Frame of Mind, with the parasympathetic nervous system dominating, is by evaluating four observable qualities or energies that are coupled with any behavior. 

Calm  – not scared, tense, anxious, frustrated or defensive against

Willing  – attempts or tries, even if mistakes are made

Attentive – rider can maintain focus on the horse, horse can maintain focus on the rider

Adaptable – rider can adjust strategies to help horse, horse can cope with changes


Balance, even in our minds, means equalizing opposites

We know when we and our horses are actually in The Learning Frame of Mind when each quality is present in equal measure. When unequal, then the fight/flight nervous system is likely still dominating. When not in The Learning Frame of mind, we might feel very calm, but also very unwilling to try anything new or different. One could score very high on attentiveness, but that attention is going everywhere, increasing anxiety with a lower score on calmness. 

A friend of mine who does equine assisted therapy used these Learning Frame of Mind qualities very powerfully in her work. She asked clients to score themselves internally on each quality, and score the horse on each quality through observation. Everyone easily scores higher on some and lower on others. What came out of the scoring exercise was how consistently low people scored themselves on “adaptable” and how consistently high horses scored on “adaptable.” 

The highly adaptable nature of a horse makes sense as part of prey animal survival instincts. The ability to frustrate and outmaneuver a predator is what helps horses live another day. As riders, we are mostly the opposite. We go directly towards what we want and we expect others to adapt around us. If the other doesn’t do what we want, then we can be triggered into fight or flight mode. Cultivating our ability to remain adaptable, especially when our horses are ruining our plans, is a key element of maintaining our Learning Frame of Mind in any situation. Only when our parasympathetic nervous system is dominating can we make conscious choices rather than just reacting instinctively. 

How bad is it, really? Can we look at challenges with new eyes?

I think this is the very thing that Victor Frankl refers to with the quote above. When we can’t change our horses, the challenge becomes making changes in ourselves. Ultimately we are the only ones who are in control of how we feel and what we think. In the book, “Mans Search for Meaning” Victor Frankl tells his story of how he found this inner freedom while living as a prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp. The challenges that our horses offer us are not much in comparison! In his extreme story, we see the power of our own minds regarding choice. 

The challenge to change ourselves comes up every day with our horses. Can we adapt our plans when our horse is suddenly scared? Can we adapt our aids or our training strategy when our horse starts to resist us more and more? Are we quick to label our horse as “bad – lazy – stubborn – disrespectful?” Could we change those words to “scared – uncomfortable in forward motion – defensive – self-protective?” Can we approach challenges with our horses assuming that all horses are always doing the best they can with what they know? 

We might not understand exactly why our horse is working against us, but demanding obedience without understanding is the perfect way to break trust with our horses. When we try to understand, when we look at ways to change ourselves in order to remain calm, willing, attentive and adaptable, we begin to ask better questions and find solutions that work for our horses as well as they work for us. 

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