Awareness Horsemanship Part 3: Emotions and Body Tension

Here is what we have learned so far:

  • Intention is used to clearly state what we want
  • Energy Shapes help focus our intent and set our boundaries
  • Mindfulness allows us to become aware of thoughts, feelings and stay in the moment
  • Body Awareness helps us see our horse’s position in relationship to us

Now let’s take a look at how our emotions and body tension affect our performance with our equine partner.

Tool #5: Take Care of Your Emotions

Horses are empathic, which means that they feel other’s emotions as if they were their own. If we feel anger, our horse becomes fearful because an angry predator is dangerous. If we are afraid, for whatever reason, our horse becomes fearful, as well. When working with horses, we need to find a way to control our emotions in order to be successful.

Humans spend a majority of time on the left, analytical side of their brain and in the frontal lobes that remember the past and plan for the future. In most people, the left brain hemisphere is slightly larger than the right because it is used much more often.

Horses are right brain centered.  That is where feelings and emotions sit. For a horse, their emotional state is the most important thing. Being prey animals, they are constantly on the lookout for “predators” and fearful, unless they have a leader that takes that burden from them. Horses are only receptive to teaching and training when they are not in fear.

Combining left-brain and right-brain in ourselves creates a coherent brain which combines analytical thinking with the awareness of emotions and intuitive input. This is the ideal way to be around horses. In order to reach this state we need to practice spending time in the right brain hemisphere – the emotional side.

Certain behaviors or situations in the horse can trigger an emotional response in us. Like anger, fear or frustration. These responses are automatic and very quick, and usually go back to a situation one has experienced earlier in life. A majority of emotional triggers are created before a person turns six. These triggers are activated by the way important adults like parents or teachers interact with the child. Every child reacts differently to a given situation, and what is no problem at all for one child can have a devastating result in another.

Adults have these triggers, also known as emotional wounds. Underlying these emotional wounds are beliefs about life and oneself that are not true.  That is why they are also called “false beliefs”. They include beliefs such as:  “I am not good enough”, “I will never amount to anything”, “I am loved only when I am perfect,” etc. Horses are masters in finding their person’s emotional triggers, just as children or siblings are. In finding them they are asking us to release the trigger and heal the underlying wound.

There are three ways to deal with negative emotions:

• suppress them

• express them

• acknowledge and stay with them until resolved.

When you suppress an emotion, it doesn’t go away, but gets “bottled up” and stored in your body’s cells. Every time this emotion comes up and gets suppressed, you add another layer. Every time that happens the emotional reaction gets bigger. If the stack gets too high, it can manifest itself as illness in the body.

When an emotion gets expressed, it is released immediately. However, the underlying problem (emotional wound, false belief) is still there and will come up again when triggered. Expressing an emotion usually happens as an automatic reaction to a certain trigger. It is healthy for the body, but not so good for the social environment – nobody likes a person that explodes all the time.

The third way is to release the emotion and heal the underlying problem at the same time, without upsetting your social surroundings. It is not the easiest way though. Emotions look big and scary once we put our awareness on them.  However, when we stay aware with them and observe and feel them, they shrink quickly, usually leaving a feeling of peace, love, or an insight. Using this technique does not add to the layers of old emotions.  It works to reduce them. When the underlying problem is healed, the trigger is released and does not come up again in a similar situation.  With practice, this method can help us deal positively with our anger and fear.

If you are with your horse and big, negative emotions come up, it is a good idea to secure the horse and remove yourself from the situation until equilibrium is restored. Grounding is an exercise that can quickly calm and center you. 

EXERCISE: Grounding Yourself

Stand up, take a deep breath in and out, than imagine roots growing out of your feet. Let them grow deep and wide, rooting you securely to the earth. At the same time let the emotions drain into the ground. Have one or two roots grow all the way down to the core, connecting you to earth’s center. Now check in and see how you feel. Are you quieter now? Or is there still some emotion present? If still present, locate the emotion in your body, with your intention put it into a ball and lower it to the ground. If practiced a few times, grounding can be achieved within seconds.

EXERCISE: Grounding Your Horse

Put your hands on your horse’s withers and then imagine roots growing out of the horse’s hooves. Feel energy going through your hands and grounding through your horse’s feet. This exercise has a calming effect on both human and horse.

Grounding is a great way to calm yourself, but it won’t heal your emotional wounds. These can be healed after you have cooled down, in the safety of your home or with the help of a facilitator.

If you are a sensitive person, you might take on your horse’s emotion. Ground these just as you would your own.

Tool #5: Release Body Tension

Emotions that are not expressed end up being stored in the body and can be seen or felt as body tension. Horses, being the mirrors that they are, hold tension if we hold tension. Since body tension impedes free movement, you need to be as loose as you can when around horses, especially when riding. Tension is often held in the neck and shoulder area (pulled up shoulders, pulled forward head), the chest area (collapsed chest), the belly (tightened belly muscles), and in the hips (no swinging movement). It helps your relationship and performance with your horse when you release the built up tension that it can feel.

Check in with your body to see if there is any tension in it. If so, put your attention on the part that is tense and tell the muscles to release. Sometimes it helps to touch the tense muscle or have a friend touch it. You can feel the release when you ask for it. You can also release tension with the following exercise.

EXERCISE: Tense & Release

Stand straight and take a deep breath. Pull your shoulders up in a shrug as tight and as far as you can.  Let them go and see how that feels. Are your shoulders achy? Can you feel the muscles that connect your neck to your shoulders? Is there any tingling or pain? Now do the same with your chest.  Pull your chest muscles tight and let go. Can you feel your chest expanding a little? Does it make breathing easier? Now do the same with your belly muscles and your buttocks.

Taking it to the ring

Now it is time to take our tool box to the pasture, the arena or the round pen.  Here is the step-by-step process for you to use:

  1. Hold a picture of what you want your horse to do in your mind
  2. Use the energy shape to request that picture
  3. Only if the horse doesn’t react, reinforce with body language.

Always keep in mind that our goal is to get into harmony with our horse. So don’t fret if things don’t work right away. Embrace your mistakes! Only from mistakes can you learn, and horses are very forgiving creatures. In fact, you can look at your horse for guidance. He will let you know when you are doing it correctly.  You will be able to tell by his contentment and the smile in his eyes.

Published in Holistic Horse Issue 103 Jun/Jul 2016

Karen Wegehenkel, author of the upcoming book Awareness Horsemanship, is a longtime horsewoman and student of “healing hands” Energy Work. She has successfully applied human energy work to her equine relationships. Karen can be reached at:

Editor Jim Hutchins is director of education at NWNHC near Seattle Wash. The Center specializes in teaching horse women and men a more holistic approach to their relationship with the horse. Learn more at: