What Does My Horse Really Need?

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By Alexa Linton, Equine Sports Therapist

The conversation surrounding needs is interesting and complex in terms of our non-speaking horses, especially within a culture that has a historically tricky relationship with the expression of needs. For the purpose of this article, let’s define a need as either a base need required for survival, namely food, water, shelter, and movement, or a need required to thrive, such as friends, space, play, touch, connection, purpose, praise/affirmation, supplementation, and interesting activities. When it comes to our relationship with our horse, the combination of the perceived needs of the rider and the potential needs of their horse can be a space of connecting growth or disconnecting frustration, depending on our perspective and openness to collaborative solutions.

When my mare Diva first arrived in my life over 16 years ago, we were both living in Victoria, British Columbia. Diva lived at a barn with stalls for overnight and tiny paddocks during the day. She was four years old at the time. Over our three years in Victoria we experimented with various living situations as Diva became noticeably anxious in smaller individual paddocks and more crowded barns, and much less anxious in field turnout with a small herd. At the same time, my understanding of horses was shifting daily as I studied to become an Equine Sports Therapist, causing me to become more attuned to Diva’s emotional state and curious about her unique needs, and progressively more tuned in to her level of contentment and well-being.

In her final winter boarding situation in Victoria, she was living in a small walkout paddock at the end of a barn row near a dark forest ravine, with electric fencing and ceiling-high stall walls preventing her from connecting with her neighbour. In this situation, she became progressively more anxious and stressed over several months, to the point of becoming dangerous. Her base needs of food, water, shelter, and some movement were being met, but not her thriving needs of friends, space, variety, natural spaces (no electric fence), and freedom. Feeling like I was losing my horse, I made the decision to move my whole family up to the Cowichan Valley that January, to a place where there was a herd, no electric fence or stalls, lots of space to graze and move, and endless trails for us to explore. Once these specific needs were met, she transformed almost overnight back into the horse I knew and loved. I, however, was left wondering what I needed to thrive, a question that I hadn’t asked myself up until this point. 

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Just like humans, horses have base needs of food, water, shelter, and movement, as well as thriving needs, which may be more freedom, herd-mates, and a more natural environment. Photo: iStock/Virgonira

Which brings us back to our culture, and the trickiness around needs. In nonviolent communication, it is understood that all behaviour occurs as a strategy to meet a need, even if we’re uncertain of what that need is. The expression of needs requires several key things. First, it requires a connection to your felt (body) sense, and to your feelings. Second, it requires the ability to communicate those needs clearly, and to understand that you have choices when it comes to how those needs can be met, which can be a challenge in itself. If you’re like me, you were not taught how to express or understand your needs; in my case, these needs translated into poor self-care, not asking for help, putting myself in potentially dangerous scenarios with my horses, pushing myself and my horse too hard, and taking the opinions of others as a replacement for the needs of myself and my horse. Not understanding my needs also led me to project them onto my horse, by keeping her “safe” through separateness, blanketing her because I hate being cold and wet (she does not like blankets!), or over-feeding her (even when it was hard on her body). Now, many years later, I have a much better grasp of my unique needs, and now know that my main thriving needs are play, ample rest, space to be me, daily movement, rejuvenating spaces, meaningful connection with humans and animals, a sense of belonging, and learning. Funny how Diva and I had quite similar needs all along!

Working with many humans and their horses over quite a few years, it has become a passion project to connect people and their horses to their unique needs, as a route to healthier, happier relationships. In any relationship, when our needs are well met, we feel seen and understood, and in the process, safer and more secure in our attachment. The same is true for our horses — they are relying on us to translate their needs into reality, to release our own projections of what we think they need, and to allow space for what they actually require. The truth is not always what we hope. Our dressage horse may need variety, trail riding, bare feet, pasture, and friends to thrive. Our reining horse may need time off to grow, mud to roll in, liberty training, and more space to be a horse and explore. Interpreting these needs requires listening to body language and behavioural cues, and getting curious by exploring different and new options with our horse. I highly recommend HorseSpeak: An Equine-Human Translation Guide by Sharon Wilsie and Gretchen Vogel, to learn more about cues and body language.

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We must let go of what we think our horses need, and tune in to what they actually require to be healthier and more content. In doing so, your relationship with your horse may shift into a more fulfilling partnership. Photo: iStock/Michael Jung

Sometimes our horses live in environments that make it challenging to meet their needs, as Diva did many years ago. In these cases, a move may be necessary, or creative solutions found within your current scenario, with the horse’s well-being in mind. As an animal intuitive, I am often called out to help with this translation, and it can be quite a process of discovery.

As you explore more fully your own relationship to your needs, you may also find, as I did, that who you are with your horse changes. As I shed my long-time beliefs of how I was supposed to be with horses, and clarified what we both needed, a very different type of relationship emerged that put the well-being of this connection first. What you think you need from this relationship and from your horse may shift in subtle or substantial ways, creating a partnership that is more fulfilling and healthy for both parties. It can be powerful work to collaborate with a professional life coach or counsellor to clarify your core needs, and apply this to your primary relationships, including to your horse.

Wishing you the very best on this worthwhile adventure!

This article was originally published in the Autumn 2020 issue of Canadian Horse Journal.

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