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Holding Space vs. Counter Conditioning

I’ve been wanting to write about this for quite some time now, and every time I go to do it I find myself at either a loss for words (which is rare) or I choose not because it is is genuinely not my intention to trigger or offend people on the pursuit of mindful horsemanship.

But this conversation needs to be started, if only for planting a seed of new thought.

So please be kind and patient as you bare with my first time trying to explain my messy thoughts on this..

Even as a teenager, I was always been known as the trainer who got sent the “dangerous” horses.

As an abused foster kid, I intimately understood what they were feeling and could hold ultimate space for them during their lashing-outs.

Sure, I did poor biomechanics as I didn’t know any better, but holding space was never my downfall. And it’s been so beautiful as the last two decades have gone by and I’ve seen more and more people learning to “hold space” for the horses.

To sit with them in their fears and triggers and wait.

Wait for them to soften to the touch.

Wait for them be okay with that saddle.

Not react when they kick and strike and just hold out for that deep breath.

To allow them a voice.

However, that’s not simply enough.

Nearly every day I see videos of posts from trainers that I do deeply respect talk about how they’re going to hold space for the horse who’s viciously acting out, and I can clearly see nerve fires or ulcer lines on them.

These great beasts, given enough time and patience and kindness will eventually stand there, take that deep breath, swap nervous systems and allow the trainer to do what they are hoping to get done with them.

It works.

But it doesn’t solve the root problem and the horses stay in discomfort and out of their body.

Now, it’s different than learned helplessness.

Those horses are taught that they don’t have a voice at all. They are shut down further any time an emotional response comes up.

This “mindfulness practice” allows the voice, but it counter-conditions them to have a different emotional response to the same stimulus.

It doesn’t solve the problem OF the stimulus.

I recently did a mini clinic with a trainer who had this thoughtful conversation with me as we discovered that 8/11 horses she pulled out had ulcers.

They would go to work for her because she’s incredibly patient, kind and mindful to give them a voice, but deep down she knew that they still weren’t “right”. And thankfully she honored her intuition so they can all be on a better track.

I guess what I’m trying to say through my fumbled words is -

Pain is real.

And I’ve never come across a poor attitude (horse or human) that wasn’t in some kind of significant discomfort.

Most people are still just learning how to figure out what they are is all…

So if a horse is having an emotional response, it’s worth getting to the root cause and alleviating all of the stimuli that’s causing it ALONG with holding space while you slowly peel that onion.

(Also, holding space does NOT mean not having boundaries. Those are equally as important).

Humans are no different, by the way.

So many of us are in crippling pain, but as long as people can be kind to us while we navigate it, we can interact easier -

But that doesn’t mean that it wouldn’t be amazing to be rid of the discomfort and get to use all of the capacity that takes up for joy instead.

All this to say -

Please don’t dismiss pain.

Advocate and keep asking questions.

I promise there are answers.


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