Horses and humans are emotional, reactive beings. The challenge in riding is to bring out the best in each other.
So how is this done? I admit I am not an expert. I am just a horse owner and have enjoyed horses and riding my whole life. I find my time with them to be rewarding and healthy. It keeps me active, refreshed and grounds me in a way that nothing else does. I am not a competitive rider, nor have I ever wanted to be. I like riding for relaxation and exercise.
I am becoming somewhat of an ‘expert’ on de-escalating highly charged situations due to my line of work and interest in conflict-resolution. Anyone who spends time around horses either eventually develops this skill or gets hurt. You can develop the skill and STILL get hurt. Getting hurt and horses are pretty much a given. Which brings in the fear factor.
I have never been a dare-devil person. I do not crave an adrenaline rush. I am middle-aged and riding is the most athletic thing I do. Statistically speaking, I probably engage in ‘risky’ behavior just by riding at my age. I do find less and less people my age who still ride. I know I am not ready to give it up, which takes me back to the idea of de-escalating.
What does it mean to de-escalate a situation? The definition of de-escalate is ‘to decrease in intensity, magnitude, etc.’ example: to de-escalate a war.
It seems fitting to apply de-escalating techniques to highly reactive horses…and people. So how is that done?
- First and probably most important is for you to be in control of your behavior and attitude. I know, that is sometimes very hard. But you can’t think clearly or help another calm down if you can’t do that for yourself. It takes practice and will get easier as you develop that skill. Learning to self-regulate is a skill that will carry over into so many other areas of your life.
- Do not assign ‘blame’ to the situation. You can go over the events that led up to this at another time but now is not the time. It is what it is and start there. No judgment. The horse (or your co-worker) is feeling what they are feeling. That is where they are, so don’t hold on to bias or your list of ‘should haves’ into the situation. You do not know the whole story. Try to see it from their perspective. Listen. Observe. Let them express what they are feeling.
- Be mindful of your own body language. Horses are experts at body language and knowing someone’s inner experience. Have good intentions and good thoughts toward the person (or horse). Yes, it does make a difference. Don’t crowd an angry person or horse. Give them space. Let the horse move its feet if it needs to. I recently read a de-escalating technique for autistic kids in which the adult is advised to lower themselves to below the child’s eye level so not to intimidate them. Obviously you need to keep yourself safe with your horse so don’t crouch on the ground…. But you can loosen your grip on the reins or lead rope and stay in a safe zone while the horse is allowed to lower his head, breathe and move his feet. Angry people need to not feel threatened so do not to throw gasoline onto their fire with your anger.
- Frightened people and horses in highly charged situations are what I call ‘a live wire’. Trauma (and instincts in a horse) cause them to think differently than they would do when they do not feel threatened. Now is NOT the time to show them who is boss. Step back, breathe, and talk slowly and calmly. Do not give long instructions – they just can’t process that in the state of mind they are in. Use fewer words and slow your body down. Keep instructions simple and straightforward.
- As the horse or person is given space, try to access where they are coming from. What are they feeling? Right now you need to focus on what they need… balanced with what is needed to keep everyone safe. Soften yourself and see if they don’t soften as well. Be observant. You have to be vigilant about your environment but calm in your mannerisms and voice. Do not engage in a fight. Do not get pulled into an argument. This is a biggie. Now is not the time to prove you are right. Feel confident in your actions but do not raise your voice or add fuel to their anger. You can have a firm stand on something—no, horse or angry person, you will NOT run over me. Redirect but do not make it into a fight. Redirect. Redirect. Redirect.
- Set limits and state consequences clearly and concisely. The fewer words the better. Keep voice calm, slow and clear. Do not raise your voice. State what you need to establish boundaries. De-escalating is NOT about letting someone get their way…. It is about taking a dangerous or out of control situation and making it safe and manageable. Limits and consequences are a fact of life and without them there is anarchy. Keep anger out of YOUR voice and body language but be firm.
- Choose carefully what you stand firm on. Give a choice on something negotiable as you stand firm on the non-negotiable action.
- Do not rush… allow the person or horse time to process. Their brain is functioning in flight or fight mode so they likely cannot process words as quickly. Allow time for them to digest this information.
· Even with the best intentions and de-escalating skills some situations continue to spin out of control. Think safety and get help. Think this part out beforehand if at all possible. If you are having issues with your horse (or another person) have a backup person close that can call for help. Do not do this alone if at all possible. Let someone know where you are and what you are doing and a way to signal help. Ideally having other people close by (who understand de-escalating techniques as well) who can assist or get help is the best if at all possible.
In the saddle, I physically practice lowering my center of gravity and getting myself grounded on the horse. Sally Swift in her book, Centered Riding described the sensation as a helium balloon rising and falling in your body. Practice what that feels like when riding and observe your horse’s reaction to the difference. As my horse begins to get nervous or anxious I can usually calm him down by paying attention to my own breathing (was I holding my breath? Tightening my muscles?) And making myself heavy in the saddle with soft muscles. I find keeping an awareness of my body and his, noticing where my tension is and how tense he is has a correlation. Another possibility is maybe I check out a bit while riding and he sensed my inattention? I begin to ride more proactively (assertively) but not aggressively. I stay mindful of tension in my own body. My tension is picked up by him so I need to keep my body relaxed but alert. I actively ride with cues and direction and with soft muscles and a deep seat. I release after he responds to my cues. I bring his attention back to me and I stay in control of (my body,) behavior and attitude. (Referring back to #1 de-escalating tip.) I do not get angry. I stay on top of my own emotions. If the situation is unraveling faster than I feel safe, I get off. I also keep in mind that I can work thru situations with my horse and we can both overcome obstacles so I balance between staying safe (baling) and pushing myself and my horse out of our comfort zone. I pay attention to myself, my horse and our environment and use good judgment. At least that is always the plan!
Stay safe, have fun and ride on!
De-escalating tips adapted from http://www.crisisprevention.com/ Top 10 De-escalating Tips.
This blog post was inspired in part by an article I read here: http://horsetalk.co.nz/2015/11/08/horse-fear-constant-companions/#axzz3qumUVBrM.
To see Sue’s equine and animal art go to http://www.horseartonline.com
As always, if you’ve enjoyed this blog post, I always appreciate you sharing it. Thank you!