(© Kim Walnes 2018. Photograph by Bo Reich.)
To me instructing is a sacred trust. I feel it is my responsibility to create a safe space where neither human nor horse are judged. It is my job to understand where there may be mental, emotional, or physical blocks in both…to bring these to the awareness of the person while addressing these blocks with kindness, competence, and a feel for what each person/horse can handle in the moment. I always make it clear that I well know that everyone, both horse and human, are doing their very best in any moment.
Horses are amazing beings, and are intelligent way beyond what we are taught. I view my task to be one of translation when I step into the presence of a horse and their person. I start a session with new folks by first listening to the needs of the human. Then, looking the horse in the eye, I explain that I am there to help their person better understand them and be able to work with them in a more comfortable way. I tell them that I value their input in the session, to feel free to give us feedback in a gentle way, and that I will listen to their needs as well.
Everything changes in that moment.
The people look at me differently.
The horses center their focus on me, and often ask me to fix something right away. Usually it is to remove a flash or their whole noseband. These horses share the feeling that even having the weight of the leather across their nose or end of their sinuses causes them mental and physical tension, resulting in a feeling of restriction…they share their struggle to focus when it is difficult for them to swallow or breathe or even canter properly when their jaw cannot move freely. Some request that I tell their person that their browband or crownpiece is cutting into them and gives them a headache/TMJ, or to inform their rider that something they are doing in that moment is painful to them. Often these feelings come with a sense of polite desperation. The horses are so excited to find someone who can interpret and express their needs. When I act upon their requests, they really believe me. They soften into the stillness and balance on four legs when I tell them this is necessary for their person to learn this new language that is of the body, heart, and soul rather than the voice.
We progress from there. Most horses know that humans are unaware of how much discomfort our tight minds, frozen muscles, and restricted breath cause them. They compensate to the best of their abilities for our lack of understanding. They learn to ignore the ways our bodies actually block them from doing what we request, and execute the task even though restricted. They are tolerant of human frustration with their performance, for they know that we do not know it is we who are causing the issues.
Once I have introduced the process of unlocking old habit patterns in mind and body, when people have felt the difference between trying harder and trying softer, I tell them that my instruction comes with a warning label. “Once your horse knows that you know how to speak to them in this new way, that you understand that they are communicating to you with their actions, they will not let you go back.” During the further course of that first lesson, they learn just what this means. Their horses will start with quiet messages, but quickly ramp up if their input is not acted upon. For instance, if their person is tight in certain muscles and that causes them pain, they will fling their heads, pin their ears, tighten, drop their backs—respond in some way that makes it obvious to the person (now that they are listening) where the issue lies. I translate if there is confusion. Immediately upon the release of the offending tension, the horses reward their people with not only cessation of their request, but with a graceful response of their bodies. People are blown away.
We humans have so many expectations…of ourselves and others. We are taught that performance is king in our society. Just the word “expectation” causes anxiety! Instead of expectation, we can start practicing patience and awareness…and in the process begin to understand how our horses can truly be our best teachers.
(Kim Walnes was on the US Eventing Team coached by Jack Le Goff from 1980-1986. Hers is a story straight from the fairy tales, since, as a housewife with small children, she found a highly unlikely horse in Ireland and rode and trained him herself to place 2nd at the first Event held at the KY Horse Park after the World Championships four years later. This led to her being invited to a USET Team Training Session, and rest, as they say, is history. Gray went on to be called “The best Event horse in world”, and still has an international fan base. In 2012 he was inducted into the Eventing Hall of Fame. Kim broke the mold by competing as a mother, seeking help from classically trained professionals outside the field of Eventing, and using her intuition to work with difficult horses. These days she teaches, trains, and coaches from Pennsylvania, and travels to do clinics internationally. She is known for her compassion for both rider and horse, and for her ability to impart “feel” to riders and handlers.)
For more information about Kim, see: