Horse trainer and psychologist Dr. Maria Katsamanis has transformed the lives of countless horses through her unique approach to training. Utilizing her background in equine and human psychology to examine the fundamental mechanics of the human-equine interaction, Maria helps riders tune into to their own body signals and communicate more effectively with their horses. It sounds simple, but this subtle ‘science’ is a game-changer.
Maria holds a doctorate in clinical psychology and maintains an appointment as a clinical assistant professor at Rutgers Medical School. Her background in biofeedback and psychophysiology is central to her training approach, dubbed “molecular equitation,” which examines the connection between horse and rider on a molecular level and focuses on improving such basic elements as balance and relaxation, muscle formation and breathing behavior to dissipate physical blocks and communication.
Full details on Maria’s approach can be found in her book “The Alchemy of Lightness: What Happens Between Horse and Rider on a Molecular Level and How it Helps Achieve the Ultimate Connection,” coauthored with world-renowned horseman Dominique Barbier. Sidelines had a chance to catch up Maria and ask her a few questions about her unique and exciting approach to training.
What is the difference between riding a horse and practicing good horsemanship?
To me, good horsemanship means always prioritizing the physical and mental comfort of your horse. This means that while we all enjoy riding and the feeling of being atop a horse, we must also establish a continued commitment to ensuring that our horse is always comfortable in carrying us.
As humans, we must recognize and honor our role as custodian of the horse — to him we should act as both a partner and a friend. Instead of asking our horse what he can do for us, we must approach our horse with the question, “What can I do for you? How can I make you comfortable today?” I often see riders trying to push a horse to do something, and when the horse resists, they tend to immediately place blame or label his behavior as “naughty” instead of examining the situation for a deeper cause. When this happens, we must always remind ourselves that our horses really do want to be with us, spend time with us and ultimately please us. If there is resistance, it’s is our job and responsibility to provide our horse with a complete and fair evaluation, and to take the steps necessary to ensure their comfort so that we can succeed together.
Usually, techniques imply “doing” a task rather than learning how to “be,” which involves a more philosophical mindset. It is possible to successfully carry out a technique without engaging in a deeper awareness, communion and connection with our horse — and that’s where the special “oneness” magic happens. When we learn how to “be” mentally and emotionally present, that is, tune in with and be aware of our horse, we access a higher sense of consciousness. “Being” is more complex, fluid and dynamic than practicing a single technique because there’s room for possibility and transformation beyond the confines of a specific formula. When we’re present in this way, we’re then able to dynamically assess the situation and choose the best steps to achieve what we desire in the long run.
What are some ways that horses can help us to become more enlightened and elevated as people?
Being with horses helps us tap into a higher sense of consciousness, because it reminds us how, as humans, we are intimately connected to everything in the universe. Achieving oneness with a horse helps to blur the mental boundary we tend to create to delineate ourselves from the rest of the world. Being with horses lets you discover your ability to influence and be influenced by other beings; to facilitate positive change and growth. This provides us with a real sense of empowerment, as well as a sense of responsibility to respect and care for the earth and all its creatures. Horses teach us to become better human beings by requiring us to practice kindness, patience and selflessness. Essentially, they help us become better versions of ourselves.
What does it mean to “be present” with our horse, and what are some ways we can practice this?
Making sure to be “present” with our horses is one of the most important elements in creating a successful partnership. Committing to being present means cultivating a habit of being fully aware of what is happening around you, and making sure to devote your full attention to the being next to you. In your mind, you aren’t thinking about the future, nor the past, but are mentally in the here and now.
Imagine eating dinner with a friend and watching them fiddle with their cell phone or continue to talk over you while you’re desperately trying to tell them something important. That wouldn’t be very conducive to nurturing a good relationship, and the same thing goes for horses. When you make the effort to be fully present by giving your horse your complete attention, he will feel it — and in that moment of being “seen” and recognized, the connection really begins. Just like humans, horses want to feel that they’re important and valued. Being present also ensures that you’re available to notice important things your horse may be trying to tell you. It helps improve your timing and feel, and also helps you to make better, safer decisions.
Why is it important to treat horses as individuals instead of applying generalized rules and expectations?
Like humans, horses are individuals. Often, I hear people come to the horse with preconceived notions. For example, they might say, “He is difficult because he was gelded late,” or, “She’s not light because she’s a draft horse,” or, “She’s just being a mare.” These serve as blocks and don’t allow us to see the creature in its entirety. The danger of that is that we can often mislabel something as a behavior issue, based on our preconceived notions, when it’s a brewing physical issue.
How can our fear affect our success with horses, and how can we face and overcome our fears?
Fear is a natural emotion — something both horses and humans struggle with, and something we must take the time and effort to effectively manage. One can’t attempt to play Chopin when they can’t even play “Chopsticks.” In the same way, we can’t expect to go dancing with our horses if we don’t prepare ourselves by getting to know them first and building a positive relationship based on mutual trust. This basic building block of a successful relationship — trust — means you must come into the relationship “childlike” — without the emotional blocks of fear and doubt — and open to the possibilities. If you fear your horse, your uncertainty will surely affect your outcome. Fear is the opposite of love. No positive growth can take place when we are in fear.
To learn more, visit www.mariakatsamanis.com.
Photos courtesy of Maria Katsamanis