Riding a horse for many may be a very rare occasion. For others, it may be rather frightening. And for some people, it may transcend the typical interpretations of the horse and human relationship.

In any given relationship, 90 percent of what is really happening is going on under the surface, and for the most part, undetected. As we listen to the words a person speaks, and do our best to pay attention to what their body language conveys to us, we invariably miss, or misinterpret, most of it.

In fact, according to Martin Buber, the person with whom we can credit the understanding of the I and Thou, the relationship we develop with another person becomes emblematic of the relationship that we develop toward all things.

In developing a relationship with a horse, the rider begins to relate to the horse much as he/she would other “its” in his/her life. When asking the horse to trot, for instance, does the rider kick the horses sides harshly and demand the gait of the horse? Does the rider inadvertently hold the reins tightly — a signal for the horse to slow down — while simultaneously telling the horse to trot?

Or, does the rider ask the horse to trot, but do so in such a meek way that the horse cannot even decipher the request?

What becomes so interesting in asking these questions, is all of the unspoken language that happens in between the horse and the rider. These things are the rider’s ideas — typically unconscious — about what should happen. How people and horses should respond. These things are conveyed unintentionally by the rider, and yet are heard loud and clear by the horse.

Something as simple as gripping with the legs, and the tension that is then consequently felt by the horse, can transmit a message of fear of insecurity to the horse. In the case that this message is mixed with the covert behavior of kicking the horse’s sides to go, the way in which the person approaches the world becomes clear. Here is a person that is very tentative and fearful, but also goes to great efforts to hide this from those around him, and even, from himself.

For this person, the I is to be denied, and the Thou is to be deceived and conquered. Of course, there can be numerous variations on the I and Thou, all of which can become evident in the way the horse responds to his rider.

Both horse and rider are changed by the experience. Just as a rider can become more confident with a trusting horse, a confident horse can be made very fearful by a timid rider. What the savvy equine therapist would ask in this moment is: do those around you also become fearful?

Horseback riding photo available from Shutterstock.