What Horses Teach Us About Repairing Relationships

Photo © Lauren Mauldin


Whether we realize it or not, our relationships drive many factors in our lives—from how we act to how we feel about ourselves and even how we remember the past. While the best parts of life are defined by the people who surround us, relational hurt is difficult to face. Conflict and misunderstanding throws stress upon a heart that has been through loss or rejection.  

Oftentimes it’s not the moment of the rupture that hurts the worst, but what happens afterward. Was there a total loss of connection? Is the hurt healing, or just getting worse with time?

Memories resonate in our mind, playing like a video on a loop: what we wish could have happened, what we should have said, how we wish we would have perceived the other person, how we wish they perceived us.  

Through all of this, most of us shrink away—afraid. It’s instinctual. We don’t want to address the source of that hurt again, but what are we afraid of?

We fear shame. Hurt. Loss. 

Photo © Lauren Mauldin

Hurt and loss only come through letting someone get close to you, but there are many more positive outcomes from intimacy—love, empathy, being seen. But when we’re faced with the pain, how do we move forward? How do we learn to be vulnerable again and love without fear?

In my early teen years, I started riding a horse named Chile. She was a beautiful, bay Arabian mare with a lovely dished face and big brown eyes you could get lost in. I adored her, and wouldn’t trade lessons on her for any other horse.

As the fall turned into winter in Del Mar, rain forced our lessons into the indoor arena.  The horse that I knew to be a little bit flighty here and there began to take off on me every single lesson. If it wasn’t the rumble of the tractor gathering hay, it was the pounding rain on the roof of the arena. I never could anticipate exactly when her spooks would happen. Through time, I learned how to remain in the saddle and calm her the best I could, but I never could prevent her from spooking. In all my years riding, I’ve never met another horse who spooked even half as often as Chile did.

I still hate riding in covered arenas in the rain.

Photo © Lauren Mauldin

I still tense up when a horse quivers their shoulders and stiffens their body beneath me.  Why? Because most of my experience in rainy indoor arenas are still overwhelmingly scary and chaotic. Sometimes when we’re away from the saddle after a traumatic experience, the memory of the event grows bigger in our minds. We mentally rehearse the trauma repeatedly, perhaps trying to figure out a way we could have prevented it.  

And yet the antidote is not to stay away from the saddle. In fact, it’s the opposite.  

We have to negotiate with ourselves about how we handle those memories. We can either see the memory for what it was and embrace the potential of a new experience, or live in the reality of the fear itself.  

Psychologists attest to the fact that absolutely no relationship is perfect. On the contrary, even the strongest relationships can crack on a regular basis. What matters is how we handle the hurt, whether we choose to move forward and seek connection versus creating more emotional armor.  

Horses, too, fear harm. Their fear memory is powerful and takes intentional focus to work through. But the beauty of horses is how elastic their relationships are. When they spook, we can show them that we are trustworthy. When we make a mistake, they are capable of forgiving us and moving forward with a stronger bond.  

They want to feel safe, just like we do. And we can work through these memories together with the same approach: choosing a new experience and reinforcing it over the fearful memory.

Photo © Lauren Mauldin

Likewise with our relationships with people, I don’t think we can get to the point of loving without fear until we have loved through fear. The way to repair a ruptured relationship is not to avoid talking about the trauma or conflict that happened. It’s not to just tiptoe through the rest of your relationship and create a “things-not-to-talk-about” list. The way to repair it is to go straight to the hurt with vulnerability and goodwill towards the other person.  

No one can change the past. You can’t take hurtful words back. You can’t undo a riding mistake. You can’t make a horse forget what spooked them. But through intentionality and choosing to reinforce care, love, and safety, you can create a new space with a completely new experience.  

With time and a little courage, you can arrive at a better, safer “normal” and leave fear behind.

Lindsey Rains is an online marketer and the founder of Hoof Print Marketing and Alta Mira Horsemanship. Having studied psychology at The Seattle School, she enjoys exploring the nature of mental health, relationships, and communication, especially as they relate to the horse and rider partnership.