Beyond Body Language: Facial Expressions

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Huey kisses (2)

I’ve been paying a lot of attention to my horse’s facial expressions lately. Turns out they have a lot to say and are quite eloquent. All of these photos are from the same session. Huey wears his heart on his sleeve doesn’t he?

We often learn to look at body language signals in isolation. If they swish their tail or pin their ears they might be annoyed. But body language is so much more than that. It’s literally how horses communicate with each other and with us, if we choose to listen.

Horses carry on entire conversations with facial expressions alone.

If I give him enough time and space to finish his sentences Huey has a lot more to say than I ever imagined. In the pauses between doing things he’ll go through long series of subtly changing expressions. It’s easy to think he’s napping because he’s so still. But if I watch closely I can see tiny changes in his facial expression.

His head lowers imperceptibly. Eyes half mast. Nostrils vibrate. Lips begin to elongate and part ever so slightly. Wait long enough and his muzzle keeps elongating, lips parting ever so slightly. Keep waiting and he dissolves into exaggerated, jaw popping yawns of release. His way of telling me that working with humans can be stressful. He has a lot of history to process.

If we let them, our horses tell us exactly how they feel about what we’re doing now but also everything that’s ever been done to them.  The good and the bad.

Body language signals don’t happen in isolation, they happen in long sequences. By the time our horses are resorting to tail swishing and ear pinning we’ve already missed entire sentences worth of whispers.

Are you listening?

Talking too Much

Have you ever had a conversation with someone who interrupts you all the time?  Someone who just will not let you finish a sentence?   Have you ever felt you had to shout to be heard?  Maybe it’s easier to simply quit trying to contribute to the conversation?

I often wonder what it’s like to be a horse interacting with a human. Until recently I would not have characterized my time with horses as conversations.  Our interactions were too one-sided to be called a conversation.

Our interactions tended to be about who was the leader, my horse myself?  I did most of the talking, my horse was expected to listen, following my instructions without contributing overly much of his own opinions.  I’m guessing I’m not alone in knowing in my heart, this kind of relationship wasn’t right for me and the horses.

A few years back  I encountered an increasing number of horses who seemed genuinely traumatized by the training they’d received.  They were difficult to help, sometimes dangerous to work with.  Their early memories of abusive treatment left deep scars.  They seemed haunted by their memories. It seemed to me the depth of trauma we were creating was greater than it had been earlier in my career.

Just a few stressful training sessions caused the changes you see in this horse’s body in the image on the left (he’s stuck in startle reflex).  Thankfully he was able to let go of the stress and return to his normal self without too much effort (yes, that’s the same horse on the right).

Feeling a bit despairing of the industry I devoted my life to, I elected to take a year off from riding and rehab work.  I wanted to take some time to understand how horses really feel about interacting with humans.  What would happen if I wasn’t under any pressure to train or rehab?  What if I gave the horses a choice and let them decide if they wanted to interact with me, how they wanted to interact with me.

rio copyThe ensuing conversations were still one-sided.  Now I let my horses do all the talking while I did nothing but listen.  They truly blew my mind.  I had no clue how communicative they could be if I got out-of-the-way and just listened.  The year flew by as the horses sucked me into their world, teaching me the value of stillness.  We learned a lot about each other and I learned a LOT about myself.

Now, how to create an open exchange, a genuine conversation?

It took a while to discover what I needed to change in myself to become interesting enough a horse would want to move with me.  In and of itself, that created an opportunity for the horses to have a voice, to start a conversation. When I make a request my horse responds.  Question, answer.  I realized the horses were giving me quite accurate responses to what I offered up, if I accepted their feedback they guided me to asking more accurate questions.

It took longer to realize how often my horses were trying to speak and I was interrupting them.

Have you ever thought about how your horse speaks to you?  I mean, it’s pretty obvious when they are bucking you off.  How many times did we interrupt them when they tried to speak for them to get frustrated enough to lash out – the horse’s version of shouting to be heard?  How many times did we interrupt them or punish them for contributing before they withdrew inward and stopped contributing at all?

Have you ever given any thought to what the horse’s side of the conversation looks like?

My horses respond to my suggestions in tiny gestures.  When they lean away from me as I approach with the halter it means something.  If I miss that first hint they’ll take a half step away.  If I miss that they’ll turn their head away.  If I back off and give them a moment they inevitably begin to chatter away.

Simply by giving them space, taking a breath and feeling my feet on the ground my horses sigh in relief.  Their heads drop, eyes go half mast or begin blinking with purpose. They are not checking out or taking a nap.  They are letting me know my approach caused them anxiety. They are asking me to give them a minute.

IMG_0737If I honor their request, it’s quite amazing to watch the series of expressions they run through.  Huey will do this slow motion thing with his mouth.  His nostrils start to quiver and become more oval, his lips start to quiver and stretch longer.  Then they start to part just the tiniest bit and if I take one more step back he’ll yawn and yawn, and yawn.  It might take a full minute or even three for the yawn to happen.

It’s the most difficult thing I’m learning to do, this waiting for Huey to finish his sentence before I add anything new to the conversation.

Some horses are so used to no one listening they aren’t sure it’s worth speaking up at all.  It might take them what feels like hours to contribute one tiny gesture to the conversation, never mind complete a thought.  Given enough time and space they will eventually trust it’s safe to contribute.  They may have a lot unsaid.  I hope I am able to let them speak without interrupting all the time when they do!

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Beyond Body Language: Setting the Tone

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In one of my favorite Tango lessons our instructor talked about how the leader has an opportunity to set the tone for the dance.  By infusing our body language with emotional content we create a feeling tone that makes it easier for the follower to predict what we might do next.

The tone we set includes physical tone as well as emotional tone. Our horses naturally match or mirror the tone we set.  Whether we are aware of it or not we are setting the tone of the conversation we have with our horse.  Most often it’s happening outside our conscious awareness.

Each horse is different.  Some are generally more reactive and some are generally less reactive.  The horse in the photo is quite a reactive guy.  If I set a tone that includes a lot of intensity or high energy he races around like a wild man, it’s clearly too much for him and he finds it stressful.  Other horses might race around and be playful about it, but not this guy.

Pay attention to how your horse responds to the tone you set. Adapt to his feedback and harmony ensues!

These half brothers are very different.  Kastani, on the left requires a lot of big energy to be motivated, whereas Dillenger is extremely responsive to a subtler, playful tone.

The more conscious I am about my role in setting the tone of the conversation the more fluid the communication with my horse.  I can create more intensity in my emotional tone and energy to help a horse bring his energy up or I can become more grounded and soft to bring their energy down.  I can set a playful tone or a serious tone and anything in between!

Who’s setting the tone in your dance with your horse?

 

Changing the Tone of the Conversation

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The big chestnut gelding loves to do things. When he sees me coming into his paddock he makes a beeline, coming in hot. He’s developed a pattern with his person, who was taught to stand her ground and defend her space. He comes barreling in hot and bumps into her. Just before he bumps into her she bumps him on the end of his nose.

Horses can be so literal.

After a time the big gelding adopted nose bumping as his preferred method of greeting humans. I really think that to him it was like two people greeting by bumping fists. His nose bumping her hand became their established greeting. It seemed like he thought that’s what she wanted. He was doing his best to comply.

This kind of scenario plays out all the time in the world of horse and human relationships. We set the tone and our horses match us, or they set the tone and we match them. Some things become habitual, like the chestnut barreling into people’s space and bumping into them.

Once these patterns are established the tone of the conversation is pre-set. Each interaction starts on this bad footing and carries through into everything else we do that day. The conversation starts to center around the behaviors we don’t like – we start to think our horse is rude and we need to establish better boundaries.

We never plan to set ourselves up for uncomfortable conversations with our horses. Most often it creeps up on us. One bad day trailer loading and we subconsciously change the tone of the conversation about trailer loading by bringing doubt to the table next time we load. ‘What if it happens again?’ Our horse starts to struggle going right under saddle and we start to anticipate it being and struggle so we ball ourselves up and do weird things in an effort to make it happen. We set the tone that going right is hard.

All of this is in the back of my mind as the chestnut gelding comes barreling into my space set to bump me with his nose. I simply step aside and let him barrel on past. He looks a bit like a cartoon character as he cranes his neck around trying to figure out why he didn’t bump into me. Once he slows down enough to turn around he comes right back to me.

This time I make sure I convey my energetic boundary and verbally say to him that I’m not interested in being bumped into.   When it’s clear he can’t stop himself in time I simply step aside. This time he goes on by with less of a locomotive vibe and gets himself stopped as he turns around and observes me standing there. He clearly has no idea what I want so I give him time to think about it.

When he comes my way this time he’s still coming in pretty hot. I hold my hand out in front of me and fluff up my energetic boundary. He stops with his whole face one inch from my hand while his entire body acts like an accordion scrunching up behind his head to get stopped. I take a step back to give him space enough that he doesn’t have to re-balance by bumping into me and he stands there looking at me like I have five eyes.

Changing the tone of the conversation once it’s established does require a lot of clarity in your body language. Body language carries emotional content and sometimes requires a fair bit of intensity to break through strong habitual patterns of interaction. In this case the key was to take away the intensity that had been inherent in the established greeting for all these years.

Stepping aside carried no punishment and no judgment. Simply a statement internally – ‘this is not the kind of conversation I’m interested in having’ – ‘I appreciate your enthusiasm but I don’t prefer to be bumped into.’   Once he started thinking about the conversation instead of acting out of habit, then I could stand my ground and create a bit of intensity in my posture and gaze, and have him hear me enough to respect that boundary.

All I had to do was let him know that my greeting is different than the one he’s accustomed to. I didn’t have to punish him. I didn’t have to stand my ground. I didn’t have to set a stronger boundary. All I had to do was let him know, via my body language, that I wasn’t interested in having that particular conversation with him. Once he knew that about me he never bumped into me again. I set the tone and he matched it.

Changing the tone of an established conversation doesn’t have to be dramatic. All we need to do is become conscious of the patterns we’ve created that don’t serve our relationship. Determine to change the tone of the conversation. It’s not so much about setting boundaries as deciding what kind of conversation you’re interested in having and then figuring out how you can set that tone.

 

 

 

Beyond Body Language: Observation

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Feel my feet on the ground.

Breathe.

He knows everything about me the moment he becomes aware of my presence.

It takes me longer to know him.

Observation is key.

Notice when his ear twitches in my direction.  Notice when he pops his head up and turns to face me.

The conversation doesn’t end when he walks over to me.  He may be curious enough to come check it out but he still has a lot to say. His version of conversation is visual and visceral – small gestures, facial expressions, emotional tone, posture, movement.

Breathe.  Observe. Sense.

Ask him questions.

As I walk up and place a hand on his shoulder it’s a question: “how do you feel about me standing here and touching you here?  He answers in small gestures:  taking a deep breath, lowering his head slightly, blinking, twitching an ear in my direction, chewing softly.

Allowing him time to finish his sentence helps him feel heard.  Interrupting him breaks trust.  If done consistently he’ll learn to anticipate or turtle up inside himself.  He’ll stop talking, either way.

 

 

 

Listening with your whole body

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Listen with your whole body.

Communication is a multi-sensory experience that goes beyond visual body language.   Body language is infused with emotional content that gives us deeper insight into what lies beneath the surface. The more information we gather from a variety of sources the more accurately we might assess a situation or find a solution.

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Listen with all of your senses.  Is he relaxed?  Napping?  Or something else?  His whole body is transmitting his internal state – can you feel it?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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What motivates a horse to yawn hugely when we are doing something with them? It’s source of some debate. Is yawning during work a sign of stress or a sign of stress release? Are they releasing stress from the work you just did or did the work you did help them release stress from a past trauma? How do we know?

 


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When a horse is standing still while we do things around them or to them, are they relaxed, accepting or frozen stiff with fear? How would you know the difference? Some of the worst accidents with horses happen when someone mistakes frozen with fear for acceptance.

 

It is possible, even easy, to distinguish the difference between one emotional state and another. If you aren’t sure, step one is to stop what you are doing, give your horse some space and breathe. Quiet yourself – still on the outside but also still on the inside.

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He is communicating so much to me in this moment.  Can you sense it?  Which of your senses guide you to the deeper emotional content of this moment?  What do you feel drawn to do?

Then, when you are quiet, listen with your whole body. Notice what you feel. Is it hard to breathe? Does your chest feel tight? Maybe your fingers or hands are tingly. Are there butterflies in your stomach? Do you feel nauseous or numb? Maybe your jaw got tight or your hip started to hurt. Every body is capable of acting as an antenna, gathering information from those around us.

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My jaw felt tight and it was hard to breathe.  Both of these horses have fear around bits.  We can help them release their fear by giving that fear voice.  Whether we ever use a bit again or not, they don’t have to live with the fear.

Every body is unique, tuned to a slightly different frequency, capable of picking up slightly different kinds of information. If you allow yourself to be quiet enough long enough you will begin to feel things – your personal information gathering frequency coming back online.

When you do, you’ll know exactly how your horse feels on the inside. Solutions become clear. You truly give your horse a voice.

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Beyond Body Language: It takes two to Tango!

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Horses are acutely aware of everything. They communicate with each other primarily through the non-verbal language of the body. They are just as aware of our body language as they are of another horse’s, picking up on the tiniest of nuances as we interact with them.

Body language includes posture, stance, gestures, facial expressions, movement, and emotions.  Horses respond instinctively to what they sense.  They act on input without thinking or rationalizing.

Commu730158489_stdnicating via body language is a multi-sensory experience! Whether we are aware of it or not, we are influenced by the same nuances as our horses.  It is quite remarkable what you can learn about someone without ever exchanging a word, just by learning to be an astute observer of body language!

If we want to have a genuine dialogue with our horses we must learn to communicate more fluently in the language that is innate to our horses.  We must become more conscious about what we are saying as we chatter away non-verbally at them!  I believe one of the biggest stressors in a horse’s life is being punished for responding accurately to body language most people don’t even know they are transmitting.

Even among humans, studies show people are more influenced by body language than words.  The body doesn’t lie.  How we feel physically, what we think, and our emotions all show up in our body. Our posture, movement and the electromagnetic fields of our organs reflect a deeper truth.  A truth that shows up unbidden, much like a reflex.

Is it any wonder horses are so sought after for aiding in human mental health programs?  Horses respond to our inner truth.  They feel uncomfortable when our outside doesn’t match our inside. When we are able to be consistent and honest what we feel on the inside matches what we project on the outside and horses feel safe.

 

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We could spend a lifetime learning about what our horses are telling us via their body language.  Just look at Gin in the photos above.  Her facial expression, body position, posture, gestures of her ears and eyes and nose – so many things change from one image to the next!  It’s all communication.

But notice, just as many small things change in me in each image!

I truly believe that one of the greatest sources of stress for our domesticated horses is living in a constant state of confusion about what’s expected of them.  Punishing them for not getting it right when we aren’t clear to begin with is just as stressful for a horse as having someone hang around hesitating and wishy-washy, never really asking for anything. We inadvertently teach our horses that they can’t trust their instincts.  Can you imagine how horrible that would be?

If we let them, our horses can guide us back to ourselves, back to a healthy relationship with our mind, body and emotions.  It’s time to discover how to interpret our horse’s responses to us, their body language, as a reflection of what we say – whether we are conscious of it or not.

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This is a small taste of the 2018 On line Class – Communication through Movement.  To learn more check out:  www.andreadatz.com