Beyond Body Language: Looking Away

The Fine Art of Haltering Horses:

Approaching Sundance from the left he walks away with some determination.  Is this the beginning of the conversation about haltering or the end?

The invitation to dance walking away

Last week I wrote a story about a cool experience I had haltering a horse for some folks who must have seen their horse walking away as the end of the conversation.  I say this because their response to him walking away was to punish him by chasing him with whips.  Chasing Horses

What if your horse walking away is his way of starting a conversation with you? What if this is the first question he is asking about how this interaction with you is going to go?  Maybe he is asking you a question:

  • “Are you going to chase me?”
  • “What kind of mood are you in/how much patience do you have today?” (Gin used to ask me this question every time I went to catch her!)
  • “Are you willing to have a conversation where we negotiate the contact between us?”

The further I go down this rabbit hole the more I begin to think that it’s a healthy thing for a horse to ask questions and negotiate with us about how we are going to interact with each other. If I can answer his questions in a way that feels good to him, Sundance is likely to continue the conversation.  If I get frustrated, possibly reprimanding him for his behavior, all I do is shut the conversation down. I’m telling him I’m not listening, that I don’t care how he feels about the interaction with me.

On the other hand, if I don’t react adversely to his initial question I keep the dialogue open, the conversation continues with me answering his first question and him asking me another.  Perhaps turning to face me by way of indicating he is feeling good about our pending interaction.  And before you know it he’s allowed himself to be haltered and we have an open dialogue wherein we have mutually set the tone for the rest of our interaction.

Sometimes they are subtler than Sundance.

Notice how Fafnir turns his head away.  See the expression on his face?  He’s letting the person approaching him know that he’s not comfortable with the approach.  This is his way of letting us know, perhaps:

  • “I don’t know you and I don’t feel comfortable with you yet”
  • “You’re coming in too hot and fast and it’s uncomfortable”
  • “Are you listening? Can you see my communication?”

In the second image he’s letting the approaching person know they missed his message and have placed a hand on his shoulder.  Notice he is leaning away now and in the next image has turned his head further away and is ready to leave if this person doesn’t take a step back or pause and acknowledge his end of the conversation.

If I get his message, even if I get it late, and back off, give him a moment to turn to face me, he’s likely to stay and allow me to halter him.  If I were to persist in trying to get the halter on while he is leaning away he is likely to leave with more insistence or if he allows himself to be caught he’s going to know I am not listening and don’t much care about how he feels during our interaction.

Fafnir Christmas Day 2013

How I respond to these initial efforts at communication sets the tone for the rest of our interaction that day and in future sessions.

When your horse turns away do you see it as the beginning of the conversation or the end?  Do you open the dialogue or shut it down?

Haltering horses is a fine art, the invitation to dance.

It’s a skill worth mastering.

Merlin in the shadows







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