There Can Be No Doubt

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The lanky black horse is confused. His early experiences interacting with people create lasting memories and the black horse has not forgotten. He learned to go numb. Tune everything out, go inward, and turtle up. This way, he could protect himself from the mixed signals and stress of always doubting what was expected of him.

Here he is in my pen after eighteen years of living his life this way. He’s compulsively eating his way around the edges of the pen. Ignoring me as if his life depends on it.

“I can’t hear you. I can’t see you. Maybe you’ll just go away.”

When I get within five feet I feel waves of anxiety pouring off of him and so I back away until I don’t feel his anxiety anymore. It’s one way to begin the process of teaching him he can trust his instincts again. I can let him know, in this small way, that I hear him.

I have tried other things.

Getting him to move his feet made him feel chased. He ignores any subtler forms of communication. Using food to entice him satisfies my need to have him interact with me temporarily, but it didn’t resolve the deeper issue that plagues him. The only thing that is helping him heal from these long held wounds is me bringing my best self to him, me doing my level best to learn his language and speak to him on his level.

Last week I wrote about the surprising amount of influence we have on our horse’s behavior when we share their space, let alone when we actively do things with them. Moving in harmony with horses requires clear communication. And in comparison to most humans, horses might as well have a PHD in non-verbal communication. They read every nuance of what we’re saying via our posture, how we move, our energy, intention, mood and so much more. We convey volumes that we aren’t even aware of!

What if your horse was reading all of it? What if your horse could tell that you are afraid of them going too fast and so they hold back to protect you? What if your horse can feel the amped up energy you brought to the barn because you had a bad day at work and he is mirroring your bad attitude? What if you asked him to ignore all that and do what you wanted anyway?

Here’s the thing, body language does not lie. We constantly project exactly what we think and how we feel via how we sit, stand, move, and every other tiny gesture. In fact, studies show that despite our apparent lack of fluency in non-verbal communication we still tend to believe body language over words.

Think about that.

We humans, who by and large are pretty unaware of body language, are still influenced by it. Imagine how our horses must feel? If they have the human equivalent of a PHD in non-verbal communication they are reading things in us in such minutia it’s crazy.

Horses like this lanky black gelding studiously ignoring me in the pen and sending me waves of anxiety when I get anywhere near him have gotten me thinking. Since I stepped away from using force or any kind of conditioned response training system it’s opened the door for the horses to be completely honest about how they have felt about what’s been done with them over the course of their lives.

This horse, like so many others, has learned not to trust his PHD skill at reading body language because his entire life people have told him he was wrong when he did.   Now here we sit at an impasse. He studiously ignores me, eating when he isn’t hungry, his only way of telling me he’s nervous and stressed about my presence and my intentions.

Somehow I have to figure out how to help him learn to trust his instincts again. The only way I can do that, without force or bribery or conditioning, is be one hundred percent clear about what I’m projecting. MY body language, emotions, energy and intention must match all the time and I must, to the best of my ability, accurately respond to his feedback and his feelings.

The black horse is one of many who have me rethinking how I do things with horses. I’ve come to believe we seriously damage a horse’s psyche when we ask them to ignore, squash or subdue their natural ability to read body language and their instinctive desire to mirror it. Even horses who have been trained using positive methods come to me frustrated. It doesn’t seem to matter to them so much how kind we are while we do it, if we ask them to disregard what we are really saying (via our own non-verbal communication) we can create confusion, frustration and stress because we leave them in doubt about what we really want.

Slowly, surely, the black horse is learning to trust his instincts again. He’s learning that I say what I mean and mean what I say and that he cannot make any mistakes. If he doesn’t do as I ask I adapt and work with his response. Whatever he offers me is his way of communicating, guiding me to refine my ability to present my ideas with greater clarity. He’s teaching me,  my presence is enough. Free of distractions we engage in pure communication one body, one heart and mind to another.

The black horse is coming out of his shell and I am learning his language.

We are both learning.  There can be no doubt.

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If you’d like to read more stories along these lines and learn about the women who inspire me to be a better person with horses and in life:

Horse Interrupted by Crissi McDonald

Riding The Middle: My Horse is Lazy by Anna Blake

Who’s Aggravating Whom? by Andrea Datz

And for endless wisdom when it comes to taking yourself deeper into the wisdom of horses and the more spiritual aspects of being with horses check out Kim Walnes -The Way of the Horse on Facebook.

 

 

8 thoughts on “There Can Be No Doubt

  1. This is a wonderful blog post. So timely for me. I have an OTTB that is recently off track. He is a very interesting boy. From the first time I laid hands on him I felt peace and calming. I have felt that every up until last Sunday. Sunday brought me a very confused, fearful, reactive boy. Our feelings bouncing back and forth we’re of flight, scared and the worst feeling shaking inside. I really think it ended up a case of both of us bouncing these feelings back and forth to each other. I just couldn’t shake it and he just never settled no matter what I did. I know that our routine changed. I know he was unsure about it.

    Have you ever used Bach flower essences? I have in the past and will with him. Mimulus seems to fit him the best.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Kathy. Yes, I have used flower essences and love their gentle, supportive action. I’m most familiar with the Australian Bush Flower Essences, which I just loved working with. These days I’m gravitating more and more to working with my own energy, balance and movement as a way to help my horses. It’s a fascinating journey. It sounds like your boy trusts you enough to be honest with you and that is worth it’s weight in gold. I find the easiest thing to do when things come up is to pause and breath until the energy shifts. It’s so simple to do and yet it works so well. In most cases! There are always exceptions so you have to trust your own instincts always.

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  2. Beautifully written as usual Andrea!….I find myself wandering down another ‘path’ on my horsemanship journey…one very similar to what you describe…..one step at a time, one horse at a time!!…thank you sharing your wisdom!!!….

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Potentially will his behavior become more exaggerated before he turns a corner? What if a horse had had to use very loud behaviour to see off a human, eg kicking out? Would you back off each time it kicked? Would that not cement the idea in the horses mind that he can control how close you get by kicking and because he never wanted to interact with humans he would become a confirmed kicker? Writing this has helped me realise there must be micro messages from the horse before the kick was delivered so you’d back off at those – am I on the right lines?

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    • Deanna this is such a good comment. Absolutely, horses like this one who tend to turtle up often become quite explosive if you push them to be energetic. I experimented with that early on with him because sometimes getting them to really move can help them release some pent up energy and turn a corner faster. The trick is that they can’t feel as though you are chasing them or punishing them for bad behavior. This guy would go from this very sluggish walk to blasting off and kicking out when he did so, there was no self regulation and no in between. I knew he had that potential so I chose to use a long soft, cotton rope as a way to have a visual aid, so to speak, to help him see how much energy I had in my body and my walk (the rope coils naturally flop around more when I move with more energy) and then I can also toss the rope out to give him a visual aid for how much space I’d like to maintain between us. In this way I remind myself as much as him, to keep my distance and use my energy and intention to ask him to pick up his energy. Because I never closed the distance between us I have no need to back off when he explodes and kicks out because I am always well out of kicking range. This way I am able to celebrate his release of energy and continue to move with him around the pen.

      I thought a lot about this because he does always kick out in the general direction of the human, it’s his pattern and he’s had since he was young. When he was young he would get punished every time he kicked out and expressed himself like that. Clearly, punishing the behavior had not made it go away so I elected to simply ignore it and continue the conversation as though nothing had happened. In his case (and each case is different) my gut said that this was a test to see if I was like the other people he’d known who reacted out of fear. I made a conscious decision not to react by knowing him well enough to know he kicks out when he picks his energy up (but also I know that potential exists in ANY horse who’s been shut down). By knowing there is a good possibility of him kicking out when I go in I can set myself up to work at a safe distance and so not have to react to his kicking out of fear (ie. not reflexively lashing out because he scared me).

      Again, in this case (because every horse is different and they are responding to the human so I can’t predict here) but in this case as he realized I was not going to back off or punish him, that my body language did indeed match my energy and intention, that I was not afraid of him, he has both stopped kicking and stopped compulsively eating when we go in that pen together. In fact he follows me around at liberty all over the place now. That’s the cool thing with these guys. Once they wake back up they are so cool to be around. It’s rewarding as heck.

      It was a bit of a process convincing him that he could trust my body language. Now we are working on more subtle things, like not going on auto pilot around and around. Just a few days ago he was able to speed up and slow down within the trot without losing it and all off line. He was also able to pick up the canter softly with not explosive kicking out and no hysteria as he ran around.

      I suppose the short answer to your question is that yes, horses like this almost always get a bit worse before they turn a corner. And I set myself up to be safe no matter what they do when that happens. And I set myself up so that I don’t need to back off or escalate to defend myself. I am on the fence still about whether or not allowing them to kick out without punishment of some kind would turn them into a confirmed kicker. At the moment I think not, so long as you don’t back off, punish or become fearful. I worked this horse through this stuff because his person can’t remain emotionally grounded when he acts out. She was taught early on to fear that kind of behavior and punish it as dangerous. It’s so hard to overcome that kind of conditioning (for humans as well as horses).

      Does that answer your question?
      Andrea

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    • Oh, and yes, you are on the right track in thinking that in most horses there are usually signals that let you know they are feeling pressured or frustrated and you would back off before they felt the need to kick out. In a truly shut down horse they tend to not give you that kind of signal and go from zero to explosion over and over again. But yes, ideally you’d notice and back off. I think things turned the corner with this horse when I realized he was compulsively eating because he was terrified. When I backed off until I didn’t feel his waves of anxiety that’s when he knew I could hear him and things started to change for the better.

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  4. Pingback: Beyond Body Language: What did you say? | Integrative Horsemanship

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