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.
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:
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.