Horses whisper softly. Answering each question posed as honestly as they are able. They start out trusting humans understand that behavior and body language have meaning. Horses believe people are consciously aware of what they communicate with the silent language of their body. They notice posture; emotions, energy, intention and anything else people transmit. They assume we do too. They respond to our body language-based input as part of a conversation, answering the questions we ask. They don’t distinguish whether our question was asked consciously or unconsciously.
As Martha Graham once said – “the body says what words cannot” – in fact, studies show that if body language and words don’t match, we’ll believe the body language over the words every time. Horses naturally, instinctively communicate with each other in this non-verbal language of the body. They assume we do too.
Horses start out believing humans understand their language and so they respond honestly to our input. Imagine the confusion when they discover that what we are saying with our body often doesn’t match what we actually want them to do? Think about how important it is to a horse that they be capable of accurately assessing the body language of those around them? In the wild it might mean their very survival, to be able to distinguish the difference in body language between a hungry lion and a sated one. Can you imagine what it must be like to doubt those instincts, to second-guess what their senses tell them?
Over time, horses who don’t want conflict with humans learn to ignore what our body language and emotions are actually saying. Instead, they learn to pay attention to cues or aids we contrive to take the place of the more instinctive, subtle body language horses naturally speak. It’s easier for us to condition our horses to respond to particular cues than it is to clean up our own body language so we can communicate on their instinctive level. It’s easier to ask them to change their behavior to suit our needs.
Some horses adapt reasonably well to this new way of communicating. But as I get to know the horses that end up living with me, I see and feel how and why they learned to shut down their own instincts. I see and feel how much stress and anxiety that causes them. Asking horses to adapt to our needs on this most basic level has consequences for them. With some horses, there is no chance for a harmonious relationship that is mutually beneficial, until or unless they feel safe trusting their instincts, until or unless I learn to communicate in their instinctive language of the body.
And so, I find I am no longer interested in changing a horse’s behavior to make it easier for me to get them to do as I ask. I am interested in getting to know who they are as individuals and learning about myself in the process. As we get to know each other we share experiences. Those shared experiences form the basis of our unique communication – the basic structure of our unique way of moving together in harmony.
My personal journey with the horses who didn’t take to learning cues, takes me ever deeper into this world of non-verbal communication. The more time I spend engaged at this subtle level where there is no conflict between horse and human, the more I am aware of how much they communicate that could be easily missed or misinterpreted. They never fail to respond appropriately to my actions (or inactions, as the case may be), or to their conditioning. It’s not easy to accept they are doing their best when I think I’m quite clear in my request and they do something entirely different, ignore me completely or lash out when they feel I’m too much.
I have to remember – there are no clean slates here – horse or human. It’s part of the deal with a rescued horse, or any horse who’s been in the hands of more than one person. It’s part of the deal for any person who’s been around horses for any amount of time. Horse or human, we all have memories and conditioning that surface unpredictably and can overwhelm us. You never know what will stir old ghosts. Memories of broken trust and relationships filled with conflict, sometimes filled with pain. Conditioning that tells us horses are dangerous and must be controlled.
It’s humbling to accept my part in any miscommunication, but when I do, when I am truly clear and have a truly willing partner we flow together in perfect unison – like a flock of birds or a school of fish. This kind of unity seems to feel as good to them as it does to me.
Horses are natural followers in the sense that it’s part of herd behavior to move together. It’s in their DNA to accurately assess and respond to the body language of others, it’s part of their survival instincts. Although horses are no longer at risk of predation in most domestic situations, it is still part of their hardwiring to trust their instincts. These instincts are a distinct advantage in the development of a relationship that hinges on movement. By allowing the horse’s feedback to guide me I continue to refine my understanding of what it is in me that makes me interesting and magnetic for my horses to follow!
I’ll never forget a story one of my mentor’s told me years ago. She always asks parents to list all of the things in the child’s environment that might be impacting their behavior. She has yet to have one parent include themselves in that list.
Do you know what you are communicating your horse?