The dark gelding observes as I pluck his halter and lead from the hook near his paddock, assessing my body language, listening as I discuss the plan with my student, handing her a second halter for his buddy. Before I even enter his space he turns, walking with purpose, placing himself in the neighboring paddock, behind the shelter wall where I can’t see him. Great, this is part of the plan anyway, to separate the two geldings while we each interact with one of them. He remains hidden to me until I walk across to close the gate between the pens.
I find him standing under the shelter facing the wall, head low, eyes half-mast, hind leg cocked. He doesn’t acknowledge my presence in any way as I latch the gate within a few feet of where he has head to the wall.
Horses speak in a non-verbal language that humans know, but have largely forgotten. It’s a language that is not purely visual, and I think that’s what hangs us up. We look for visual cues, desperately trying to apply meaning to them. It keeps us in the realm of observation and thought. The problem is, much like our verbal language, equine body language is filled with gestures that have multiple meanings, depending on the context.
It is no accident my gelding friend ducked behind the only available wall when he saw me pick up the halter! But how do I interpret his actions? Staying in the realm of visual cues alone can be misleading. On the surface he appears relaxed, like he’s hanging out in the shade, napping. But his emotional tone is anything but relaxed. As I get within a few feet of him I feel an intense wave of anxiety pouring off of him. It’s a visceral experience, slamming into me as though I’ve run into a wall that stops me in my tracks. He never even glances in my direction, he doesn’t breathe. He doesn’t even twitch an ear. He’s frozen stiff.
Horses communicate all the time. They assume we understand and share information like all other beings in nature, but mostly we don’t. In Tango, we communicate with emotional tone and energy. There is an impulse, an intention felt long before it’s seen. The energy and emotion thus shared sets the tone for the dance. It’s this emotional and energetic tone that makes it easy for both partners to predict each other’s movements. This is the level of subtlety horses employ. Unless we actively cultivate it, we lose access to this subtle language that goes beyond the visual signals we rely on so heavily.
There is no mistaking the gelding’s body language in light of what I feel. He couldn’t be clearer in his communication. In the smallest of whispers he’s letting me know exactly how uncomfortable he is about my intentions. I want him to know without a doubt that I heard his whisper so I walk away, curious to discover how far I need to be from him, and in what position relative to him, before I feel the anxiety dissipate. Sixty feet away in the farthest corner of the paddock from him, that’s how far I go before I feel the anxiety dim.
Standing in the corner I feel my feet on the ground, my chest rise and fall with my breath. It’s a warm day. The air is thick with the scent of blooming plants in nearby pastures. There’s nothing quite like the sweetness of blooming alfalfa! Scanning my own body now, there is no trace of anxiety within me, I feel calm, at peace. As I expand my awareness towards my friend in the shelter I feel a buzzing hum at the front edge of my diaphragm that extends up into my chest, closing my throat, it’s hard to breathe. He’s showing me exactly what he’s feeling, though he has yet to move a muscle or even glance in my direction.
There is a reason I feel my feet on the ground and smell the sweet alfalfa hanging in the air. A reason I breathe and track what’s happening in my own body. It’s easy to resonate, harmonize, or empathize. Humans are quite good at that! I could easily stand in that corner feeling his anxiety wash over me, and consume me, swallowed in that wave of intense emotion. He set the emotional and energetic tone and I followed his lead. Now what? How can I help him if I’m swamped by this wave? Observing him or interacting from this place of overwhelm is not likely to go well.
And so I feel my feet on the ground, I breathe and smell the sweet summer air. I can resonate or empathize with him enough to feel what he shares with me without mirroring it back to him.
And so I stand in that corner sixty feet away and observe the sensations moving through my own body. I feel the sensations of buzzing and humming around my diaphragm, chest and throat, breathing into and through them until they dissipate. The gelding responds with a big deep breath of his own, a little snort of relief as the tension leaves his body. He finally glances in my direction, no longer frozen. He knows I can hear his whispers, and that makes him feel safe enough to consider a conversation with me.
I test the waters by moving to the north corner of the paddock, twenty feet away and behind him. He turns to face me, moving a few feet in my direction, head up, and ears pricked in my direction. His eyes are somewhat curious, though guarded. I feel his cautious invitation and approach with clear intentions, not an ounce of subterfuge. Feeling my feet on the ground, moving with rhythm and intention, breathing, and feeling the sun on my face. He allows me to put the halter on and I feel the prickling of anxiety as my jaw tightens. We hang out and breathe together until his fear dissipates and he visibly relaxes. I’m so happy that he is able to be comfortable with me with a halter on his head. That’s enough for today. The halter comes off and he’s free of me. Sometimes it’s best they know they are enough without having to ‘do’ anything for me.
Interactions with horses are multi-sensory experiences. Horses, if we accept their feedback, become the best guide we have to better ourselves as their dance partner. They give honest, nuanced feedback, on a moment-to-moment basis. It almost always begins with a feeling, a palpable emotional tone. The emotional tone, or vibration, is backed up by corresponding body language signals. To dance well we must learn to feel, respond, and adapt to their honest self-expression. We humans tend to be rather clumsy in our attempts at non-verbal communication, shouting when a whisper will do. Give your horse a chance and he’ll teach you to whisper.