I had the distinct pleasure of interacting with a young mustang mare on the weekend. She is only recently adopted and has yet to form a bond with humans. Despite the trials and tribulations of her early forays into domesticated life, I find a curious young lady communicating exactly how she feels long before I reach the gate to her paddock. It doesn’t take much to learn to read a horse’s language – a little attention to detail, a willingness to be responsive to what they present, and a touch of empathy.
Horses are so exquisitely sensitive and responsive…
This is the first time I’ve had the opportunity to spend time with a mustang before they have been ‘trained’. She sees us coming from a long way out and responds by moving off of her hay to create as much distance as possible between herself and us. This is such an opportunity for me to let her know that I hear her. She has already begun conversing with me and it’s critical to the success of our first dance that she knows I can hear her, and that I respond appropriately. I stop walking, lean away, turn my shoulders away, take a step away – progressively but minutely discovering which gesture makes her feel comfortable enough to go back to her hay.
Just a few steps back and she is back to eating, but warily, eyes on us. On an empathic level I feel waves of anxiety pouring off of her. I experience this as a physical sensation burning along my lower rib cage. It’s her way of letting me know how she feels. All mammals convey their emotions this way, including humans, and when we learn to feel, we gain access to our horse’s sensitivity in unimaginable ways. Why? Because now I can stand where I am and breathe until I feel her anxiety diminish, then vanish, before I take one step closer. If I didn’t feel anything from her and went ahead and approached it isn’t the end of the world, she would simply use visual body language to let me know how she feels.
You see how this is going? She is assessing me. Who is this lady? Does she see and respond to my visual cues? Check. Does she feel my emotional signals? Check. Now she knows how sensitive I am, and she has a pretty good idea how subtle she can be in her communication with me. Had I not felt her wave of anxiety and waited for a visual cue, then she would know she needs to be more visual with me.
We could sure learn a lot from horses about how to start a conversation or a dance. She made no assumptions about me. Instead, she simply started communicating how she felt while making note about how I responded. I did the same. In a sense, we started dancing the moment I got out of my car, maybe even sooner! We felt each other out so that by the time I went in the pen with her and began interacting there was a tone between us. A tone that is unique to the relationship I now have with this mare. How many times do we enter our horse’s space with our techniques, our agenda, and our assumptions? How many times do we have our ‘way’ of doing things that we apply equally to all horses regardless of whether or not it’s needed?
There is great power in taking a moment to greet each horse, each day, each moment, as the unique being they are. All that’s required of us is enough creativity and adaptability to read and respond in each moment.
Before I even open the gate into the paddock area, this mare knows I know how to read her signals. I know she has healthy, normal responses, and is interested, maybe even curious, with a healthy does of anxiety. Fair enough. How does she know what I might want from her and how I might go about getting it? I have a clean slate with her. I’ve never met her before. This is my opportunity to show her who I am, setting the stage for all of our future encounters. What I hope to show her is my good side. The person that is patient, kind, consistent, listens well, and is adaptable. The other side is the greedy one who just has to touch her, has to prove I can get the ‘job’, whatever that may be, done. The one that will take what I want from her instead of allowing her to give what she can.
Thankfully, with some force of will, I keep my grubby hands in my pockets and my ego back in the car…
I want to show her exactly who I am, how I move, how I breathe, how I feel. When she seems comfortable enough with our presence (because of course I’m not alone), we just walk to the gate into the paddock area, open it, close it and I set my water bottle on the tub near her gate. I talk to her the whole time, explaining what I’m doing and why, but I don’t focus on her, and I don’t pussy foot around. I want her to know this movement isn’t about her, soft eyes keep her in my peripheral vision so that I can make note of how she responds to our activity. She moves quickly off her hay to the back corner, but she faces us and watches warily. I love that she didn’t spook, charging for the shelter, hiding her head in a corner. She consistently shows me a sensitive, communicative demeanor. As her person says, ‘she’s very workable’. Indeed, she is.
All horses are as willing to communicate as this mare if we give them half a chance. As far as I’m concerned, a horse is a horse regardless of breed or sex. They all have the capacity to be just as sensitive as this young lady. I think mustangs have a reputation for being sharper than domestic horses simply because we aren’t used to being around horses that still have their instincts intact. Horses that have not learned to tone down their natural responsiveness to match humans that just don’t tend to listen so well. It’s our insensitivity and lack of attention to the small details of communication that teach a horse to be dull or reactive.
This little mustang is one that would quickly be labeled reactive, hair-triggered, possibly dangerous. Rather than ‘desensitize’ her by scaring her stiff, I’d hope to maintain her exquisitely delicate communicativeness, learn to work with her fine-tuned instincts rather than against them.
When I open the gate to her small paddock, I do so with the knowledge that I step into her home. This is her territory and I always want her to feel safe in her own home. Every horse needs a place they can go where they feel safe, I don’t want her paddock to be what Anna Blake often refers to as ‘the scene of the crime’. Imagine how stressful it would be to have someone come into your home and force you to do something there, to scare you there?
The first thing I do is go squat in the corner furthest from her and busy myself plucking bits of green grass that are just out of her reach. And I breathe a lot. Smiling helps. Noticing the sun shining warm on my face and the beauty of this Colorado blue sky spring day. I am no threat. I don’t need or want anything. Before long she ventures out of her corner and our dance begins in earnest. I’m thrilled when she goes back to her hay and starts to eat, but also note she’s eating frantically, a sign of stress, so I move back to another spot further away from her, reducing the pressure of my presence as much as I can. We are feeling each other out. I want to know if she can handle me being in her home without it being too stressful. When I move to a less invasive spot she calms down, turns to face me, reaching tentatively for my outstretched offering of grass.
She snatches that first mouthful of grass from my hand, clearly conveying her concern that I might try to grab hold of her or try to touch her. And so, I walk away as I carefully shove that greedy part of myself away, that part of me that so wants to touch her pretty face, her soft muzzle. Resisting the temptation is vital. I hope to prove to her that I really do listen. I will not ‘take’ anything from her. Every move I make is deliberate. There is nothing random about even one step. When I move, I pay attention to my rhythm, speed, direction, intention, making note of how she responds to my position relative to her. This is how we begin developing a shared vocabulary. She has not had great experiences with people around her head, so I try hard to avoid interacting in any direct way with her front end. I always position myself so she has the opportunity to move away, space to move into, and room to turn to face me should she choose to.
She frequently chooses to face me. Sometimes she even walks toward me. Sometimes she lets me walk towards her. My assistants kindly keep me well stocked with a handful of grass. Why not. It keeps her curious about me. After a while, she stops snatching the grass while simultaneously retreating to a safe distance, and chooses to stay. She allows her muzzle to softly brush my palm while she gently takes the blades of grass offered from an open palm. She even starts to reach across my body to see if she might partake of the grass in my other hand. Every action on my part is intentional. I want her to explore me. Sniff my arm, feel safe enough to reach across my body, and trust that I will not try to touch her! Oh boy is that hard!
In less than an hour she is readily engaged, touching my hand, letting my thumb casually stroke her muzzle as she takes the grass from hand. As she reaches across to the other hand, I softly touch her lower jaw and hang out there. I want her to get a sense that my touch is not invasive, that I won’t grab for her. Now she is hanging in my space reliably so I test the waters, carefully assessing how she feels about her face being touched. Leaning toward her, she stays. I begin thinking about touching her face and she stays, but lifts her head and turns it away. Her eye is level with mine. Her soft eye turns hard as a rock. So, I take a breath, lower the hand that was lifting and lean back without stepping out of her space. She stays, turns her head back and sighs with relief. This was probably the most important moment in this newly formed relationship. It’s why every single move I make is mindful, present, and adaptable to her response.
By the time I left her she was reliably walking when I walked, I could change my position and stop her, slow her down, and change her direction. She was turning to face me and walking up to me. And so I left her pen with a great big thank you, knowing that the best way to let her know that she did everything right is to remove myself from her personal space, her home.
The reason things went so well with this mare and I is because I did every single thing with focused intention. I made it clear to her that she could not make any mistakes. I paid attention to everything she did in response to my movements so that I could repeat the things that provoked a response in the direction that moves us forward in building mutual trust and connection. The things that will ultimately lead to other things that matter for a domesticated horse. I cannot over emphasize the importance of mindfulness while interacting with horses, all the time, but especially in our early encounters with young horses or horses of any age that are new to us. Those early encounters set the tone for all future interactions.
As Maya Angelou so aptly put it:
“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
The same is certainly true of our horses!
Want to learn more about how to be a responsive human for your horse? Come join me online or in person: Andrea Datz Tango with Horses: A Slow Horsemanship Revolution