Have you ever had a conversation with someone who interrupts you all the time? Someone who just will not let you finish a sentence? Have you ever felt you had to shout to be heard? Maybe it’s easier to simply quit trying to contribute to the conversation?
I often wonder what it’s like to be a horse interacting with a human. Until recently I would not have characterized my time with horses as conversations. Our interactions were too one-sided to be called a conversation.
Our interactions tended to be about who was the leader, my horse myself? I did most of the talking, my horse was expected to listen, following my instructions without contributing overly much of his own opinions. I’m guessing I’m not alone in knowing in my heart, this kind of relationship wasn’t right for me and the horses.
A few years back I encountered an increasing number of horses who seemed genuinely traumatized by the training they’d received. They were difficult to help, sometimes dangerous to work with. Their early memories of abusive treatment left deep scars. They seemed haunted by their memories. It seemed to me the depth of trauma we were creating was greater than it had been earlier in my career.
Just a few stressful training sessions caused the changes you see in this horse’s body in the image on the left (he’s stuck in startle reflex). Thankfully he was able to let go of the stress and return to his normal self without too much effort (yes, that’s the same horse on the right).
Feeling a bit despairing of the industry I devoted my life to, I elected to take a year off from riding and rehab work. I wanted to take some time to understand how horses really feel about interacting with humans. What would happen if I wasn’t under any pressure to train or rehab? What if I gave the horses a choice and let them decide if they wanted to interact with me, how they wanted to interact with me.
The ensuing conversations were still one-sided. Now I let my horses do all the talking while I did nothing but listen. They truly blew my mind. I had no clue how communicative they could be if I got out-of-the-way and just listened. The year flew by as the horses sucked me into their world, teaching me the value of stillness. We learned a lot about each other and I learned a LOT about myself.
Now, how to create an open exchange, a genuine conversation?
It took a while to discover what I needed to change in myself to become interesting enough a horse would want to move with me. In and of itself, that created an opportunity for the horses to have a voice, to start a conversation. When I make a request my horse responds. Question, answer. I realized the horses were giving me quite accurate responses to what I offered up, if I accepted their feedback they guided me to asking more accurate questions.
It took longer to realize how often my horses were trying to speak and I was interrupting them.
Have you ever thought about how your horse speaks to you? I mean, it’s pretty obvious when they are bucking you off. How many times did we interrupt them when they tried to speak for them to get frustrated enough to lash out – the horse’s version of shouting to be heard? How many times did we interrupt them or punish them for contributing before they withdrew inward and stopped contributing at all?
Have you ever given any thought to what the horse’s side of the conversation looks like?
My horses respond to my suggestions in tiny gestures. When they lean away from me as I approach with the halter it means something. If I miss that first hint they’ll take a half step away. If I miss that they’ll turn their head away. If I back off and give them a moment they inevitably begin to chatter away.
Simply by giving them space, taking a breath and feeling my feet on the ground my horses sigh in relief. Their heads drop, eyes go half mast or begin blinking with purpose. They are not checking out or taking a nap. They are letting me know my approach caused them anxiety. They are asking me to give them a minute.
If I honor their request, it’s quite amazing to watch the series of expressions they run through. Huey will do this slow motion thing with his mouth. His nostrils start to quiver and become more oval, his lips start to quiver and stretch longer. Then they start to part just the tiniest bit and if I take one more step back he’ll yawn and yawn, and yawn. It might take a full minute or even three for the yawn to happen.
It’s the most difficult thing I’m learning to do, this waiting for Huey to finish his sentence before I add anything new to the conversation.
Some horses are so used to no one listening they aren’t sure it’s worth speaking up at all. It might take them what feels like hours to contribute one tiny gesture to the conversation, never mind complete a thought. Given enough time and space they will eventually trust it’s safe to contribute. They may have a lot unsaid. I hope I am able to let them speak without interrupting all the time when they do!