Beyond Body Language: Too Close for Comfort

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“My horse is crowding me!”

“He’s being disrespectful!”

“He’s constantly bumping into me!”

“I need to set stronger boundaries!”

It takes two to Tango.  Crowding each other often has more to do with us crowding them.  We have as much responsibility as our horse does for working to establish and maintain a comfortable space between us as we move together.

I have had horses who worry or feel insecure want to be close to me.  But more often than not I see insecure people crowding horses and then getting upset about the horse’s lack of boundaries.

Did you close that gap or did he?

Are you so choked up on that lead rope that he has no choice but be in your lap?

Before you set those boundaries make sure it’s not you who is too close for comfort!

 

 

 

A Letter to the Kind-hearted

 

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This is a letter from the work horse, the lesson horse, the horses who are asked to bottle themselves up, be contained and always do as they are told without objection. From all those horses trained to accept whatever we throw at them. Who tolerate things no prey animal in their right mind would tolerate! It’s a letter from all those horses who’ve been asked to ignore their instincts and be obedient for their entire lives.

A letter to all the kind-hearted people who have rescued one of these horses and want to give them something different. Love, kindness and the kind of care they have never known.

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They want you to know that it isn’t easy to receive your love. Their body, mind and nervous system has long adapted to this life of obedience. They don’t know anything else. They’ve done what they needed to do to survive and that includes shutting themselves down so they don’t have to feel so much. It takes time for the numbness to wear off, to feel safe sharing how they feel.

Be patient. When you’ve been punished for expressing your opinion it doesn’t feel safe to communicate. Be consistent and kind. They will come out of their shells and when they do they are brilliant, subtle and very talkative. You’ll have to listen closely, they are quiet, considerate and don’t want to upset anyone. They have learned to go slow and be careful of humans, to contain themselves so humans feel safe. If you get upset with them or impatient they often feel the best course of action is to go slower so you feel safer.

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These quiet work horses are not dull. They are not lazy or stupid. They just lost heart. It’s scary to be asked to feel again. Scary to open their heart. Scary to allow their body to move with joyful self expression. To give you their back and really carry you with forward enthusiasm they have to open their carefully guarded hearts. Hold those hearts tenderly and they will blossom.

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Beyond Body Language: Accepting or Terrified?

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It seems like it would be easy enough to tell the difference between a relaxed, accepting horse and a terrified horse, doesn’t it?

Meet Sundance (circa 2015).  It’s often assumed that if a horse is standing quietly with their head lower than their neck they are relaxed, even accepting of what we’re doing.  If those are my criteria than Sundance, in the above photo, is relaxed and accepting or at least tolerating my presence.

But if we go just a little deeper we’ll find that in reality Sundance is anything but relaxed.  He had so much distrust for people that when anyone approached he would go stick his head in a corner, hunker down and withdraw into himself.  This was his way of hiding from the world in hopes he won’t be interesting enough for me to bother him.

It’s a survival strategy for prey animals to freeze when they feel sufficiently threatened.  We hear a lot about fight and flight as a response to stress or threat but we rarely talk about freeze.  Freeze is what an animal does when they have been caught by the predator and realize they may die.  It’s a survival strategy in that sometimes a predator will lose interest when their prey stops moving.  The predator will leave and give the animal a chance to escape.

Aside from the obvious desire not to scare our horses stiff, it’s important to recognize the signs of this level of shut down for safety as well.  When an animal comes out of freeze mode it often happens explosively.  I can’t tell you how many people I know who’ve been injured by a horse because they thought they were calm and accepting when in reality they were in freeze mode.

Here are a few more images illustrating how this level of stress might show up in a horse who is interacting with a human:

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This is Sundance again.  I knew very little about his history and put a surcingle on to test a theory I had.  He stood like a rock the entire time.  Is he accepting or tolerating what I’m doing?  What do you see in his body language that clues you in that he’s actually scared stiff?  Notice the tension in his body.  Notice the position of his ears.  And when I stood next to him I could literally feel him humming with anxiety.  It was so clear that if I tightened that girth thoughtlessly he would come unglued.

We often feel the fear and anxiety our horses are experiencing and brush it off.

“Why am I nervous? I’m not afraid of this horse. ”

But it’s not your fear you’re feeling, it’s your horse’s.  When visual clues aren’t reliable your feelings usually are!

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Huey, for example, looks like he’s taking a nap, in reality he’s processing a great deal of worry from past bad experiences with a bridle.  Again, though outwardly he looks relaxed, what I felt was enormous tension in his jaw and waves of anxiety pouring off of him.  Had I picked up contact or pushed him to go he would have gotten increasingly stressed.  Note Sundance in the back there – showing a lot of interest in what we’re doing as he’s coming out of his shell and learning to trust again.

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Here is Sundance now.  Can you see the difference?

When horses are accepting of what we are doing with them they are actively engaged with you and their environment, curious and interested in what’s going on around them.  Be sure you know the signs of freeze or shut down versus relaxation and enjoyment. It makes a big difference in the quality of your horse’s life and your safety.

Food for Thought

“Awareness of the body is our gateway into the truth of what is.”   Tara Brach

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Pause for a moment.

Take a deep breath.

Close your eyes and notice your body.

How are you sitting? Are you comfortable? If you’re uncomfortable, what parts are uncomfortable? Can you make yourself more comfortable before you continue to read?

Now pause again.

Take another deep breath – maybe even more than one.

Close your eyes and notice how you feel.

Are you relaxed? Bored? Tense? Stressed? Distracted?

Try not to analyze what you feel or make it right or wrong. Just notice what you feel and breathe.   Where does that feeling land in your body? Does it show up as tight shoulders or a headache? Maybe you can’t feel your feet on the ground? Maybe your heart is racing? Just notice and breathe.

You may find that directing your senses to engage with your physical body or your emotions makes you uncomfortable. It might draw attention to things you try not to notice – the ever-present undercurrent of anxiety you cover up so well, a level of exhaustion you try to power through or maybe the chronic back pain you work so hard to tune out so you can function.

Maybe you’re one of the lucky ones and you feel fantastic! Notice what fantastic feels like in your body. Do your best to capture the sensations you experience as fantastic so that someday, when you are not doing so great you might be able to consciously find fantastic again.

In the context of working with horses, why does it matter?

Why should I stop and breathe and notice how I feel?

Because how we feel, from our emotions, to the chronic aches and pains we try to tune out, to feeling excited, enthusiastic or fantastic, to stressed from a hard day at work – all show up in how we move and carry ourselves. The more we are in tune with ourselves the more we are capable of recognizing our horse’s responses to us as possibly an accurate reflection of what we’re presenting rather than simply being disobedient, rude or flighty.

The reality is, most of us have things happen that cause us to protect ourselves for a time. Sometimes those injuries are to our mind or emotional state – we get our hearts broken, our trust betrayed, bullied or shamed. We close ourselves off a bit in response. Sometimes those injuries are to our body. Physical damage in the form of a traumatic accident or chronic stress and strain. Our body tightens up around the injured area, protecting it from further damage. We might limp for a while or hold the injured area more still to protect it from further injury. Our body and mind become accustomed to these holding patterns and they begin to feel normal, even healthy.

It’s called sensory motor amnesia. We feel perfectly fine, as though all our body parts are where they should be, functioning optimally. In reality we might have our shoulders chronically rounded forward as a physical representation of the habit we’ve developed of protecting our heart, our emotional selves from the world. Maybe we pull our shoulders back and greet the world guns ablazin’, a more defensive posture to keep ourselves safe. That limp we developed when we injured our knee is still there even though the knee is long since healed, but we no longer notice we are limping. We lose track of an accurate assessment of our own body and how it’s moving through the world.

And so, we go out and work with our horses and they are doing things we can’t make sense of. We are told they are being disobedient or rude or lazy. What if they are just accurately responding to how we move and carry ourselves? What if they are constantly dropping their shoulder on a circle because we are leaning heavy on our right stirrup, trying to protect that left hip that doesn’t want to settle into the saddle? What if they aren’t being lazy but are responding accurately to our rounded shoulders that reflect an internal dialogue of uncertainty and doubt, a lack of commitment to moving forward? What if we are actually leaning forward in the saddle even though it feels like we are sitting up straight and that’s why our horse is always amped up and anticipating?

Now imagine how it impacts your horse’s mental health if you punish him for accurately responding to your body language?

When a horse spends a lifetime having to compensate for our mixed signals it damages their ability to trust us, it can cause behavioral problems (shutting down or getting spooky and anxious are common), and if they learn to live with our lack of clarity we will usually need stronger aids or some kind of clear motivator to get them to do what we want. We can easily teach them to disregard whispers of communication and wait for shouts.

On the other hand, if I recognize my horse’s response as an accurate reflection of my posture, balance and movement, then I have an opportunity to make small changes within myself. Instead of having an agenda, I simply notice how they respond to my presence and adapt. I notice how they respond to energy and intention and adapt.

Depending on the horse’s background and to what degree they have learned not to trust my body language, they will respond with more or less skepticism. Skepticism can show up in compulsively diving for grass or the nearest weed, walking into a corner and going to sleep, frantically trotting or running the pen, fixating on distant threats, refusing to participate in any way and so on.

And this is where it becomes important to develop our own body awareness and skill at using non-verbal communication. The best way to help these skeptical, confused horses learn to trust their instincts again is by becoming congruent in our body language, energy and intention.

This is an excerpt from an online class about body language.  To find out more about offerings for 2018 click here:  2018 Online Classes

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Beyond Body Language: Learning to listen

Happy New Year!

I don’t know about anyone else, but I’m looking forward to 2018. It just feels like it’s going to be a great year. I’m posting Body Language Monday a day early. It gets to be the last official post of 2017! And, New Year’s Day marks the launch of the first online course for the year – the topic is Body Language. We’re going to talk about how our horses interpret OUR body language. When we learn to understand what they are telling us about how we make our requests they become our best coaches!

Here’s one of my favorite horse coaching human stories.

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This image is one of my favorites from the summer I spent diving deep into learning to listen to my horses.

The bay horse on the left is Rio.  He’s the horse I had decided to spend time with that day.  He had some issues in his right front that I thought had to do with his shoulder.  My intention was to do body work on him.

The chestnut on the right is Kastani.  The entire time I was working with Rio’s shoulder Kastani stood behind me.  He just would NOT leave me alone.  At first he stood quietly behind me, breathing on my back between my shoulder blades.  Jack, the palomino in front, stood at a respectful distance practicing his supportive grounding, deep breathing.  How sweet, they are being so supportive of this work I’m doing with Rio.

Pretty soon Kastani starts poking me in the back with his nose.  Shrugging my shoulders while trying to maintain my focus on Rio doesn’t phase him.  Now he’s nibbling on the rim of my hat.   When I ignore that he starts tugging on the rim of my hat.  Exasperated I turned to face him.  “What!? What do you want? Can’t you see I’m trying to work on Rio?”

Undaunted, he ever so gently nudged me into the position you see me in in the photo.  The back side of my heart resting against Rio’s body.  The moment I let myself lean into Rio and rest there Kastani dropped his head, took a deep breath and just stayed that way.  I found myself enveloped in this nurturing heap of horse love.  I’ve never felt anything like it.

This was an exercise I’d learned in a workshop some years prior.  The idea is to stand or sit back to back with another person and lean into each other.  It’s meant to give you the felt sensation that someone has your back – you are supported and it’s safe to open your heart.  It was so clear that that’s what Kastani wanted me to do with Rio.  Something I would not have thought of on my own!

What a gift from Kastani – to get me to connect with Rio in this way and to accept some love, support and nurturing from them.  I’ve always been a giver to horses and see it as my job to be there for them and take care of their needs.  It never occurred to me that they might want to reciprocate and offer me some care in return.

It would have been all too easy to halter Rio and take him somewhere where we wouldn’t be bothered, or to chase Kastani off.  The commitment I had in place that summer was to listen, to try to understand what they wanted instead of reflexively following my own agenda.  What gifts they gave me for taking that time!

Horses are gifted communicators who often have great ideas for things we can do together.  That summer they taught me how to be still and listen deeply.  Then they taught me how to stay quiet on the inside even when we are in motion together.  I don’t think there is any human coach out there who could have taught me what they taught me when I stopped to consider their side of the conversation.

What is your horse telling you?

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FREE Introduction to Body Language Online Mini Course:  January 1-12, 2018

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The Language Horses Speak

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Listen closely.

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.

Dilly gracefulHorses 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.

dilly-coming.jpgSome 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.

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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!

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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?

 

 

 

 

 

Winter Wonderland

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Photo credit: Tanya Pearce: Redhawk Photography

Honoring the seasons.  Brief days and long, dark nights.  The depth of winter calls on us to pause, take a long deep breath, rest, reflect.

Take time today to see your breath’s steamy billows in the crisp, cold air.  Feel the blood making your chilled cheeks rosy.  Make a snow ball if you can, sink your icy fingers into the warm furry coat of a horse.  Listen to the crunch of frozen ground beneath your feet, ice cracking on water tanks.  Revel in the silvery winter light of this morning.  The earthy, animal smell of warm horses playing in the snow.

Wishing you all moments of peace and joy during this holiday season!

With love, from the gang at Restoration Ranch