Their Side of the Conversation


Susan White photo

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.



Horses and Stormy Weather


The air is crispy cold, blowing snow one minute, with bright sunny spring tinged winds the next. The horses seem to reflect the volatility of the weather, taking any excuse to rip roar around the paddocks and pastures at break neck speeds, all snaking necks and flying hooves. When the sun comes out between storms, the air warms to slightly less than freezing. The horses reflect this change too, a sea of lounging bodies resting in the relative warmth.

Being mindful around horses is a given. With finely tuned senses and lightning quick reflexes, a horse can go from relaxed to gone, in less than the blink of an eye. Moving among horses is a bit like moving around a crowded dance floor. Try moving against the flow. Try stopping when everyone else is moving. You’re likely to take a few hits if you do. Horses when spring is the air are a special kind of unpredictable.

They keep me on my toes, noting flight paths and potential flight paths. When they’re behind me the eyes in the back of my head ‘spidey’ sense is fully engaged, feeling what’s happening and ready to move accordingly.

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Horses aren’t sneaky. They project their intention with shifts in energetic tone for all the world to read. Smokey positively crackles with energy when he feels the weather shift, another storm coming in on the breeze. My toes curl and turn away in anticipation of smashing as I duck under his belly, fishing for flapping blanket straps that seem always to flit away beneath this electrified beast! He doesn’t hide his energy, unleashing it out of nowhere. I can feel it as surely as I can feel the electricity in the air during a summer lightning storm. I don’t fear him when he’s like this, I just ground myself even more. I know how much he likes his food, a hand on his shoulder tests the water, I can feel him settle, he’ll stand while I blanket, and my cautious toes will move me as quickly as the need arises.

Wayne does his best popcorn routine when the weather is changeable, bouncing around the paddock more up than forward. Wheeling and spinning, circling like a dervish, makes carrying his feed to his tub like running the gauntlet. There’s no electricity in Wayne, he’s all sweetness, there’s no spook waiting in the wings here. I can feel it because he transmits it with every fiber of his being. My body knows because my toes don’t shrink away in anticipation of impending smashing! He falls in beside me, matching my rhythmic, measured strides, it doesn’t matter how excited he is when I arrive. He matches my pace and tone instantly.

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I know my horses well, but more than that I keep my senses open so I can feel their moods, their energy and their intentions. Hard learned lessons woke me up. Hundreds of horses led from stall to pasture and back again. Hundreds of horses held for veterinary procedures. Hundreds of hooves trimmed and body’s rehabilitated. I’ve been smashed into gates, stepped on more times than I can count, knocked out of my shoes when I collided with Dad’s roping horse – yes – we ran headlong into each other, thrown off, jumped off – yes – I’ve done that too, and spooked into. I have a deep respect for the nature of horses. No matter how much we train them we can’t take that essential ‘horseness’ out of them.

And why would we want to?

There is no need to squash that exuberant, thrilling energy. There’s nothing I love more than being around my horses in the spring, when they are all fresh, volatile and just slightly unpredictable. They remind me to stay in my body, in the moment, and on my toes. The epitome of the crowded dance floor, I get to claim my space and find my rhythm in relationship to them. I get to practice setting the tone, so that Wayne can fall in beside me, letting go of his popcorn impersonation to quietly follow along to his feed tub. Energy can change so fast.

I am learning, there is a pace when I move through the herd that keeps me safe and mindful. It’s the pace at which I feel my feet on the ground and can hear the birds sing. At this pace I am agile, responsive and adaptable to the environment at large and the horses in particular. Too fast and I no longer feel my feet on the ground, I hear nothing but my own internal chatter. From this place I no longer feel, or sense the horse’s energy levels, or intention. That’s when I’m likely to get in trouble. Feel my feet on the ground, listen for the sound of the birds, or the wind, and engage my senses, breathe, and set the tone.

Bring it on spring weather! Blow and howl and rage, be sunny and warm one minute and bitter cold the next. Bring on your rain, then snow, then sleet. Let the horses be horses, changeable and frisky, anticipating those first green blades of grass. I hear you. I feel you. I can adapt to your energy, grateful for the opportunity to open my senses so fully.

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The Calm in the Storm

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Feel my feet on the ground.

Feel my feet solidly beneath my center of gravity.

Move from a place of peace.

How easy it is to get in a hurry, to rush through one task, and the next. So much to do, my shoulders tighten up around my ears, pulling me out of my feet. Leaning into each task as though pushing and pulling makes anything go faster. Expending useless energy attempting to move mountains…

Pace myself.

All of life has a rhythm. Find mine. Feel how my rhythm might blend with the rhythms of everything around me. There is a pace allowing for efficiency without resistance. No more leaning into the task at hand. Stand tall, shoulders drop their weight back into my feet, where it belongs.

Even simple tasks like pulling the feed wagon flow, or resist, depending on my pacing. Start out too fast and the whole wagon lurches behind me, as though it has brakes. Now I have to lean into it to get it moving, dragging it reluctantly behind me. Take a moment to breathe. Feel my feet on the ground. Stretch tall. Wait to feel the wagon begin to move with me, and it might as well move itself for the ease. The wagon and I move together.

Even the air seems to resist when I rush, slamming into it rather than allowing it to part before me. How rude am I?

The horses brook no quarter when it comes to my rushing. Just try to push or pull them, and then I really know what it means to try and move a mountain! Feel my feet on the ground, just beneath my center of gravity. Remain calm, even if I want us to move quickly. Especially if I want us to move quickly! When I get it right my horse flows like a wave before me. Get it wrong and I might as well walk into a brick wall. They will not be pushed.

Practice pacing everywhere, especially when days are full to overflowing, and I feel my shoulders up around my ears, feeling myself push into the yoke, ready to pull. Breathe instead. Feel my feet on the ground, solidly beneath my center of gravity, connected to the Earth and moving me at the perfect pace of ease.

Feel your feet

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Conversations with Rio


Rio and I a few years ago (Tanya Pearce – Redhawk Photograpy

I just love January. It’s the month when I launch the newest addition of my online class. I get to interact with loads of new people and hear them tell inspiring stories about the profound changes that occur when they begin to listen to themselves, and in so doing, begin to understand what their horses are saying. Horse’s behavior can change in quite miraculous ways once they know we are listening, and more importantly acting on, what they say.

A week or so ago I started thinking about how I have some things I want to video for my class. Things that involve riding. I started thinking about which horse might be best suited for what I wanted to demonstrate. Rio came to mind. The only problem is that Rio has been off for a few years due to a lameness issue. He’s back to being sound enough I’ve been thinking of starting him back up this spring but I hadn’t done it yet. But now I’m getting the sense from Rio, like this nagging at the back of my mind, that he’d like to do this. He’d like to help me teach this.

Of course I think I’m making this up so I contact the animal communicator I’ve worked with for 20 years now. She’s been instrumental in helping me hone my own ability to communicate with my horses, so mostly these days I call when I feel like I need confirmation. She confirms what I’m sensing, that Rio is indeed game to help me teach. In fact, he’s super enthusiastic about it. His only request is that I spend some time practicing with him before I turn the camera on. This is so Rio, he’s always been camera-shy!

Saturday evening, in my enthusiasm, I made a futile attempt to sit on his back bareback while he ate his dinner. It was the first chance I had to hang with him and I was determined to make a start. The look on his face was priceless as he watched me drag an up ended water tank over to use as a mounting block. When he would have none of that, undaunted, I dragged the mounting block in from the arena and sat down on it near him.

“I’ll just watch him eat and hang out with him!”

I was met with another priceless sidelong glance. Can you imagine someone hovering over you watching you eat while oozing ungrounded enthusiasm and neediness? Sorry Rio…

Message received.

This is the first time I’ll be re-starting a horse that does not belong to someone else. It’s a brilliant opportunity to finally put all the ideas I’ve employed with other people’s horses into play without any pressure to get a job done. Saturday evening I took some time before bed to really sit with that, start a training journal for Rio and I, and figure out how I wanted to do this. I’ve always found it useful to journal about the horses I work with. I ponder the problem, come up with a hypothesis, and then go try things. With Rio my primary goal in restarting him is to find a way to do this that is mutually agreed upon. My working theory is that if I spend time connecting with him first that we can come to an agreement before I ever even put a halter on.

Sunday morning I woke up bright and early and sat myself down. I was still ungrounded and feeling high-strung. One of my favorite quotes is from Craniosacral Bodyworker, Hugh Milne, who says, ‘first let your own dust settle, then there can be no mistakes.’ I just love this. It’s my mantra when I sit down to connect. Settled on my couch in the pre-dawn, eyes closed, it’s hard to settle and find my ground. I finally recall this image I heard somewhere of allowing your heart to rest against your spine. That one does the trick, now I feel my feet grow roots into the ground and feel them reaching behind me, toward the elm trees that line the north side of the property.

If you ever want to practice your skill at connecting with other beings, I highly recommend starting with trees. They are some of the oldest life on the planet. There is a great deal of wisdom there and they are happy to share it. I sense the roots of the elm trees reaching out to meet me and I hear: ‘patience’. Then I feel this sense of what it’s like to have roots and stretch tall from those roots, the solidity and patience of a tree trunk. This is the sensation I need to feel in my body when I am with Rio.

Next I expand my root system out in Rio’s direction, asking him if he’s willing to connect with me and communicate. To my great delight I feel him reach out to meet me with a warmth and softness that brings tears of joy. I love this horse. I’ve really missed the intimacy of our working relationship. So I ask him if he wants to get started training with me again.

He says: ‘yes, but I have some trepidation’.

When I ask him what that trepidation is about he shows me how he feels in his body. I feel all this tension in his shoulders, tingling nervous tension that radiates out into his diaphragm, dissipates as we breath and focus on it, then pops up in his throat, vanishes and shows up in the front of his legs and feet. I feel all these sensations and emotions as a ‘multi-sensory’ download. Information transmitted from his heart to mine.

As the sensations dissipate he says: ‘are you going to be willing to follow my lead sometimes?’

That’s a valid question. Certainly not something he experienced with me before he went lame a few years ago. I’m honest. It makes me a little nervous, the idea of following his lead and feeling that little bit out of control. But I trust him so I tell him I’ll do my best.

In the afternoon I head out with halter in hand to see if my hypothesis proves true. Did tuning into Rio and making this mutual agreement establish a connection that allows us to proceed together?

Rio greets me at the gate and after a brief grooming is happy to have the halter put on. Now last time I approached him with the halter he walked away, radiating those same feelings of trepidation he showed me when I tuned in that morning. This time there is none of that. He is calm, grounded and ready. In the past he’s let me put the halter on but then plants his feet, unwilling to move unless I swing a rope at his hip or tap him with a stick. This time he’s waiting at the gate so when I open the gate and suggest we go out together where we can be on our own, away from the other horses, he happily follows me through.

He hesitated for a moment until I explained that I’d like to go out to the arena area and move around there. Then he followed along just fine. Once in the arena he was keen as can be and took off to explore the space with great interest and enthusiasm. This is what he meant when he asked if I am willing to follow his lead once in a while. What a great opportunity to prove that I am and that I actually did hear his request. They do test that you know… So I followed him around while he investigated every pile of poop in the arena. Stopped to check in with all the other horses over the fences and then took me out to the large north pasture where he did lap after lap investigating and checking things out. He kept me out for nearly 40 minutes before I finally asked him to come back with me so I could start evening feeding.

Now this may not seem like a big deal, but this is a horse that has historically had serious separation anxiety. I have never had him take the lead like that and take me out away from all the other horses, voluntarily, and then stay out, even when his buddy was calling for him. He never displayed one ounce of anxiety. This was a huge first day for us and validated the thought that we could connect and communicate, coming to a mutual agreement about how to work together. I can’t wait to see what happens today!

I hear people talk all the time about listening to their horses. To me, it’s more about conversing with my horses. We ask questions of each other and we answer them. I think it puts a lot of pressure on a horse if we take listening to the extreme where we let everything be the horse’s idea. Since horses and humans are so intelligent, so capable of sophisticated levels of communication with each other, why not take it further? Why not literally have conversations with our horses? Then we can really dance!

I plan to continue to explore this kind of dialogue with Rio as we work towards riding again and sharing the process with the 2019 online class. It’s going to be a great year!

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Movement Monday: Winter creativity

Icicles NYE 2018

We’ve had quite a snowy, wet, cold spell here. I don’t have an indoor space to work with the horses, so most of our time together involves me feeding them. It takes a surprising amount of dexterity and energy trying not to fall down in the treacherous footing that alternates between ice skating rinks interspersed with frozen chunky muck and a foot deep lake of slippery clay. The horses are focused on eating, finding shelter from the snow, wait rain, wait snow… sleeping flat out in any dry patch they can find when the sun peeks out. We’re all tired.

I find I need some kind of vigorous movement, something that challenges me, to work out pent up energy. It’s how I clear my head so I can focus on things like writing. Long winter nights beg for ways to keep moving and cooking is the perfect answer. No need to contrive an exercise routine. Cooking from scratch so that I have to knead dough, or chop veggies. Grinding my pesto in a mortar and pestle instead of the food processor. One night I made homemade refried beans, squatting on the floor to get the best leverage to mash the beans with a potato masher. Sitting on the floor and working on my laptop so that I keep putting my body in different positions and have to get up and down. I’ve been pondering how the tools of convenience eliminate sources of movement…

Since I’m not as active with the horses in the winter, I get creative. Walking through the snow to feed instead of taking the ATV. Pushing the wheelbarrow down the lane with a bale of hay, can I push with my arms out ahead of me? Elbows slightly bent, shoulders down and back? It’s harder than it sounds and requires constant awareness not to let my elbows slide behind me, leaning into it and pushing more from my hips. Carrying feed buckets, instead of just letting the weight of the bucket hang off of the ligaments in my shoulder and elbow, keep my elbow slightly bent and my shoulder joint tucked back against my shoulder blade. I can feel deeper core muscles wake up when I do this!

All these little things build strength and awareness in parts of my body that are key to my successfully working with my horses come spring. Even though I’m not riding or working much now, I’m still tuning my body to be a good dance partner for my horse. I’m also tuning my ability to be creative within my environment. I wonder how handy that will be when the horses and I can start to work together again?


Movement Monday: The depths of winter

frosty jack

January ushers in deep, dark, cold winter days in my neck of the woods. Once snow is on the ground our proximity to the mighty Colorado puts us in the path of her river generated fog bank. Silently engulfing us during the night and covering everything in a layer of hoarfrost. By morning it’s a wonderland of mist and white tree branches that dissolve the moment the sun penetrates, filling the air with tiny, sparkling crystals, or shards of snow, depending on how heavy the frost.

These temperature inversions bring lots of extra labor, keeping water tanks free of ice chief among them! Managing ice starts to feel like a full time job. It’s too cold, the footing too dicey to ask the horses to do much other than focus on eating and staying warm. This is the season that calls us to hibernate and pay attention to surviving. It’s the time of year to store up our energy in preparation for the labor of spring planting. It’s a good time to remember that stillness can be a movement too.

I like to follow the horse’s lead and listen to the call of the seasons. Winter naturally offers opportunities to take a break from strict training regimes and conserve our energy. When it’s warm enough we bask together in the sunlight and breathe the crisp air together. If I touch them while I breathe, the movement of my breath can move my horse’s body. Tiny movements that gently bring cold, stiff, aging joints to life. Firing those small skeletal muscles around joints to remind them their job is to stabilize and perceive subtle changes in environment, the better for navigating the slick terrain. Excess tension melts away and we both breathe easier.

I got rid of my coffee table in my living room. My floor is covered in blankets, with rollers, pillows and bolsters – even an array of rocks to use as stimulation for my feet or weights to lift. Getting up and down off the floor, finding positions to lie in that allow excess tension to melt from my winter tired body.

Melting is a movement too.

Have you allowed yourself to succumb to the call to hibernate this winter?



Moving into the New Year

Sunset NYE 2018 2

Feeding horses while the sun sets on 2018, and I’ll be feeding horses as the sun rises on 2019. Taking photos of the horses with icicle manes in the chilly last light of the last day of the year, pondering the shifting of time, the movement of one year to the next. This deep winter is the best time to get all quiet, to reflect on blessings past and those on the horizon.

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As we gently roll into a frosty New Year, remember that stillness is a movement too.  Be still long enough to feel all the tiny places holding tension melt, release their burdens and let go. Long enough to let your mind rest and feel the weight of your bones.

Breathe.  Feel how your breath moves you. Not just your lungs, not just your chest or your belly, but all of you. Allow this breath initiated movement to expand, maybe your breath moves your head and neck, or lifts an arm. Luxuriate in feeling your body move as it wants to, improvise, let go of expectations. Allow spontaneous movement to flow through you.


Horses love stillness too. Touch your horse and breathe. Feel how much movement there is in the still space between the two of you. Let your breath move the both of you. Notice how alive and awake your senses are when you get this quiet together. What do you smell? What do you taste? What do you feel? What do you see? What do you hear?

Many good wishes for the coming year.

May it be filled with the joy of awareness, the childlike wonder of awakened senses and the magic of expanded insight.  Join me in moving into this new year full of wonder at the possibilities!

My heartfelt thanks to all the incredible beings who made 2018 one of the most remarkable years of my life, can’t wait to see where our journey takes us in 2019!

Last light NYE 2018