“The art of conversation lies in listening.” – Malcolm Forbes
I’ve been noticing a trend of professional trainers who have suddenly “seen the light” and realized the horse is a sentient being. They offer their confessions of a life sinfully lived as a way to sell their new, enlightened approach. The stories I’ve read typically go something like this:
“I was a highly successful professional, with many clients. I won plenty of ribbons, but I never considered the feelings/happiness of the horse. I assumed that [fill in the bad behavior] was normal, because no one ever taught me to consider the horse as an individual – but now I’ve seen the light and I know more than those other trainers.”
Too much sarcasm? Well, I have to admit that I’m struggling with these tales of self-glorifying enlightenment. Of course, I’ve always known that not everyone who is involved in horses is there purely for the connection with the animal. But, if you have the capacity to see them as a sentient being, do you really need someone to teach you that they have feelings? Who really is to blame, if you’ve used horses merely as vehicles all those years?
It is true that I had good teachers, who enlightened me on how to listen to horses – but those teachers were the horses themselves. I confess to being completely in the dark that anyone can deal with horses and not notice when things are wrong. Knowing what is wrong takes a lot of learning – but to miss signs of tension, fear, stress, pain, etc … that is the mystery to me.
“Learning is a result of listening, which in turn leads to even better listening and attentiveness …” – Alice Miller
The explanation I’ve settled on is that most people are so busy “talking” around their horses, that they can’t possibly be listening. They’re busy learning, training, trying to achieve that movement … that win … whatever their goal may be. Even new riders, coming in with the best of intentions, soon get caught up in the culture and seem to lose sight of the horse as a being.
Maybe it’s because I was born an introvert and an observer. Maybe it’s because I learned to ride in a different time (although I can’t honestly say that my instructors were focused on the horse’s feelings). Or maybe it’s because the first horse I bonded with had a host of emotional issues. Whatever the reason, I have always been a listener rather than a talker. Each horse had a story to tell me, and I was eager to hear it. The more troubled the horse, the more determined I was to figure out the key to their trust.
My point here is not to brag – I am not a perfect rider, and have never been a perfect trainer. There are things I would do differently, if I had those horses at this moment. However, I spent a lot of years taking on and reforming the “hopeless” horses – and it was not because I was one of those tough riders willing to get on anything with hooves. Far from it! In fact, I have always been a cautious rider. But each of those horses was a puzzle that I knew had a solution, if I just listened long enough to find it.
“For a word to be spoken, there must be silence. Before and after.” Ursula K. Le Guin, A Wizard of Earthsea
So, how do I listen? Perhaps the most important thing my equine teachers schooled me in is this – the moment I feel any unaccustomed resistance, I stop. Literally, I just stop. In the silence, I can hear what the horse is trying to tell me. Perhaps there is electricity there that I hadn’t noticed – so, I get off and let them bust loose for a bit. (Major Anders Lindgren once said, “There’s no point in fighting the oats!”) Or perhaps I feel a tightness in a particular area (e.g., under one seat bone) – now I can loosen up that particular tight area before proceeding. Or maybe I sense general nervousness – so I take a step backward to a more basic task/movement until I sense more confidence from the horse.
I say “unaccustomed resistance” because many horses have a “fall back” plan. Nash, for example, will “spit out” the right rein at every opportunity – so I am always watching for that. When you begin to know a horse, you can tell when a resistance is “old news” – and you likely know how to address it.
Many of us miss the messages from our horses, with little long term harm. Still, I see horses at all levels that are virtually screaming for help – but they are cursed with the prey animal’s penchant for silence. The harm from ignoring those cries for help can, in fact, be very significant.
On that note, I leave you with this recent Facebook post by Denny Emerson, Olympic medalist and superb horseman:
“The Red Haze”
Maybe 15 years ago, give or take, I was on a 100 mile endurance race, riding with then USET VP for endurance, Maggie Price. We were trotting along and these two riders came flogging by us at a fast gallop.
“They’ve got the red haze”, said Maggie.
“What’s that?”, I asked.
“That’s what we call it when a rider’s competitive drive blots out everything but trying to win, and they stop trying to do what’s best for the horse.”
I think many highly competitive people in all horse sports can get the red haze. It leads to all kinds of abuses, drugging, poling, tack rails, rollkur, racing hard, pushing a tired horse, you can add lots to the list.
A sport needs to keep the competitors who tend to “go there” under control, because they seem, some of them, not to be able to do so themselves.
Be good to your horses!