One of my earliest memories of going to the movies was waiting in line to see Dr. Dolittle (1967). I remember feeling excited to see the film, clutching a little Dr. Dolittle wallet to put my ticket stub in. Even as a small child, I was captivated by the idea of being able to talk to animals. The film became a favorite that I revisited throughout my childhood. However, as I look around at the world today, and engage in conversations about horse and dog training, I realize the signature song got it wrong. We should not strive to “talk to” the animals – we should be striving to listen to them!
As humans, we excel at talking, but we are not so good at listening – even to other beings who speak our language. Almost daily I watch people around me engage in conversations where neither party is truly listening or processing what the other party is saying. Sometimes it is a function of different perspectives – for example, business users and software developers do not view systems at all the same. Sometimes it is a result of bias – just last week I exchanged stories with one of my staff about sexist behavior in our workplace, where women’s ideas are too often still dismissed by men in power. But mostly I get the sense that people are too often centered on self to truly engage in listening to others. After all, there are numerous classes offered in listening skills – that says it all!
If that is the case when we are conversing with our own species in our own native language, how good can we actually be at listening to the animals around us?
Rest assured, the animals we live with do try to talk to us. It is simply logical that highly social animals attempt to make connections – and we have inserted ourselves into domestic animals’ societies. A life time around a variety of animals has proven to me that there is much to listen to, if we are willing. But you don’t have to take my word for it – science has been proving it. However, as one study on horses showed, if we don’t listen they stop “talking”.
Sadly, as I watch debates over the state of the horse world, or even philosophies of dog training, to my mind the heart of the issues are our lack of listening or understanding. When I watch modern Dressage rides, especially at the highest levels, too often I see a horse screaming discomfort and stress. The masses see a flashy ride that wins a medal – which is clear indication that it must be right. Nowhere was that ever more clearly illustrated to me than a famous ride from the 2006 World Equestrian Games in Aachen. One sign that success overrides our ability to see clearly what is in front of us is that my piece about it is far and away the most viewed and shared of my post – and the only time I have been attacked for a blog post.
It is not hard to see why we have so much trouble listening to the animals. Once we left an agrarian life we began a long separation from the previous intertwinement with our domestic animals. Not to say that they were always treated well – but they were more often understood by the people who depended upon them for survival. In our modern age, we have tried to come up with explanations for what are now alien behaviors to many of us. Enter our human tendency toward hierarchies, and the age of dominance theory (read here about some studies that debunk the heart of dominance theory in horses).
If your premise is that the horse or dog is always looking to see which of you is dominant (the basis of most “Natural” Horsemanship theories, as well as the dog “whisperer” Cesar Milan), then every behavior that is not compliance is seen as an attempt to dominate. Along with this theory goes the all too common rhetoric about how likely you are to get hurt if you do not follow their plan. Of course their methods are “humane” because they also convince you that it is what the horse or dog wants.
But if you approach your interactions with a foregone conclusion, then you will never actually hear the other individual. Have you ever had to talk to someone who you were sure was out to sabotage you? Or listen to an idea from someone who “never” has good ideas? Odds are that if you think really hard, you can remember a human interaction in which either you were not listened to, or you did not openly listen, driven by one party’s foregone conclusion about the other.
There are those who say that we should not try to understand animals through a human filter – but I would argue that this is the only filter we are equipped with. The problem, to my mind, is not that we use a human filter, but rather how we use that filter. If you view them in a compassionate rather than adversarial manner, you will get much closer to understanding. Let me illustrate with a small incident with Roxie.
We’d just entered the arena when Roxie stopped, head slightly high, and gazed into the distance. Your typical “Natural” Horsemanship “guru” would have immediately spoken of inattention as a sign of disrespect, and likely would have moved her all about in order to regain her attention and “respect”. It is a scenario I have seen all too often. I have even, in the distant past, attempted the same myself. Yes, you get their attention – but all too often in a stressful way that actually accomplishes nothing.
Another normal reaction would be, “Hey, we have work to do. Get going.” I have also tried this, with the result that they remain distracted as their natural curiosity has not been satisfied. Instead, I allowed Roxie to indulge her curiosity – in this case, watching goats play in a pen across the nearby road. What does it cost me? A few moments of time. What does it gain me? Trust and a level of friendship.
It is my unscientific opinion that my life time of trying to understand the horses around me is behind why so many have befriended me. From “ruined” horses to those completely shut down, I have brought many a horse out of its “shell”. In fact, it’s a joke in our home that horses come here and suddenly feel that they can have an opinion! But I wouldn’t have it any other way. I may not be able to provide them complete autonomy, but it is the least I can do to listen to them and let them make the occasional choice. I once led Nash to the arena, where he stopped and stood gazing up the driveway. I took the hint, and we passed on schooling in favor of a stroll down the road. The next day he went willingly into the arena.
The challenge in openly listening to our animal companions is a large one. Aside from the language barrier, we also have to overcome our pre-conceived notions, and especially our egos. What you hear may not always be welcome, but if you start to listen and respond in a positive manner, the messages will become more positive over time. Your relationship with your companion animals will be richer when you not only talk but truly listen to the animals!
Be good to your horses!