How to Have a Conversation with Someone Who Doesn’t Talk

People talk to horses constantly. The words are unintelligible most of the time, to both us and the horse, but we chatter away, explaining what we are doing as we do it. “Now we’ll clean your feet.” Sometimes we are so uncomfortable with the quiet that we fill in their half of the conversation, too. We get busy with our mouths, usually because we have some level of anxiety.

We know horses don’t literally talk. Sure, a horse is intelligent enough to learn some verbal commands, but is it the words or your body language that informs him? Humans have the luxury to live on autopilot most of the time, we probably use our brain more often than our senses to listen to the environment, thinking more and feeling less in the moment. It’s a luxury that horses don’t have.

When I talk about training, I use the word conversation because what is affirmative training but an exchange of ideas and thoughts?

I use the word “conversation” with a horse because of what it doesn’t mean: Lecture. Soliloquy. Pontification. Sermonize.

It means we listen to the horse and give them a vote. It’ll require some shifting of old paradigms and habits on both sides as we develop a new shared language, but it isn’t going to be the Queen’s English. The horse is fluent in the language of the body (calming signals) and awareness of the moment; that has to be where we meet them.

It’ll feel exhausting at first, using our senses that are out of shape from computers telling us the weather instead of going outside. Exhausting in the things we try to not do which are now rote, like overusing our hands, and instead trusting our breath to be eloquent to answer a horse’s questions.

And our enthusiasm to not dominate, our desire for a true partnership initially drives us to the other extreme. We listen so hard that we don’t hold up our end of the conversation. We stand like lovestruck teenagers when we see their release. This new language is so exciting that we repeat the same thing so often that we bore our horses because it’s what they have been saying all along.

We want peace so we give up every healthy boundary we ever had and act like old drinking buddies, leaning on them, laying down next to them, showing our perceived partnership by doing things we know are dangerous. We act brave, but how many of those behaviors end up disrespecting the horse, the real reason we get hurt?

The silent lurking elephant in the barn is about discipline and dominance versus total autonomy and general chaos. Where is the middle balance?

Return to the word conversation and try to interject common sense. I can be kind and generous. I can be a good listener and offer suggestions. On a good day, inspiration is possible. I might even wear pink once in a blue moon. But that doesn’t mean I’ll give you all my money and the keys to my truck.

Affirmative training doesn’t mean there are no boundaries, but the most challenging boundaries are the ones we place on ourselves, to be consistent and kind while focusing on a level of awareness that is exhausting for us but totally normal for a horse. We have to be in constant communication with our own sympathetic nervous system by breathing. We have to be so aware of space that we constantly mitigate our position.

How many times do we discipline horses because we have disrespected their need for space? What will it take for us to understand that when so many of their calming signals confirm it? Could we discipline ourselves to a higher standard of awareness of both the horse’s language and our own bodies?

I have a zero-tolerance policy for getting maimed, so I discipline myself. My horses agree that my real job is to buy hay. I have the right to give them a hard no. Because I don’t overuse my voice, usually a sharp word is enough. The challenge in correcting horses is taking right back down, in an instant, to peaceful communication and not holding a grudge.

How many times have people defended using a harsh cue to discipline the horse, while whining that the horse came into their space first, it was his fault? Is that helpful? Have you been consistent in respecting him, showing with his language what is acceptable? What cues did you miss from your horse when it started? Did he come into your space because of insecurity or anxiety? The answer to that question is always yes and punishment only grows insecurity. If we get caught flat-footed and resort to old habits, then we can do better. The conversation can improve.

Train with Peaceful Persistence:
    Not aggressive.
    Not conceding. 
   Not emotional. 

Say you go out to halter your horse and he doesn’t want to be caught. He might be not interested that day, or he might be a horse with a bad history with humans. Either way, we don’t go in the house and pout because the horse doesn’t love us. Our response has to lift to a higher level. We have to be more interesting than grass. If you didn’t get a hard no, then the conversation continues and it’s time to get creative. Discipline yourself to lay down your ego and emotions. Slow down and breathe. That’s where trust grows.

How many time in the day do we react instinctually and how many times do we pause to think about our response. Can we give the horse a chance to do the same, and work towards both sides reacting less. Can we answer their anxiety with clean positive confidence?

Horses understand boundaries; their mothers taught them. They don’t want domination but boundaries make us humans good partnership material; we can become a safe place in an unruly world.

Anna Blake at Infinity Farm

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Anna Blake

23 thoughts on “How to Have a Conversation with Someone Who Doesn’t Talk”

  1. Oh yes! We use our farm initials (CCF) (Charming Creek Farm) to help as the acronym Clear Consistent and Fair. I so appreciated this post…a beautiful sum-up! We hope to have you come to the farm one day!

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  2. “The challenge in correcting horses is taking it right back down, in an instant, to peaceful communication and not holding a grudge.” A mantra worth applying to all aspects of life. Grudges are heavy & taxing. Anchors. Too much work. That’s inherent knowledge for dogs & horses. Almost laughable how superior we humans fancy ourselves.

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  3. Beautiful, thank you. I always knew my horse was trying to tell me things and with your help I am learning how to have conversations with him. I love the quiet time, the slowness, the rhythmic breathing, and living in the moment. I think he likes it too. With peaceful persistence, I have seen so many positive changes. He no longer holds his breath when I saddle him, he doesn’t dread the arena, when we go for a ride he blows and yawns, he is relaxed. I wish everyone could feel how good this feels.

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  4. I struggle with this balance daily. If I listened to every “NO” my mare told me, I would never get her out of the paddock. I would never ride. I would never ask her to do anything because she would be most happy in her paddock with her boyfriend doing nothing. So I “dominate” her by telling her she must come with me, well, I try to do it by asking and letting her reply in the affirmative with her feet until she stops again to look back and then I ask again until we get out of the paddock. I look back at raising my children and realize I had to overrule some of their “NO”s too! And they have turned into great productive citizens so it can’t be terrible to insist sometimes that things get done and get done the way you want them. In fact, I think my mare prefers me to state what I want clearly and not to let her wander all over the place with no direction. Is it possible that some horses prefer direction through contact to loose reins? I think so. Still struggling with being a non-dominant human but getting to do some of the things I love . . .

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    • Jill, I feel much the same way. Being aged and “old school” I wondered for years if natural horsemanship was the answer, because there are times when we need the horse to comply, else he never learns, and you’d have to give up. I was lucky to have some natural instincts of my own, so I got along very nicely, always the conversation, the reading of the problem. And to know when to release/reward, give a rein, allow a moment to stand and integrate, end a session.

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  5. Another excellent, thought-provoking post Anna!

    I know horses and dogs are different, but I’ve had great success over the years speaking to my critters in terms I believe they understand – positive, simple terms, no contractions. It’s my goal to draw a clear mental image in my head which might be understood. That said, I’m aware I tend to be verbose, so I try like heck to speak as simply and briefly and as little as possible, to communicate non-verbally or telepathically via mind pictures, and to both read and speak in body language FIRST.

    But when working with new riders or someone visiting who would like to meet our herd, I explain a bit about horse body language then ENCOURAGE them to speak simple intentions aloud. Hopefully that helps the horse to understand plus allows me to interrupt if a phrase like: “I’m going to kiss your nose” comes out of their mouth!” LOL

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  6. Thank you, Anna. Another well-stated, timely essay. I think you just cannot say these things too many times, in too many ways. It does not come natural for most of us humans to engage in this particular kind of “conversation.” .. and so we need to keep hearing and practicing.

    I am relieved to hear you state clearly the importance of having good ( safe and clear) boundaries. That is one of my ongoing struggles- to understand and implement safe boundaries with my two. With Bear’s relapse on tummy issues, he has become nippy again, and while I know he is communicating, I can’t and won’t allow myself to be bitten !

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    • Poor Bear… and in the past we had that silliness of making them move their feet first, which is hard for them once we are so close. They get a conflicting message then, when we can create the space by moving ourselves. Thanks, Sarah. Sorry about the relapse.

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  7. PS Will add that when Bear is healthy, assumed to be not in pain, a “no” as you mentioned or maybe even just a shift outward with my elbow if he is walking beside me is enough to establish a boundary, but when he is not well, the conversation becomes more challenging for me to find that middle path. It’s as if he is grabbing the car keys and I have to be more emphatic about ” absolutely not”….. I was unhappy to discover that when he was crowding me out in the field, and the “no” nor the “elbow” worked, I instincttively raised up my arm as a barrier, and of course that scared him, and he nipped at me. So it’s those situations we have yet to work out .in our conversations…..

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  8. Your photos are fantastic. The expression in the horses eye always seem to be captured by the lens of the camera. I appreciate your perspective relating to horses as it makes me contemplate and then experiment when I go for my riding lesson. I ride a horse with an individual reputation. She is known by everyone at the stable, I haven’t had any problems with her but we learned together to build a relationship which we both appreciate. Thank you for your writings as they give reinforcement.

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