For all our love for horses, humans are still predators. We don’t like to hear that. We’re defensive; we’ve seen abused horses. Our minds go to the most extreme images; bloody flanks and torturous bits and that isn’t who we are. Nope. Not what we do. At the same time, we struggle with what others think of our horsemanship. We hear voices whispering that we’re spoiling our horses, or we so desperately want a certain thing from our horses that our eyebrows are set in a permanent furrow. Maybe we just want to love them into behaving for the farrier. Then our gut tenses at the thought that our horse might die in twenty years.
Last week, I wrote about the things horses don’t need us to teach them; this week is about what they do need us to teach them. Horses communicate in calming signals, the body language of animals. For horses, most of the signals are expressions of anxiety. A calming signal is a message that they are no threat to us; that we don’t need to be so aggressive or loud. They are asking us to calm ourselves. It’s the opposite of the roaring threat of a lion, it’s a nervous plea for peace. If we love horses, why do they feel so threatened by us?
A life-long horsewoman sent me a quote from a book about interpreting human body language that was an eye-opener to her. In the book, Truth and Lies, Mark Bowden and Tracey Thomson state, “Therefore, our physical behavior displays the constant interplay of power, between us and everything around and within us.” (p.24)
She asked my opinion on this different set of words and relating them to how our horses perceive us. I think it’s a great definition of being a predator, but I have to be honest. This definition reminded me first of how powerful teenage girls can be. It’s easy to picture an alpha male with privilege strutting about mansplaining, but what about the passive-aggressive power of women who insinuate or nag. I think about peer-pressure a lot for a woman my age because feeling the judgment of railbirds is a constant question my clients ask. How should we deal with naysayers? How do I tell others that I don’t want to dominate my horse? I wonder about another question: What do horses hear as we struggle with our own anxiety around inadequacy, fear, and intimidation?
Humans are filled with contradictions, but being a predator isn’t up for debate. It’s an involuntary instinct but if you ask us, our love for horses is involuntary too. We have schoolgirl passion and grown-up fear and insecurity. We’ve been taught that horses must respect us, but we aren’t willing to fight them about it. We know that fear makes both horses and humans unreliable.
Horses don’t dally with this intellectual jabber. Partly because they don’t have that dallying part of their brain and partly because being a prey animal is a full-time job.
Reminder: Many calming signals are an expression of stress about a mental conflict. Perhaps two intersecting thoughts that are in conflict, and confusion about how to proceed. Horses show calming signals, not as a refusal, but a request that they need more time to think, which is an evolved moment for a flight animal. They might look away or pretend-graze when standing in a dry lot. Do they sense our impatience and worry that we will be more aggressive? Is that what our bodies tell them, in contradiction to the fairy tales we tell ourselves?
What if having conflicted thoughts is the biggest thing we share with horses? It would explain so much. Consistency is important in our work with horses, not that we halter the exact same way at the exact same time every day. Consistency in our own emotions and response is the foundation of trust we offer horses. Perhaps it means we redefine ourselves by who we are, not what we want.
A Short List of Things Horses Do Need Us to Teach Them:
1. Teach the horse that we will be emotionally reliable. Knowing horses have emotions of their own, we spare them suffering our human ones. We choose to control our predator natures and not throw temper tantrums at horses, or kick buckets in the barn aisle, or swear at gates that stick. We can cry about it at home, rant to our friends later, rail against the dark forces in favor of love, but we heal ourselves, so we can hold consistent good humor around horses, and use affirmative training methods, engaging curiosity rather than intimidation. Teach the horse that his feeling of well-being is the only priority. In a chaotic world, we must be peacefully dependable so the horse feels safe with us.
2.Teach the horse that humans can listen. That we’re not to be feared. Knowing that we can watch too intensely, that we’re noisy with our hustle, that we can stand too close, and that we love too hard, we can teach them that we’re not that person who thinks they know better than the horse. Not the person who makes stories up, but instead listen to each unique horse with compassion. We teach a partnership where both sides take care of themselves, with the support of the other. Rather than leaping in to fix the horse’s “problems,” we’ll work on our own issues while giving the horse the space to figure out his questions in his own time. We’ll teach him self-reliance rather than insecurity. We teach him autonomy, the peace that comes with confidence.
3.Teach the horse that humans can respect their nature and instinct. We acknowledge perhaps we’re born with a certain passive inbred superiority but we will work each day to see the world through our horse’s eyes. Rather than telling romantic stories, we commit to creating a world for our horses that support their need for constant forage, the company of other horses, and enough room to run. We hold that responsibility sacred, even if it’s inconvenient and costly. Rather than restricting what we love about horses, we make peace with it. We refuse to fight but rather give the horse the benefit of the doubt, knowing their answer is honest and without guile. We give up control because when nothing is a fight; when nothing is wanted or demanded, we create a peaceful space that horses will choose to share. Most of all, we need to teach horses that humans are capable of trusting a horse’s instinct and intelligence.
…Anna Blake for Relaxed & Forward r
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