What is your first memory of listening to a horse? Not standing next to a horse and being certain he loved you. Not daydreaming about galloping him on the beach or burying your tear-drenched face in his mane and hiding. None of these things are listening. They are moments we might feel a connection because we want that more badly than anything. If wishful thinking worked, we would have all married princes in middle school. Listening to horses is something different.
The first thing I remember hearing from a horse was fear. I was maybe six years old and riding my pony bareback. I felt her body go tense. Her neck got stiff and her feet danced but I couldn’t steer her. She was scared all the time and I’d fallen off a few times, so I was tense, too, not that it mattered who got scared first. Even when I couldn’t avoid it, I’m not sure I listened. I wanted her to listen to me and just stop it. I probably pulled the reins thinking it would stop her. Ponies don’t really respond that way, but it took me longer to figure that out. Crisis listening is active denial. It’s when your horse tells you something you just don’t want to hear, and it isn’t limited to childhood.
I’ve lost count of the number of riders who are certain they have a training issue when in truth their horses are literally in pain. It can be a sore back or lameness, or the pain our hands cause in their mouth. The upside of listening to pain is that we can help then, but sometimes we’re convinced that the horse is trying to trick us, or that the horse is spoiled and trying to get out of work. It’s biased listening, hearing only what we want to hear. We misinterpret his behavior into some stereotype and then look for a training tip to fix the behavior. We can’t avoid hearing the horse’s discomfort, so begrudgingly, we’re listening but not in a way that helps the horse. We become critical listeners; we listen to evaluate and judge the horse, forming an opinion about him so we can correct him.
A bunch of us take a left turn about now. We just don’t want to fight with a thousand-pound flight animal. It’s a glimmer of common sense at last. We end up with a rescue horse, or a horse that we didn’t know was a rescue horse. There is no shortage of horses with anxiety issues. It’s our intention to be a sympathetic listener but we might become overly sentimental, telling his history to ourselves, feeling good for saving him. Getting a horse to a safe place is a good thing, a true gift. Maybe feeling pity is a kind of listening, but how does feeling sorry for a horse feel to the horse? Is it a nebulous coyote-stalking kind of anxiety when a predator stares at him quietly?
So far, for all our attention and concern, we’re just having conversations with ourselves about horse behavior and a horse’s fear will not be quelled by a human telling him to stop it. Fear is an essential part of what it means to be a flight animal; that part of a horse that we like least is fundamental. The best we can do for a horse is to build his confidence, so fewer things are frightening. Any horse will tell you that discipline isn’t an antidote to fear. If we listen.
Step one in horse training has to be accepting that horses have emotions. We’re good with happy emotions but when a darker emotion shows itself, we don’t like it. It would be an evolved moment if we heard them without a negative response in our bodies. Accepting a negative message doesn’t mean we are rewarding it. Sometimes just being heard lowers the temperature, especially to a horse who’s been punished for his natural instinct.
Active listening might be something we learned in couples therapy or leadership training for work. Active listening is positive listening that keeps you engaged with your conversation partner by being attentive, paraphrasing and reflecting back on what is said, and withholding judgment and advice. We let the conversation unfold rather than shutting things down with a blunt solution. Is it too obvious to say it doesn’t come naturally to all of us?
Active listening involves using all our senses: we keep eye contact focused on the other person. We might lean forward a little or nod, but we aim to sit still and let the other person finish what they are saying without interruption. We breathe, offering interested silence to give the person time to respond. Most of us find listening so purposefully exhausting at first.
Wait! Horses use all their senses to communicate; they speak in a body voice, whether we try to shut it down or strive to understand. Their calming signals are a literal language of active listening to the world around them, expressing their feelings, and processing it all. Calming signals are humans’ fundamental language, too, before we overthink it. When we exhale, slow down, and allow a horse time to process the moment without interruption, we are acknowledging the horse’s intelligence as well as our own. We can’t control a horse’s behavior, but we can create an environment where they can become more confident. Calming signals be our shared language, resonating deeper than words ever can.
Maybe now we’re finally capable of true empathetic listening, letting our feelings rest, and seeing things from the horse’s standpoint. There is a quality of selflessness required, a state rare in humans. Empathy takes practice and truly accepting the horse’s calming signals in the moment is huge but what comes next? Long-term anxiety isn’t the answer any more than adversity. Perhaps we can begin an affirmative conversation with radical listening, believing not just that the horse has a right to his feelings, but surrendering our side for his. Begin with alignment on a starting point: the horse is right.
March marks the beginning of my twelfth year of blogging; I’m a horse trainer who has sat down every Thursday night for the last eleven years to write a message about listening to horses. I owe a debt a gray ghost of a horse on my shoulder. He says another twenty years or so and I might get it right.
I’m grateful to all the horses I’ve had the privilege to listen to, and especially grateful to those of you who have read along over the years. Thank you for your precious time.
Anna Blake for Relaxed & Forward
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Affirmative training is the fine art of saying yes.