Silent Night: The Truest Words Aren’t Words At All.

I was standing outside of a hotel at five in the morning waiting for my limo. Obviously, several things had gone wrong and it wasn’t even dawn yet. I was pacing, wondering if the limo would cost more than my flight home when I saw a horse sculpture. It was not quite abstract or realistic. The horse was rearing, but somehow it looked more like she was crouching to leap, like a mountain lion maybe? The horse’s huge eyes were almost human, her ears lateral, her nostrils thin and flared, but her lips clenched straight. It being December, naturally, she had a holiday wreath around her neck with a festive metallic gold ribbon in front.

I stopped on the spot to evaluate the horse’s calming signals. That is what I have become. I’ve been writing and speaking about calming signals for so long that they have become my first language. Maybe the sculpture true was meant to be an impressionist style. If so, this is an impression of horrible discomfort. Pain is always the first guess with such extreme emotion but if not, maybe fear? Her features contradict each other but the message is meant to be dramatic. I suppose it could be worse. They might have stuck a Santa hat on, and with the ears set so far back, it would have stayed there and frightened some children.

Perhaps I’m upped my game to being the loudmouth Grinch party-pooper, a redundant title, I’m sure. How often do we ignore a horse’s emotions or normalize their pain? Sure, just a statue in front of a hotel, but isn’t that what normalizing means? Egads. This sculpture looked as tortured as I felt. Now my emotions started to wring their tail, just as the limo pulled up. Oh, put a wreath on it, I thought as I got in and asked the driver to hurry.

European countries have traditional stories about animals magically talking at midnight on the Feast of Santa Lucia, others say Solstice, and others, Christmas Eve. It’s oxen and donkeys mainly. One fable says oxen knelt and welcomed the baby Jesus verbally. Some of the folktales have pagan roots; stories about animals talking, but not kindly. Some animals rebel and punish their owners for poor care or over-work. That idea always brightens me up. A revenge day for not listening.

But wait, we have a good excuse. It’s not like horses speak English. And it’s not like we don’t try. We make up stories about what we want our horses to feel all the time. Isn’t that what the artist did in that sculpture? Let’s give ourselves the benefit of the doubt. We’ve always been told to listen to our horses but what is it we are supposed to listen to? And then what?

We are literally drowning in what we should be listening to. Maybe we need more personal research on body language.

A friend told me about Albert Mehrabian, a psychology professor who did extensive studies on non-verbal communication and came to the conclusion that human communication is made up as follows: 7% are the words we use, 38% the “verbals” like tone and volume when we speak, and 55% are body language. Do the math, 93% of all human communication is not the words we use.

That means we already communicate much more like other animals than we think. Our problem is right there in that sentence. We think.

Let me add another expert’s insight. Gary Larson, in his Far Side cartoon, plays the “what they hear” game with a dog named Ginger, blah-blah-blah. The joke is that Ginger knows her name but all the other ranting has no meaning. Larson may draw comics but he’s often right. All our words are incomprehensible chatter to them, yet we yammer on, correcting or praising in sing-song voices, aware that words can change meaning, even lose their meaning, between our lips and another’s ears. Meanwhile, our body is telling the truth. When will we learn that non-verbal communication is not less?

It makes me wonder if horses give up on communicating and shut down when we don’t listen. If stoic horses limit their communication with us because our communication skills seem erratic and unreliable? Or if our general chaotic chatter, sometimes directed to them and sometimes to humans close by, is so confusing that they shut down to quell the noise?

It’s true that any cue that gets overused becomes dull and ignored. If our legs constantly bump their flanks, they become dead to the cue. Likewise, if we chatter all day, our voices get lost in the blah-blah-blah. Sing if it helps you, but it’s your breathing that soothes your horse. Give a running dialog if silence makes you nervous, but silence is peace to a horse. Fewer words keep them relevant. Even what we say as praise, when repeated constantly for ordinary things, loses its importance. To progress with horses, we give smaller cues. To them, stillness is welcoming.

If 93% of our communication is a similar body language as horses, how do we miss so much? Chalk it up to not knowing we’re bilingual, but if we study their language and use it politely, will that same stoic horse begin communicating again? Will an emotionally demonstrative horse decide they don’t need to yell to be heard?

For as long as I can remember, I wanted to be the person that stray dogs came up to. I wanted to be the one that abused horses could trust. I wanted it so badly that I howled it to the moon. What I didn’t know was that the communication problem was mine. I had to shut up so they could hear me.

There are many names for the awareness of body language but I like Calming Signals, the term Turid Rugaas uses in dog training. I like it because we want our horses to be calm and that name draws people in. Then they find out it’s actually the horses who want us to calm down. Animals give us calming signals to let us know that they are no threat. That we don’t have to be so loud or try so hard. They stand beside us, suggesting peace as an alternative. More than that, peace as a prerequisite for them to consider trusting us. Let the air rest. Prove that less is more. Prove it to yourself.

Focusing on Calming Signals is my primary training aid with horses. I can’t overstate their importance. I’ve been watching videos of some work I’m doing with a challenging horse and am aware it’s so quiet that some would find it boring, yet so much is happening for the horse. Training techniques come and go, but listening never fails. I want to share these ideas and so I write about them. In this loud world of YouTube and podcasts and social media, it’s a wonder people read anymore at all, but you are now. Maybe that’s just the point. We are able to hear better in a quiet place, too. It will be in that kind of quiet place where we truly meet horses on a deeper level.

Do I believe the folktales about animals talking? Do I hear voices in my barn? It’s so much better than that. Try for yourself. At midnight on Christmas Eve, make a pilgrimage to the barn. No, the horses won’t talk in human voices. They don’t need to; they’ve been communicating all along. Sometimes it takes a Silent Night for us to hear.

Anna Blake, Relaxed & Forward *new classes in Calming Signals start in January at The Barn School*

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46 thoughts on “Silent Night: The Truest Words Aren’t Words At All.”

  1. This…before I leave for the barn! YOU pierce the depths of “horse conscious” like no other.
    Such comfort and validation it brings from beginning to end.
    From wonder, to musings, to the reality we need to hear.
    For years I made the trek to the barn at midnight. For years I left disappointed.
    I’m old enough now to embrace the truth that they were talking all along.
    Thank goodness, thank you!
    May the energies of the solstice and the spirit of the season
    bring you joy and peace.

  2. Learning to talk less and observe more has been one of the most important aspects of the steep learning curve I’ve been navigating the past six years. Resonating with the observations you have shared has helped me become a partner with my horses, rather than either a slave or a slave owner.

  3. So much I love here but this may be my favorite: “Meanwhile, our body is telling the truth.” Pretty much everything comes down to that.

  4. People at my barn have made comments such as, “you have got the statue horse thing down good” and “looks like you have alot of spare time, would you like to be put to work”? Always responding with a smile as my horses and I are hanging out together, guess they don’t read your wonderful words to help us all get better. Thank you

  5. As always, you hit it out of the park. People have always commented on my “hanging”with my herd. And they have noticed how full of personality the herd exhibits. Yet don’t connect the dots. My QH (the herd jefe) says horses don’t talk cause stupid humans don’t listen (did I mention he is also blunt, opinionated, and doesn’t suffer fools?). Thank you for all you do for horses and humans. Merry Christmas.

  6. That sculpture is so painful. It’s difficult to look. Somehow the wreath makes it worse. “Listening never fails”. Exactly what I needed to hear. Again. I usually check out the barn vibes before I bring a horse in. Yesterday, I was doing a “quick” drop by to check on a wonderful cutting horse for a friend who couldn’t do a pre holiday eyes on. I know him, so it was an easy peasy check. I picked him up at his paddock on the way down from the parking lot. Mistake #2. (#1 was even thinking the word “quick”) Barn was in absolute chaos. Which I didn’t know, but he did. He had been parked in the farthest corner of his paddock. And his usual joy at having his name called was not only absent, he didn’t turn his head. Which I know is the first sign something isn’t right for him. So I got to get him. He’s body tight? But it’s been so cold. Holding out the halter usually ends up with him shoving his face in as fast as possible. Nope. I dropped the halter and checked him all over right there. All vitals checked out. Good gut sounds. Good legs, no spasms, no sore spots. Walked out sound. Let me halter him easily and led him to barn. From the angle we approached, no people or horses were visible. But I had seen a farriers rig when I pulled in. Halfway down I stopped, let him eat grass, expecting that would help calm him. It did not. I was listening, but not hearing. I’d already drawn the conclusion he could use a bit of a groom and warm up under a fleece. Because I wanted to do that. I’ll shorten this. Human drama. Nasty words. Horses overwhelmed and exploding. Really good farrier trying to calm horses and get the job done. I felt like an idiot for bringing him into this, instead of a bucket of brushes up to him. Listening. Never. Fails.(to the horse, not our plans!) Good job, Anna!

    • Here’s what I love, from a calming signals standpoint. He kept warning you. It’s what they do and it’s the only reason to try to get better. He stuck with you. When I boarded I couldn’t believe what the holiday season was like there. I couldn’t breathe!! Thanks, Jane.

  7. I must be incredibly spoiled by my 21 y.o. MFT as I never have problems with him not doing what I ask of him. Guess it has also much to do with the training he received before he was mine! I’ve owned him for about 8 years now and, at first, he was a little “loose” around the edges & we had a few unsettling events. However, now that seems to be behind us and our rides are mostly good & enjoyable. He and his mini buddy will be with me forever.

  8. Anna,
    Being guilty of using excessive verbal communication with any creature displaying ears, I was thrilled to find out that even with my jabbering, I as a human use 93% non word dependent communication. I have found it even easier than usual to use silence around the horses over the last few days as my lips have been frozen together. We had a warming trend this morning to -15 degrees, but I successfully fought the urge to announce my every thought.
    Thank you as always for trying to steer me in a better direction.

    • Laurie, you quack me up. No kidding it’s too cold to chat, only a different kind of chatter. I’m giddy, we’re up to 1 degree!!!!
      Stay warm, thanks as always.

  9. I’m not even going to put into words the kind of day we’re having in my neck of the woods. Wishing you the beauty of the hushed and a big thank you.

      • Awww, thanks, but it’s been a good day!! I wasn’t going to put it into words because it’s been a lot warmer weather here than where you are. I think my New Year’s resolution will have something to do with clarity….stay warm!!!

  10. For years now I’ve revised the opinion on statues, as yes, most are tortured expressions. And then there’s those glorifying men riding into battle! Ugh!
    Merry Silent Christmas Anna. Happy to swap temps with you for a day😘

    • Someone asked me about a ‘calming signals in art’ class, and I thought, I just took one! Happy to swap, Annie. Best in the New Year to you.

  11. About a year ago, I was a guest on a podcast. The title I chose was “What Being a midwife and Being with horses has taught me and the similarities “.
    I would have to go find the outline but I remember the top 3:
    1) breathe- it’s all about the breath
    2) 85% of communication is non-verbal (now I know it’s 93!)
    3) Be thick skinned. Take nothing personal.

    Thanks again Anna!

  12. “I successfully fought the urge to announce my every thought,” said Laurie.
    As my old friend Mary Kazmierski used to say: “Shut up and drink your beer.”

    Have a silent night, Anna, and all!

  13. I felt emotion well-up to my top reading your words about going out to the barn at Christmas Eve. What a beautiful plan to be quiet and observe my beloved horses. It also dawned on me reading your post just now, that I’m a philosopher and never thought of myself quite that way.

    What’s so meaningful in my life at this time is finding philosophers like you and others and it shaping how I’ve felt for so long. And how most of my horse friends still blame the horse or deny their behavior could be pain. It’s lonely out here in the frontier.

    But finding, and studying from those ahead of me? Well, that is a life and mission I’m happy to be on. Thank you for your writing and effort and Happy Holidays!

  14. Those are interesting stats on percentages related to communication. As usual, stunning essay, Anna. I am inspired to spend some time with Cash, some SILENT, LISTENING TIME tomorrow. As you said, we are here, on something of a desert island together .. he and I. Zen Bear is terribly missed of course. I know horses are different with their feelings and adaptation, but I do think Cash misses and remembers him, too. I’m so glad I learned to have conversations with Bear when he was here and alive. I am still having them, but they are different now.

    Keep writing and spreading the good words !!

  15. I’m learning all these wonderful thoughts and listening to all these amazingly feeling people and knowing that I felt these truths without realizing it – rehomed my 2 beautiful TWH’s to loving families that I realize were able to give them this luxury of silence and understanding, along with the time to learn to trust each other. It quiets my heart that knew it was what they needed that I didn’t then have time for……..ahh, if I could only go back! Thank you for sharing your wisdom Anna, so beautifully expressed! Merry Christmas, keep spreading your truth!

    • Thanks Christine. It was kind of you to get them what they needed, but once we’ve had horses, some part of us always does. Having horses never entirely leaves us, I know you did right by them.

      • As you said, Anna, having horses never does entirely leave us – no matter how they physically left. They are always “there” close by – just as the dogs & cats (and other creatures gone) we loved are. Not replaced by others, but simply added to all of them.

  16. I read a book as a girl, “For Love of a Horse”. The main character was trying to breathe calm into a frightened mare and realized that words are just breath chopped up into little pieces (or something to that effect). That image has always stuck with me, and this post reminded me of it. Highly recommend a read .. now I’m going to have to dig it out of the basement 😊

  17. Thanks for this reading. Another gift from you. One of my thoughts was, from a book many years ago, I think it was Animal Farm. The animals rebelled against the farmer and it spread like Covid in the neighborhood, as they all joined in.

    I just read this today, and last night I went back to the barn to give all the horses some extra hay. Even filled some of my hay bags for the others that don’t normally get 24/7 like Spirit, as I knew I wouldn’t be there early on Christmas morning (today). It was late, not midnight yet. But very dark, quiet, peaceful, and calm. After chores, I just hung next to my horse, not touching, just observing, I think he was happy that he wasn’t the only one getting to munch on a chilly night. He was kind enough to share one of his haybags with his neighbor, Elmo, a stoic horse with a troubled past I think, as he slowly walks away when approached.

    This was a wonderful experience for all of us, even the sheep got a late night snack. A new Christmas Eve tradition.
    The railbirds mentioned bringing a cot for me to sleep, as I spend more time these days with animals at the barn than humans.

    Thanks to you all, I’m changing for the betterment of myself, my family and my horse. Funny, I wasn’t willing to change for anyone else, until I got this very special horse.

    Merry Everything to all!


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