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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