It’s been quiet here. Winter is good for that and we haven’t had a day above freezing in a while. Fewer people are out driving and no tractors or lawnmowers are chewing things up. It’s too cold for the dogs to supervise from the yard. They are literary dogs anyway, much happier sleeping on dog beds in my studio.
Out in the barn, it’s just the equines and me. Edgar Rice Burro is getting quieter with age. He used to let out a yodel every time he saw me at a window in the house. Now he waits until I’m close by and makes a honking gasping sound but even that sputters out when I look at him. One of the geldings has a nicker like a movie star moan, deep and smooth. You miss it if you aren’t watching him do it. This isn’t a silent place. You can hear hooves shifting weight and horses blowing exhales of breath. I can be here without the need to apologize.
During my first year on the farm, I had to learn to like the quiet. It didn’t come naturally, even after years of being self-employed and working alone. The farm had a different quiet. I was practically afraid of the dark, so I walked the pasture at night to prove it was safe. I got hooked on the stars and moon. Hooked on the small sounds that were hidden when my overactive imagination was chattering at full volume.
I had an advantage. Riding had taught me to listen more and talk less. I wanted to shut out external distractions and focus on my horse’s movement under saddle. I wanted the relationship of being spine to spine with my horse. It was an escape from the rattle of life. The bubble I made for my horse’s safety and confidence might have been more for me all along.
Being on the farm was like a Berlitz course in a language of silence, not an hour long but subversive. It was when I began to notice a different, more eloquent kind of body language than I’d known. It seemed to exist in all animals and I didn’t know how I’d missed it before. Without the distraction of human mutterings, I got into a deeper conversation. It began to take over my training methods and not just with the horses.
I surely didn’t invent anything and it wasn’t a miracle. It was ordinary language. Someone recommended a dog training book about Calming Signals by Turid Rugaas and I found out there was a name for what had become my primary language on the farm. Listening turned silence into brilliant color and rich emotion, but the price of admission was to be quiet.
It’s human nature to be loud. We announce our arrivals and exits, we bang things around because we have the right to. We resent the restriction if someone is sleeping, it’s inconvenient to pay attention to our behavior. It’s more than the excuse of living in the city or working in busy places. Some of us are nervous if it’s too quiet. We are so overstimulated by normal life that we can’t let the air rest. Maybe we’re afraid of what our thoughts might say if we gave ourselves time to listen. So we keep up a dull roar of activity and chatter just in case, just by habit. We don’t notice until it stops.
So, some of us train our horses to be loud in their bodies, needy in their hearts, to join us in looking for what we’re missing. We want them to fill a place inside of us. It’s okay. Humans have always used animals for this and they have the solution but we still don’t get it. Maybe we know someone who we are so comfortable with that we don’t need words. Horses invented that. Or was it dogs? No matter, but why is it so hard to learn? Why don’t we return the favor?
When I boarded horses and trained on my farm, Saturday mornings boomed with laughter and trucks and trailers coming and going. It was fun, people stayed and shared lunch. I truly loved it but as soon as people left, there was a collective sigh from the horses. I’d throw hay and do chores. The comforting sound of chewing, the hum of life, was soothing for all of us. No one was holding their breath and walking on eggshells but no one was calling out or slamming car doors either. It was a natural quiet filled with small ordinary sounds of life that seemed to add to the peace somehow.
I’ve been telling people all this time that we have to listen to calming signal gestures, and if the horse is stoic, we have to adjust their volume up. To hear a quiet message louder than it was sent because it is every bit as true. But that isn’t right. The stoic horses only seem hard to hear because we are used to our own screaming. We are in their world, we should turn ourselves down. That’s the message from reactive horses, too. When we stop being physically loud, they settle.
We’ve heard it a million times. Less is more. We know that horses respond better to smaller cues and that the reward most valuable to a horse is release. Boy howdy, do we hate to think that’s true. We want to give more, have more, do more. It’s true love after all. We still don’t believe that release, letting a horse be, can be a reward at all. It feels anti-human.
Humans are intellectually advanced, but we are also the easiest animals to read. Horses are right to be cautious. We announce our arrival by barging into their homes with loud voices and dominating hands grabbing for them. We love them in messy demonstrative ways. We do semaphore with snapping whips and swinging ropes and call it leadership. When they go quiet, we make more noise.
“And some of us try it their way. We listen to their calming signals. When they avert their eyes and look away, they’re telling us that we can be less aggressive; that they mean us no harm. Listen to them. Take the cue, breathe slower, and turn your body noise down. Then wait. Ask for nothing. Give nothing. Be still and breathe with empty hands. You are enough just as you are.”
The quote is by me, years ago. I am aware of the irony of being a woman who wants her voice to be heard while trying to sell the idea of quiet virtues. How very human of me. Just to suggest again, what if the herd has had it right all along?
Does it seem odd that in early training we need to desensitize horses to us? We need their kind of silence more than they need our noise.
Anna Blake, Relaxed & Forward
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