Real-Time Communication: The Land of What-If

My horse always pulls his head away. My horse never wants to go first on the trail. My horse always fusses during vet calls. My horse never likes arena work.

Humans love to show knowledge and predict an outcome. It demonstrates that we know our horses, have been in the situation before, and lived to tell the tale. Besides, we have these frontal lobes that like to tell us stories and remember what good horses are supposed to do. Of course, everything is judged by our perception. Horses are deemed good or bad as they compare to our expectations. Or the expectations of railbirds or something we read somewhere. The conversations are going on between our memories and our expectations. I suppose that works fine if you’re in your kitchen with a cup of coffee. If you are near a horse, maybe include him in the conversation?

Sometimes when people tell me about their horse’s behaviors, they are dead-on right. Sometimes people tell me about the horse next to them and the horse tells me a different story entirely. But the problem with words like always and never is that they stop us from being in the present. Instead of using our senses in the current environment, we’re busy reliving the past. We’re getting anxious because we have a vet coming and the horse feels your anxiety before you get the halter on him. He senses your shoulders stiffen between his front hooves and the back ones. He feels your frustration about his resistance to cantering in the arena, but you don’t feel your hand pulling on the inside rein. How many times are we unconsciously cuing the behaviors we don’t want as well as the ones we consciously want?

But then one day, something unexpected happens. It always happens when “you least expect it” which means at some point when you don’t have a loud mental agenda rattling on. In that pause, your horse does something that surprises you. In that moment, you weren’t insisting on something and there had been enough quiet air for your horse to get a thought in edgewise. Humans do prattle on, horses notice.

Your horse has offered an idea, a suggestion, or volunteered action. And because we are who we are, we immediately try to intellectualize what just happened. The first thing you notice is that words don’t fit. Horses communicate in a more three-dimensional way. Ask your brain to take a rest and get back to that ambiguous place where anything can happen: The present moment where your horse can do magic.

As a trainer, it’s my job to translate conversations between horses and riders. And in these COVID-19 days, I do that in online lessons and classes. You can tell me that you always have tech problems, and you can never get things to work right, but please try. There’s a reason that instant replay exists. Video doesn’t get lost in translation. Horses ask us to stand in a less threatening position. They tell us they listen to our feet and resist our hands. If we get a couple of things right, they change. If we insist on doing it our way and not listening, they resist. The best thing about videoing yourself with your horse, whether you share it or just watch it alone, is that we see the three-dimensional language we miss in real-time. Once we recognize it, we have a chance of at least staying in the conversation, if not changing things at the next opportunity.

Being self-aware in the present moment is a skill most of us need to work on. Humans have lost our way in the natural world. We’re animals that have over-used our brains and become under-aware of our senses. We’ve fallen into complacency. It’s why a walk in the woods or even nature photography draws us in. Some part of us misses when we were wild, more three-dimensionally alive. I think that’s what we love about horses. But humans have a way of destroying the things we love. Maybe we get jealous, but we try to train that beauty out of horses.

What if we let ourselves go to their horse-reality rather than trying to cookie-cutter them into ours? (Just a moment of silent acknowledgment for all the mothers who bought pink dresses and dolls for little girls who could not move from room to room without a stick pony between their knees. Egads, we are the ones born to break cookie cutters!)

The irony of this moment isn’t lost on me. You and I are intellectually wandering back and forth between our minds, just loitering inside our heads. Words are all fine and a good distraction, but how does this cheap talk benefit horses? What is the physical behavior a human might practice to communicate with horses in their language and in their reality? Instead of chattering about brain science, using big words, dulling our brain as well as our senses, let’s just for today, shortcut to what it looks like in action.

What if you let your horse lollygag along and explore everything he wanted to in the barn aisle? What if you took your horse to the arena and let him take you for a tour of the places interesting to him? What if you got to a place during a work session where you weren’t sure what to do next, and you let your horse decide? What if your horse got nervous, and you took a moment to diffuse the anxiety, rather than get more anxious yourself?

Yes, chaos will ensue. You will both be unstuck in habitual response, maybe he’ll pause. It will look like nothing’s happening because he is reading your coyote-anxiety. He’s waiting for a direct order, expecting a correction. Give him some peace and quiet to think. He won’t stand around forever, that’s your impatience to finish his sentences for him. When you let your horse fill in the blanks, a horse can become a more confident partner in reality.

It’s your job to let your horse be curious. To allow yourself to be curious. We can learn to love the unexpected and begin living in the Land of What-If.

And soon, when you and your horse see the challenge coming and you can alter your own behavior as a way of accepting and releasing your horse’s behavior. And then your horse can give you a better answer than the rote answer you expected. Having an open mind takes keen situational awareness. Being vulnerable to each other is honesty.

Or I could say it this way: The act of your horse engaging his curiosity is the act of building new neuropathways in his brain. It’s how you “teach an old dog new tricks” because horses continually learn. There is no expiration date for growth and change.

Humans are just the same. But we never want to under-think. We are always looking for quick compliance.

Anna Blake for Relaxed & Forward 

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20 thoughts on “Real-Time Communication: The Land of What-If”

  1. Yes! I have been working on this for awhile inspired by your writing. We are a work m progress but once I stopped telling and started listening Bella and I did a complete turn around. I am no longer interested in competing so have no hard deadlines. My goal these days is to develop a relationship and partnership. I am human with all those human failings so I expect learning to be in the moment and listen is a goal I will not full achieve in this lifetime. Still, pursuing that goal changed our relationship from advisories to collaborators and I am hoping soon to true partners.

  2. Reading along, I was struck by a sentence and thought, “That’s it!” Then got struck again. Another, “That’s it!” Got to the end and realized the whole thing is one big “That’s it!”

  3. Sometimes (often), we are not looking for quick compliance; sometimes our trainer is doing that and forcing us to make the horse comply. If we ride, one day, with no agenda, “That’s not good — you must be the boss, tell him what he must do.”
    No wonder horses become bored and fed up with training.
    That is why I love to hand-walk and let them putter around, pathways, woodland edges, figure things out.
    You are two companions and you are the advocate.
    Then, look at his ears and his eyes — they are alive.

    • I’ve read a few comments like this from you. And I understand. I also want to say the world is full of good trainers. I listen to readers, not just you, rant about bad trainers, but it is my passion and I’m not the only good trainer out there. Walk away and find a different trainer. Thanks, Nuala

  4. Once more – right in line with what I’m doing!!! Reading Horse Brain Human Brain by Janet L Jones, PhD – and reading how/why we think differently from horses – which you explained perfectly in this blog! This is fascinating, and I am enjoying this adventure in horsemanship so much more than before – and it appears my horses are as well. Being long in the tooth myself, so glad I heard and began to understand this…. Always kept horses with a trainer….but now all are home and I hope they are having as much fun as I am!!! Thanks for the many pearls of wisdom you have given me the past few years!

  5. Another good one, Anna – with or without horses – applies to anyone!!
    This isnt todays “subject” – but just letting you know I picked up a dog at the shelter yesterday – hes 8 years old – supposedly a lab mix (maybe hound) his folks brought him to the shelter because of a bad flea issue & they couldnt financially take care of it – which is really sad because its so very obvious that he has been cared for & loved & taught manners. BUT hes just a love. And maybe someday Juliette will stop hating him! (cat) My son met him yesterday & said she probably thinks you took HER dog away andnow brought in a strange on – a male even!! (he tends to be a smart aleck)
    So just updating you & a couple other people who comment here – thanks for the encouragement. OH and he’s appears to have been named for Axle Rose!!!

    • Good, good, good!!! Welcome, Axel, you have landed in the best place. As for Juliette, well it is a cat’s good enjoyment to have an opinion about dogs. I wouldn’t dare ruin her fun. Well done, Maggie. This is the best news all week.

    • Lucky for Axle that you had room for him to find his permanent home. Hopefully, Juliette will accept him in time! Let us know how it is going.

      • Thanks for good wishes – Lynell & Anna. Juliette is easing up some – at least shes coming out of “her” room now. Axel is doing well – I think he was a city dog – the whole world just amazes him! And DEER??? The ones that live around me are pretty used to me because I walk every morning & night up back by the woods so they really arent all that perturbed by Axel – however I had to speak “harshly” to him this morning – he only weighs 40 lbs but makes it count! He pays attention!
        Thanks again

        • Thanks, Mag (may I call you that?), for the update! Hardly a week gone by and Juliette is showing a seemingly positive change, or so I hope. Love your take on Axel, i.e., “city dog” and “the whole world just amazes him!” Too funny! My mind’s eye has conjured up a lovely picture of you and Axel taking to the woods. Here’s to many more walks for you two; may they get better and better!

  6. I’m still going to take that cookie cutter and bake some cookies. Then I’ll eat them. Or maybe I’ll use it to make horse cookies instead. Thank you for your always thought-provoking words, Anna. Horses = Magic!


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