The Solitary Journey to the Heart of One Horse

I listened to a podcast interview with Jane Goodall this week. She is my personal superhero, and I will never tire of her. At 86, the primatologist’s voice is compelling. She is humble but when it comes to her politics, her love of animals and our planet, her voice rises above the din with equal parts authority and kindness. Her original dream was to sit in the jungle and observe chimpanzees. Then life happened.

I’ve listened to Dr. Jane’s story often but each time there is an ordinary word that rings me like a bell, and my understanding expands. It’s usually something I’ve heard before, and this time, it was something that I say myself. It was a throwaway line as she was relating beginning her work in the 1960s, talking about chimpanzees making tools and differentiating individual personalities in the group. Then, without guise, she’s singing a chimp call that sounded as holy as a church choir. In the middle somewhere she flatly states that animals are sentient beings, and they have feelings.

She used the word feelings. I usually say emotions.

Science has proved it and I know it. For crying out loud, I teach it every day. Somehow hearing that ordinary word, in her lilting voice, at that precise time, felt profound. The words joined up with memories of horses who had no “training issue” but had become mentally unstable or emotionally exhausted by training methods that brutalized their sensitivity. We didn’t care how they felt. It wasn’t new information, but the old idea was illuminated in a way that made deeper sense to me.

People were touchy about being related to chimps back then, and evolution was a hot issue. Decades later, here we are with horses. Some people will never see more than a beast of burden, and for some of us, horses are more intelligent than all the cousins on our father’s side of the family combined.

Learning is not a graceful event. Not a straight line, learning is more of a sphere where we roll around until we see all sides. One way or another we all get bucked off. Our feelings get trampled and our best intentions go sideways. Some days, we dance, we sing, we fly. Other days, we bounce, we stumble, we crawl. We all regret the blunders we’ve made and only figured out in hindsight. Other times we’ve been shamed for not punishing horses enough. I’ve never met anyone who isn’t wrestling with a heady mixture of impatience and self-doubt. Do you worry you’re failing your horse?

This week, along with Dr. Jane, I heard from three people new to the idea of calming signals and totally overwhelmed. Usually, the first thing that happens is that horses tell us something we don’t want to know. We realize that the thing we thought was affection from our horse is really anxiety. Or we started listening to the horse and now we can’t seem to lead him. Hardest of all, we figure out that the “training issue” is really pain and we misunderstood his call for help. Guilty of the very last thing we would ever want. It’s stressful enough that in a dark moment, we scream or crumble or both.

What if floundering is an ordinary step as we make the shift into deeper listening and understanding of horses? Now’s a good time to tune in to your observation skills. Pretending to be Jane Goodall works for me. I just watch, not intruding, not asking for anything. Observing cools our feelings, slows time, and opens the possibility of curiosity. Soon your horse will return your calming signals. You’ve been knocked down a notch and the good news is that true two-way communication is happening.

Learning a new idea can be exciting, but it’s just words until we go through the process needed to internalize the words by connecting to some experience we have, and then work for some understanding. We must earn our knowledge. I’ll use a different set of words, hoping to ring a bell. Learning about horses is not a flat race. It’s more like an endurance ride.

When did we get complacent about the challenge of learning? Was it listening to a huckster say that one simple training technique works on every horse? You don’t need to be Dr. Jane to know horses are individuals. Think of babies coming into the world and needing to learn our language, without another word to translate. It’s an undertaking as immense as life itself. Years will pass before a child becomes fluent, able to internalize meaning and nuance. Years of literal schooling.

Is working with horses much different than that? We are deconstructing language into a body voice but it’s still about meaning and nuance. The real difference is that we are working with a sentient thousand-pound flight animal with feelings. They aren’t like kids or dogs. It’s rightfully confusing at times because we are all Jane Goodall, both challenged and thrilled, on the edge of a discovery that is going to transform the world. Nothing less.

And in this week of threes, I also heard from three people in The Barn School who experienced a “peaceful proximity” event. It’s a moment that was brand new and profound, but with longtime horse companions. It happens when we don’t try. When we ask for nothing; when the air is still and we haven’t agitated the horse with threats or cajoled him with sweet talk. In that quiet place, the passive action of observing creates a sort of vacuum that calls a horse in a way that all our rattle and hum never will. Did Dr. Jane discover this in the forests of Gombe? Our stillness is the invitation to a place below the surface of warm skin and pretty manes. It’s where we listen to their feelings, where we gain an understanding of their experience, and where we learn to gallop with power and kindness.

I do know this: You are in the perfect place to be taught. If you’re trying to survive a disaster, it will pass to smoother ground, and if you are riding high, you will hit a bump. One day doesn’t matter more than another. We’re in this for the long ride and that’s all about learning a new language. You have all the time you need because we know exactly where this spirited journey of bliss and drama will lead. In the end, we still love horses.

“Affirmative training is the art of understanding the horse. We train with a profound concern for the horse’s mental and physical welfare. We listen to his Calming Signals to learn his perspective. We affirm the horse’s intelligence, empowering his confidence with positive energy.”

Anna Blake for Relaxed & Forward 

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27 thoughts on “The Solitary Journey to the Heart of One Horse”

  1. Today’s post follows nicely on your post from last week. Which I decided to try. I volunteer muck stalls at our local horse rescue once a week and the prior week we got a bunch of new rescue horses. The first week most of the horses shied away from me and stood at the opposite side of their stall. This week with each individual horse I stood next to their shoulder and took a series of slow breaths out. It was amazing to watch the response of their ears and then their heads. If their head turned toward me I scratched their withers. And they all responded positively.
    For those whose heads didn’t turn toward me, I left them alone and will try again next week.
    Thanks for continuing to teach us how to respond to the horses’s calming signals.

  2. Hi Anna,

    The whole post resonates with me, and especially this sentence: “Or we started listening to the horse and now we can’t seem to lead him”. Exactly. And then the voices start up in my head saying that I’m not good with horses, and that gee, I can’t even lead my own horse, blah, blah, blah. In the past, it has been tempting to go back to the old ways, but I’m getting better at listening, and when I do, I learn something. She might be telling me that she’d rather go for a walk in a different direction, or that something beyond the gate is concerning her. We can have a conversation about it! And then there are good feelings all around.


  3. This post resonates so strongly I ‘felt’ every word myself. Thank you. And I am sure our little herd thanks you. You and Jane are two of my superheroes these days! The less we do with our horses, and the more we personally respect their feelings, the more we seem to achieve. It is an education over years, a process of forgiveness of self, and learning to actively listen to their body voices. And our own. We experience ‘peaceful proximity’ events here ourselves now, so I guess that’s good thing. 🙂

  4. Does this mean you’ll add “emotional” to this:
    “Affirmative training is the art of understanding the horse. We train with a profound concern for the horse’s mental [emotional] and physical welfare. We listen to his Calming Signals to learn his perspective. We affirm the horse’s intelligence, empowering his confidence with positive energy.”

    I hope so. Dr. Jane has been my hero as well.

  5. Jane Goodall is a hero of mine, and so are you, Anna Blake. Thank you for this blog/essay that ties so many threads together and provides grounding, orienting, and challenge as we go forth with our horses . I have had some gifts from Bear lately, and I’m sure it’s due to my becoming a better listener. Like someone commented above, the words “body voice” are essential ….

    • It has been just a joy to watch you and Bear and Cash over this year. I think we are all listening better, it might be the best thing in 2020. Thanks Sarah

  6. Anna, my 2 rescues are not farrier friendly. During this months farrier visit I was explaining my learning curve with affirmative training in answer to my farrier’s inquiry about my training progress with these 2 horses. Also during the visit, one of the rescues came in from pasture and stood next to me no matter where I was moving about. It was such odd behavior that I checked him out, but heart and respiratory rates were normal, and his mucous membranes showed adequate hydration and oxygenation….he seemed ok. My farrier then told me a story about a phenomenal horseman who came across rescues that even he couldn’t help and that good horses don’t end up at auction- this agitated me a lot! Well, a half hour after my farrier left, the horse who had been following me around ended up in a full blown colic. He came through it, and it makes me wonder if he had been asking for help earlier when he voluntarily stayed with me during the dreaded farrier visit. He’s had colic twice before during the 21/2 years he’s been with me. Maybe we are building trust after all, through that quiet observation that I am struggling to assimilate. Thank you Anna for leading me down a path of possibilities, and thanks to Jane G. As well.

    • Laurie, glad he’s okay. It’s always my hope horses will tell me when it hurts, and I think that was what happened, even if it only made sense in hindsight. What a brave boy. And you are the one watching and listening, so thank you.

  7. It is truly amazing what I have learned from being quiet. Last night I stood with her in her stall, leaned up against the wall and listened to her chew, nothing more. After a bit she wandered over to me and we breathed together and then she went back to her hay. A few minutes later she came over again. It was like she was rewarding (and schooling) me for just being — no talking, no grooming, no touching. It was fantastic. Also, thanks for making me feel that the times that I don’t listen, and therefore fail her, are ok. I will do better the next day. What a gift that is. Thanks, Anna.

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