Friday, March 14, 2008

Do You Hear What I See?: Communicating with Horses

I can't walk past a window on the north side of my house without glancing out at the horses. This frequent, subconscious check on their well-being has led to the early interception of several minor colics over the years.

Yesterday evening, I glanced out the master bedroom window just in time to see Ripple Effect (2006 Barb filly, Alternating Current x Jack's Legacy) lowering her hind hoof as if from a kick at her own belly. I paused, felt the familiar singing of my nerves as I watched her pivot and lie down to roll. Lying sternal, she turned muzzle to flank.

I reached for my boots, already ticking off a plan to gather stethoscope, thermometer, and cell phone, as she lurched back to her feet and shook dust from her mane. Looking annoyed, she twisted her neck and nipped at the point of her shoulder. My own shoulders relaxed a bit. Just an itch?

Ripple marched over to Sandstorm, who shares her paddock. The older mare reached right for Ripple's chest and raked the skin with her teeth. As Ripple's ears flopped sideways, my frown gave way to a bemused smile.

How do they do that? Sandstorm obviously understood Ripple's problem as clearly as Travis does when I say, "Just left of my spine, a little lower...ahhhh, there!"

I shouldn't be surprised. Horses are masters of communication through body language, and therein lies one of the great secrets of training. We humans, intent as we are upon our many words, too easily forget that vocalization means relatively little to an equine.

Early last year, I self-imposed a ban on nearly all verbal communication while working with horses. I made one exception for "whoa," which I like to make a part of every horse as surely as his lungs or heart or hooves are part of him, but everything else I wanted to say, I communicated strictly via the angle of my body, the slump of my shoulders or thrust of my chest, the speed of my breathing and focus of my eyes, the giving and taking of physical space.

And the world opened up. The horses responded with greater willingness and accuracy. They grew more attentive, quicker in their responses. As our relationships deepened, they seemed to read my very thoughts. I like to do a lot of liberty work in the round corral, asking for gait changes, inside and outside turns, consecutive circles off the rail, figure eights, small and large circles around me, and even spins. It is a dance in which one movement flows into the next, pulses rise, hooves pound, and our two consciousnesses merge. Often, I do no more than picture the next step and, before I give the command, the horse performs.

This is the subtlety of which horses are capable -- to see my body prepare to move while the impulse is still en route from my brain. Imagine what we could achieve if we humans were so observant!

Fortunately for us, horses are generous creatures, tolerant of our inept social skills and appreciative our our smallest successes. A few days ago, I was working with Acey when she, like Ripple, became frustrated by an unreachable itch. I obliged her with a scratch, and the resultant lick of her lips said "thank you" -- loud and clear.


Related Posts

Outing Stress: Communicating with Horses
A Moment of Silence: Communicating with Horses
Being the Better Horse: Communicating with Horses
Enough is Enough: Communicating with Horses

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Callie said...

NIce post........So very true!

Grey Horse Matters said...

It sure would be nice if humans could communicate as easily and with less formal language as horses do. I love watching my herd interact with one another it is always direct and straightforward. If more of us listened to our horses I believe there would be a lot more learning to be had on our side of the horse-rider-training-care giver equation.

Mrs Mom said...

Thanks for stopping in at Oh HorseFeathers!

This was a great post. Horses are such amazingly visual creatures, and humans... well,... we tend to be lacking. This was an excellent reminder to hush more often, and give a true listen to what our horses are saying.

Afterall, we can not learn, if our jaws are moving ;)