How to listen to your horse

Horses are asking us questions all the time, says the author of the new book, Horse Speak, and with practice you can learn to answer appropriately—and start a meaningful conversation.
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Horses are asking us questions all the time, says the author of the new book, Horse Speak, and with practice you can learn to answer appropriately—and start a meaningful conversation.

A horse’s survival depends on his ability to observe what is happening around him and to see the subtle messages of other horses. This is possible only when the “herd” (same species or multispecies, of many or of only two, in the barn or loose in the pasture) is calm. When one horse starts to pick on another, the others in the herd may quietly separate the two, adjusting their positions until there is a state of calm again. In conflict, opponents are likely to kick or bite at one another; perhaps one will drive the other away. Then, as quickly as the disagreement began, it ends. Horses do not thrive on stress and excitement.

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I regularly observe my herd and usually see some standing a few feet apart, some lying down and others grazing---but all striving for a steady state of calm.

Many of us may try to be calm around horses as a general rule, but for the process of learning Horse Speak, it is essential. Being “quiet inside” allowed me to be more “present” (in the moment), which is how I was able to observe the subtleties of equine language to begin with. Establishing ways to be “present” with your horse is how you will see their language, as well. I call the state of being present in the moment, being aware and calm, Inner Zero.

Zero is the first thing I teach any of my students. I ask them to imagine a favorite peaceful spot---a happy place. Some think of a favorite song, a lovely image or an emotionally fulfilling memory. We all have individual gateways to our Zero. Practice the feeling that comes over you when you think of the trigger image, sound or memory and return to it repeatedly. This is Zero on the inside. Sometimes I have my students stand in the vicinity of their horses, balance their weight on both feet and breathe into their bellies. Then we all notice if and how the horses respond.

It took me years to realize how important my own state of Zero was for successful conversations. I’ve developed another tool to help me stay calm and present no matter what the horse is doing. I can stay in my Inner Zero by thinking or saying out loud the words, “How curious.” When you say, “How curious,” it neutralizes emotions. Or you may want to try the word, “Interesting,” which is also a nonjudgmental expression. No matter if things are going well or badly with your horse, find your own trigger words or phrases that will help you stay calm and present.

MANAGING “OUTER ZERO” AND ADJUSTING VOLUME

The best way to clearly communicate with horses is with planned, deliberate gestures. When your inner intensity level is calm or Zero, it does not mean being too quiet or tentative. Horses prefer us to move with purpose, be aware of the environment, and be confident leaders. Quiet, confident assertiveness equates to “calm” for horses. It tells them, “All is well.” In addition, being calm promotes mutual trust because horses aspire to stay in this state.

Most of the time horses whisper with their body language. A peaceful head nod, tiny twitch of the tail, the intention to pick up a foot with a shift of balance, these say all they need to another horse. Occasionally, a horse shouts or yells a message at another with extreme gestures or movement, but usually horses say what they need to at the lowest volume necessary. Even if they “turn up” the volume, they are experts at then turning it back down, calibrating the movements of their language precisely.

Horses do not want to waste energy by bickering with one another all day or holding on to a grudge. In order to ensure safety in the wild, they want to stay quiet and not call the attention of predators with noise or hoofbeat vibrations through the ground. When a horse asks another for space, he may simply swish his tail, then throw his head, stomp a foot and, finally, kick or bite. As soon as the other horse moves, everything goes back to Zero on the outside as well as on the inside.

Horses are good at this, but we have to practice. For the sake of mutual conversation, it is vital you understand how to adjust the volume of your own movement in response to theirs. You can learn to mimic their language and adjust your volume with the appropriate intensity.

To make this easier, I have assigned numbers to represent the levels of intensity of physical movement or volume you might use in a conversation with a horse. I use five numbers: Zero, One, Two, Three and Four. As the numbers increase, so does the size and/or emphasis of your movement. I like to use numbers to label these “levels” of conversation because there is no emotional attachment to them. Indeed, there should never be any negative emotion in any of the conversations you have with a horse, no matter how large your gestures become.

In general, Zero on the outside is like Zero on the inside: it means complete calm in mind and body. What does Outer Zero look like? Zero intensity, energy or attitude doesn’t mean you are not doing anything; Outer Zero is the way you are doing it, physically. Zero has different postures. You could:

• Bend one knee to cock your own hip sideways---the way horses do.

• Put your hands in your pockets, soften your gaze, and drop your head slightly while breathing deeply.

• Look at the ground and “blow out” a sigh.

• Make your body look limp like a rag doll.

We all develop our own versions of Outer Zero around our horses.

The next phase of intensity is Level One, which is intention (your determination to act a certain way) alone without much movement at all. Level Two volume adds motion to intention. Level Three adds movement toward the horse and may include touch. Level Four volume is most intense, including the largest of gestures in any given situation. Another way to look at this is to consider the five phases of physical movement or volume as: Calm, Thinking, Asking, Telling and Insisting. Remember, this is not about training---just about language. Different intensities of movement are the adjectives in Horse Speak.

Your goal is to habitually return to Outer Zero no matter what level of intensity has been used for any exercise or conversation. But ceasing intention, motion, gesture or touch (“turning down” the volume) is the hardest thing for any of us to learn. If you practiced nothing but returning to Inner and Outer Zero whenever and wherever it might be necessary, many of your problems with your horse would melt away. Horses let go of stress and effort more easily than humans do. We tend to relive an emotional charge long after the incident is over. Zero can help change this.

OBSERVATION AND AWARENESS

A horse communicates by using his entire body. Humans call this “body language.” As already mentioned, we see this kinesthetic language both in the smallest of twitches as well as in grand movements, postures and positions. Some of the body language I’ll discuss in the pages ahead includes an amazing variety of breaths, facial expressions, tail swishes and angles at which a horse holds himself. Everything horses do, even when standing still, means something to other horses.

Becoming aware of Horse Speak is pretty simple, really. You just need to pay attention whenever you are with your horse. Since horse language is predominately visual, horses watch each other closely even when it doesn’t seem like they are doing much of anything. Horses are always watching you closely, as well, when you are with them. So plan to become like horses when you watch them. Simple observation makes your horse more interested in you because you are showing him you are interested in him.

Horses communicate with us all the time in ways so subtle we don’t notice much of it. For example, you may throw hay out at feeding time, then head back to the house to get ready for work. How many of you glance back and notice that one ear of every horse is still on you, even though they are eating and you are walking away? What is so important about a tiny thing like this? It is the kind of thing horses do with each other. All movements in a herd are noticed. Over time and with practice you’ll learn to notice every little thing, too.

Just mucking out stalls? Observe your horse as closely as you can as you work around him. Turning your horse out with buddies? Watch to see when and how the horses interact with each other. Gazing out the window at the herd in the pasture? Notice what they are doing, how they are moving. As you learn more about their language, you’ll realize a lot is going on even if you never thought so before.

Observing your horse is an “approach” message: He will know you are watching him, trying to see and understand him, and as a result, he will become more engaged and trust will grow without you even realizing it. One day, your head-shy horse will bring his muzzle closer to you for a breath exchange or he will do a huge head bob as you come toward the gate. Your attentive observation is reaching out to him in a new way---and it is one he understands. You are now listening to his body language.

When we are not paying attention with regular observation, a horse has to resort to the equine equivalent of “shouting” at us, which means he communicates his happiness, fear, confusion and pain in grand gestures. Some of these big movements may even be called vices because we don’t know why he is doing them. For example, he fidgets on the cross-ties, steps on your foot or rushes out the stall door. We might label him as stubborn or stupid, but we are the ones being callous. We just haven’t noticed the more subtle ways he has been trying to tell us about his concerns.

Some horses shut down and do not even attempt to show us what they think or feel. They have learned there is no point in making the effort. Why try to communicate with a species that doesn’t take an interest in learning, seeing or acknowledging their perceptions?

Half a conversation is listening and the other half is talking. If you aspire to “see” your horse’s language, you must remember to listen even when the horse is saying things you don’t want to hear. When your horse gets emotional and you do not know what to do, keep yourself safe, then go to your Inner Zero. At least this will afford you the right state of mind to observe your horse and perhaps come up with a helpful strategy. You will see your horse with a whole new level of awareness once you know the words he uses.

SIGNS OF EMOTION

Dogs, cats and people display emotion in a direct way. Cats and dogs come up to you when you come home from work, follow you around and wrap themselves around you. Horses, however, being prey animals, display emotion indirectly---they express affection, for example, by giving you space and by paying attention to you. They express love by treating you as they treat their horse friends: by being calm, bonding, letting you into their space and sometimes initiating touch in the way they do with other horses.

We enjoy the way we feel around horses. We can feel enveloped in the state of peace and calm, which is the horse’s Inner Zero. We ride to merge with this body that is so much larger than ours. We want to feel that our heart is at one with his enormous heart. I believe we all still have this need. It is deeper than a learning technique, deeper than an award-winning performance, deeper even than having fun. It is the need to communicate love and affection to your horse and to know---without a doubt---your horse offers love and affection back to you.

Mother Nature endowed horses with a sense of humor, curiosity and a huge “play drive” as if to compensate them for having to worry all the time about being eaten. These are all expressions most horse owners can recognize---for example, when a horse wiggles his ears, he is demonstrating his sense of humor. Playfulness and affection are expressed sometimes via sideways ears or big huffing breaths.

Then, there are common defensive messages: For instance, your horse might say, “No!” with a tail swish and a hind foot stomp. A horse holds his head up high when he perceives a threat---it is less likely that the lion or wolf will grab his muzzle when it is held high. A high head can also indicate the horse is confused, but when truly scared, he lifts his head and pulls it backward out of what he perceives to be harm’s way.

You may have seen a horse running at full speed with grass or hay hanging out of his mouth. The horse has a soft palate that closes over his esophagus, thus allowing him to breathe through his nose but not swallow. Due to the length and position of the horse’s soft palate, he is one of the few animals that can breathe only through his nose. I always notice how the horse’s eyes seem to bulge when he is startled, as if enabling him to better see into the distance.

Horses are equipped to run for a short distance at high speed. When he is panicked, his shoulder blades, which are not attached to the skeleton, rotate upward, literally making him taller. This releases the back of the rib cage so he can take bigger breaths.

You might also know a horse who pushes into you with his forehand. Pushing you means he is claiming your space; he considers himself above you in herd hierarchy. A pretty extreme version of this defensive message one horse can do with another is a sideways body slam---it is almost like a martial arts move.

These are just a few examples of the kinds of Horse Speak.

THE MAGIC OF MIRRORING

Horses have a highly ritualized and predictable language. It is expressed through specific body language. When you understand how and what they are communicating you can mimic their body language back to them. It’s called “mirroring” and it makes conversation possible.

As children, many of us pretended to be horses. Remember how you “trotted” and “galloped” around on your two legs, tossing your mane, and jumping over things? Obviously, horses are quadrupeds and have a horizontal orientation while we are bipeds and more vertically inclined, but we both still have heads, faces, necks, torsos and legs. There is a difference in the way we express movement or gesture, but nonetheless, our imitation of horses’ language is always rooted in the way they visually communicate with each other.

Mirroring a horse is a great opportunity to be a student of nature. Simply look where he looks, stop when he stops, as if you are playing Simon Says. As silly as it might feel, do some freestyle mirroring of your horse. Without any goal in mind, try to translate his body language into some movement of your own. This may be challenging because we’ve been taught we always have to be in charge around horses. In fact, perhaps the only conversation you’ve ever had with a horse is, “I’m the human and you’re going to do only what I tell you.” Freestyle mirroring may free you of some ingrained conditioning and bring you to an authentic moment within yourself.

Observation and mirroring give you the space to read a horse’s individual personality. It is a great relief to let go of our human ways and simply be with a horse in his sense of time and his sense of relationships, emotions and thought processes. Letting go of our human agenda and ego, even for brief periods as we practice conversation, fosters deeper connections with our fellow creatures.

THE ART OF CONVERSATION

Once you begin to see his language you will also start to see how the horse sometimes has ideas when he is with you. When you have established communication through Horse Speak, you can also see how interested he is in your ideas. Most of a horse’s ideas are about relationships with other horses, the negotiation of personal space and the comfort of food and water, of course. Breeding horses think about cycles, birthing and the raising of foals. It wouldn’t naturally occur to most horses that it might be fun to push a big ball around, jump a course of obstacles or “dance” with a two-legged human beside them or on board.

Horses love to be praised. They take pride in their accomplishments with us and enjoy being admired. When they feel “listened to,” many horses will “claim” their performance and enjoy showing off.

All horse training uses a version of shaping behavior in repetitive exercise. Schooling often involves desired movements being rewarded and unwanted movements being punished. When a trainer is consistent, there will be some successful behavior modification. I know because I’ve been a trainer. Horses are generally trained to perform without thinking. They don’t understand why they are being forced to complete the same patterns over and over. They are not invested, present or even thinking about what is happening. They are not having ideas. Now, the moment I see a horse is thinking about what I am asking for, I stop asking. This “release” rewards him for thinking. This makes it easy for him to be successful and impossible for him to get it wrong. This also relaxes the horse and builds his confidence. The idea of Horse Speak is to assist both you and your horse to move past limiting beliefs or old experiences and move into a new understanding of each other, where you both have ideas worth exploring.

You initiate conversation with a horse by posing a question. No two horses will answer you in the same way. They have distinct personalities and respond to you based on their needs or preferences. It is up to you to observe and interpret their answers in response to what they communicate. Your next movement or gesture should be an appropriate reply. You then watch for their next move---and so on---until the conversation is complete. Once you know Horse Speak you will see how your horse is asking you questions all the time and watching and waiting for your answer. 

About the authors: Sharon Wilsie is a professional animal trainer and rehabilitation expert who regularly works with horses for private clients and at equine rescues. She develops and teaches equine-assisted learning programs at the high school and college level. Wilsie is also a Reiki Master/Teacher. She runs Wilsie Way Horsemanship from her base in Westminster, Vermont. Gretchen Vogel is a lifelong horse owner and rider, as well as an avid gardening expert. She is the author of two previous books: Solar Gardening and Choices in the Afterlife. She lives in Keene, New Hampshire.

Adapted by permission from Horse Speak: An Equine-Human Translation Guide: Conversations With Horses in Their Language, published in November 2016 by Trafalgar Square Books. Available from www.EquineNetworkStore.com; 866-655-2698.

This article first appeared in EQUUS issue #470, November 2016.