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Horse Speak:  Picture Perfect Communication
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Horse Speak: Picture Perfect Communication

As I was pondering ways I could be a ‘better human’ for my horse, my thoughts led me to do an inventory of what I have accomplished and where I wanted to be as a rider and trainer. At one point in my adult life, I looked to become a top dressage rider and anything less would simply be a step towards that dream.

But life has a way of choosing our path for us. When change comes to derail our best laid plans, we have a choice. We can spend our precious happiness trying to fight a battle that will most likely lead to one obstacle after another; or we can accept them, riding them like a leaf along the current in a bubbling stream.

For years in my life, the winds blew, making the soft ripples turn to angry waves. I fought to keep myself on course, paddling against the current. Finally, I realized I needed to have faith and stop struggling to stay afloat. I still hoped I would eventually find myself riding grand prix dressage, but I realized I had a purpose, no matter where I found myself.

Eventually, the wind died down and the current gently washed me ashore. Instead of being on the road at dressage shows, I found myself at home with a herd of rescue horses. I eagerly snatched this opportunity to grow as an equestrian in a way I had never imagined.

If rescue horses could speak, oh the stories they would tell. Many are victims of the economy, surrendered by owners who were no longer able to properly care for them after falling into financial hardship, while others are a product of human abuse and neglect.

Rescue horses come in a wide range of shapes and sizes, as well as different levels of mental and physical health. Unfortunately, the horses rarely come to a rescue with a detailed background record, regardless of the reasons behind their surrender or seizure.

This is where I came into the picture. In essence, I was a voice for the horses. Through careful observation, I tried to determine the training level and safety of the horses, so the rescue could find an appropriate home capable of meeting a particular horse’s needs.

If needed, the rescue organization brought the starved or neglected horses back to health, and then I would work with them to see what they knew or needed to learn. The horses’ future depended on my accurate assessment; a responsibility I did not take lightly.

For the next couple of years, horse after horse walked through my barn sharing their story with me. There were fearful horses that had never known a gentle hand and fearless horses that soaked up as much human attention they could stand.

Some horses stood silently in their stalls crying for help; others had been well cared for at one time or another and accepted their new situation easily.

I was amazed as one horse after the other gradually unlocked doors and graciously allowed me a glimpse into their soul. Many times, when I was quiet and gave myself permission to feel, the horses reflected truths about me that I was unaware of.

As I sorted through my and the horses’ psychological baggage, I became hyper tuned to my emotions and the effect they were having on my body language. It was then that I began to understand how my emotional reality communicated with a horse.

Being an experienced horsewoman, I knew horses often respond to a handler’s state of mind. For example, a horse will feed off a nervous rider and in turn behave nervously. But the same horse will be calm with a confident rider.

It wasn’t until I had the chance to work with horses stained by unjust human punishment that I truly grasped the concept that the instinct to survive is at the core of horse-human communication.

Horses don’t interpret their surroundings logically. It is as if they feel what’s around them as a whole picture instead of processing everything as individual images within the picture.

The horses I worked with would intently observe me, watching my body language, to get a sense of the “present.” Any physical manifestation of my emotions could cause a shift in the feeling of the picture.

Something as subtle as how I was breathing would clue the horses in to whether or not I was a predator about to attack or a leader they could trust.

Horses are not obligated to give humans a second chance, yet they often forgive human error. However, humans are obligated to forgive any distrust from a horse. It is our responsibility to create a non-hostile environment for the horse and accurately communicate our intentions by sending a clear and concise message.

This means we must be in control of our emotions, internally and externally. You can’t expect a horse to stand calmly as you “think” calm thoughts while your body is shaking nervously.

Before you approach a horse, check yourself; and if you or the horse emotionally falls apart, stop everything until you can regroup.

Take the time you need to become emotionally and physically congruent. Mean what you “say” and say what you mean. There is no “goal” in the world more important than making sure a horse feels safe and secure in his present situation.

Photo credit: Cody Gilchrest

 

 

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