Fiona Habershon has left and we had our great experiences helping animals and working together in our workshops. I wanted to bring up a way too often overlooked part of being with horses. Listening. The term horse whisperer or horse whispering is used by many people. I prefer the term Horse Listening or Horses Listener.
We had a very interesting experience with the Mare who assisted me in the Self Selection/Liberty Intro workshop. She had great lessons to offer about Horse Listening and non-confrontational conversations. It all started when the host told me we should work with her TB mare. I usually go with this because the owners know their horses and I rely on this for safety for all involved. In this particular instance, I kept being drawn to this other Paint mare. When they went to bring the horses in so we could start with the selected horse, the small herd marched through the arena into their adjacent field and guess who stayed in the work area? The Paint mare. She volunteered for the class to be my assistant. She was very interesting because she really exemplified the work and how the connection grew with each exercise between her and each person. She went from being stand offish to wanting to be with each person and walk with them and be groomed by them. All was well until we wanted to ask her to move a bit more than we had previously. I had avoided claiming territory with this horse because of her history and then when it came up in context, We started to explore. I will only work with things as they come up in context because I don’t want the horse to feel like it’s practice or drilling. That’s not what horses do with each other. My group class brings up fascinating learning experiences because the horse is the only common denominator. Each person creates their own unique chemistry with their interactions with the horse. None of the people know the horse prior so there are no established patterns. I ask people to pay close attention to the conversation that each horse/person looks like they are having. Only the owners know the horse and have established patterns.
The mare decided she wanted to stay in this particular area of fence on the long side of the arena. One person went to ask her to move and she transformed from calm to ear pinning and even coming towards the person. Apparently, this was out of character for her. When the person requested more strongly, she escalated her body language as well. The person backed away and she calmed again. Her owner went to request her to move and the conversation was different, it was like two family members arguing about something. The mare showed her disgruntlement over the request but did not escalate as much. Not the same as the stranger asking the mare to move previously. What I asked the next person to do was to approach her and watch her body language very carefully. At a certain point, You could see the mare start to take a defensive posture and I instructed the person to stop and back away at that moment. When the mare softened, she could approach again. Anytime the mare started to communicate she was not ok with the approach in her body language, the person would back away. This would cause the mare to relax and calm. After a few minutes the mare had diffused and became soft because we LISTENED to her communication. She felt heard and felt she no longer needed to escalate and be defensive.
Someone asked if we were letting her “Win” by dealing with her that way. I said that that was Dominant or Predatory thinking. I am interested in a two way conversation and why this mare feels the need to say No! I want my horse to feel like I am listening and not to feel the need to shout at me.
Horses often escalate dominant behavior when we apply more pressure to them when they are already communicating rather loudly. At this point we need to lower our voices so to speak which says to the horse “I don’t want to fight, there’s no need to shout, I’m Listening” TAKE THE PRESSURE OFF. Stop, think about what the horse is saying and go in slowly, softly and listen to the horses’ communication.
Everywhere I look, I see horses being forced to shout at their people who are not listening to them. They ask me for help and one of the first things I say is Stop, Listen. Sometimes we don’t want to hear what our horse is saying because it will interfere with our goals or agendas. But if we listened and adjusted and slowed down, I have found the horses’ feel heard and try harder for you.
What makes me a good trainer has a lot less to do with technical skill then being an empathetic listener. I practice being a better listener everyday. This week’s exercise is for you to listen more to your horse. Even if you think you are the best listener, listen even more. Share your experiences in the comments section. I’d love to hear about what you learned from Listening to your horse. Don’t forget UK horse peeps, I’ll be there for my Demo and clinic June 19-24 Register here