Home : Horsemanship Essays by Franklin Levinson : The Conversation

The Conversation

horse conversationDuring a recent horsemanship/horse training seminar I was providing with my wife and co-presenter Ilona Staikou, a thought came to me that I felt managed to shed additional light on how to become even more successful with horses. Exploring the concept that working with horses is like having a successful conversation with them, made a lot of sense to me.

The online Cambridge Dictionary defines a conversation this way: "(a) talk between two or more people in which thoughts, feelings and ideas are expressed, questions are asked and answered, or news and information are exchanged." Additionally, I think for the conversation to be successful it has to be 'mutually' successful. We have all had a one-sided conversation where whoever we are speaking with is not paying attention, distracted or trying to control the flow of energy and information. These sorts of experiences can leave us feeling dissatisfied, incomplete, angry and disrespected among many other negative feelings. Imagine what it might be for a horse to have mostly one-sided conversations with humans because even well-intentioned humans do not understand how to have a conversation with a horse.

Many humans simply do not understand the mind, psychology, language and behavioral tendencies of horses. They feel that they must dominate and control the animal to get what they want from it. This is indeed a sad state of affairs for the horse. Horses always want to communicate with whoever is near them. They are a very social animal and desire to have 'relationships' with those around them. We humans often only show up as the caretaker and boss for our horses. When the boss speaks, it is always a one- sided conversation. Not being 'heard' within a conversation goes along with not being
respected. The person we are having the conversation with doesn't listen to what we are saying or even tries to understand our point of view. This creates frustration, resentment, a collapse of communication and destroys the possibility of a good relationship. If we take a hard look at the failure of our relationships with our horses, I think we would find that our inability to have a simple, successful conversation with them is partially at the core of the problem. We simply do not know how to listen to them and appropriately respond. Nor, do we have to desire to do so much of the time as we want what we want from them and we want it now. We tend to think we need to show up as the boss of the horse rather than a respectful friend and trusted leader. I am not suggesting that our conversations with our equine friends be all sugar coated and honey sweet. This would not be honest or reasonable as some conversations need to contain information about rules, boundaries, procedures and the like. This is serious information that needs to be received in a positive way to be effective and helpful. Both parties having the conversation need to be open and respectfully giving and receiving information.

“What the horse is telling us all the time is how it feels in any given moment. But we tend to ignore the horse's conversation to us in deference to our agenda...”

Being a good conversationalist is somewhat of an art I think. Whether it is between humans or humans and horses, the same elements need to be present for the exchange to be considered mutually successful. The first important element might be a common language. After all if one person only speaks French and the other only Greek, great success would seem to be difficult to achieve. For horses their main mode of communication is body language. If we are not able or unwilling to read and correctly interpret a horse's body language, we may as well be speaking a foreign language to each other. A successful conversation also has an element of mutual respect within it. If we determine someone is not listening to us, they are showing disrespect. We can feel it and so can the horse when we are not listening to it or paying attention. The conversation quickly becomes an unpleasant and a frustrating experience when this is the case. This one main point is at the root of many problems humans have with their horses. We are not listening to our horses and making a sincere effort to understand what they are trying to say. Mostly a horse is attempting to communicate its fearful feelings or its feelings of
safety. We so often seem to ignore their efforts at communication.

My strongest belief is that all behavior we do not want from our horses is the animal trying to communicate it is afraid. If the horse shows resistance to a request (or demand) we tend to judge it as being stubborn and bad. We then tend to 'shout' at the horse by using force and punishment to make it comply with what we want. The mutually successful conversation went out the window. An alternative to this unsuccessful conversation might be to first: be very clear and precise with what we wish to communicate. The more precise and accurate we can be in our communications, the better chance we have of being understood. Not knowing what we want to say makes it very difficult to say it. Horses do not suffer from this sort of inability to be clear and precise with communications as we human can tend to do. Additionally, the horse is not trying to manipulate us as we want to do with it. What the horse is telling us all the time is how it feels in any given moment. But we tend to ignore the horse's conversation to us in deference to our agenda with the horse.

Here is a simple, imaginary successful beginning conversation between a human and a horse. First things are we want to calm ourselves and focus in the present on what we want to achieve. We want to greet the horse (say hello) so we take a step or two towards the horse and then back up a step or two. By backing away a step we actually are showing respect and asking permission to approach the horse for more greeting. Simply walking up to the horse and touching it is disrespectful and can scare a horse. The horse will generally look at us when we back away and may even turn towards us a bit. This
is acknowledgement and gratitude for our respect coming from the horse as well as it showing interest in us. Next we might slowly and thoughtfully approach the animal's neck or shoulder, keeping our hands down. Again, this is a respectful way of beginning this conversation. If the animal moves away from us, we should back up a step to assist the horse in understanding we mean it no harm. Compare this to a typical conversation you might see between Greeks or any two people on the street. The conversation is very animated with much gesturing and waving of the hands. The speech is often loud,
rapid and one person does not hesitate to speak over the other. To us this is normal. It is definitely not normal for a horse.

Some people call me a horse whisperer. I think I am just a good conversationalist for a horse. I speak calmly, quietly, precisely, thoughtfully, clearly and respectfully. I understand the animal's body language quite well and can respond appropriately. I never make demands. I do make requests. Actually I prefer to suggest things to a horse rather than try to tell it what to do. Through suggestions, the horse actually begins to figure out for itself what it is I am trying to communicate. This is always best. Having a successful conversation with a horse means that information and feelings have been exchanged in a positive way. Feelings of safety and trust have been preserved and perhaps even brought to a higher level. Having a conversation with a horse is not about talking nonsense.

Likewise it is obviously not talking about world politics or the like. But it is an honest sharing of feelings, desires and intentions. Some folks say horses think in pictures. I tend to agree with this. It should be obvious to us all that they do, in fact, think in some form or another. If we accept they think in pictures and that horses are emotional animals
(feeling a range of emotions from fear to elation) then the pictures in a horse's mind have an emotional attachment like a file attached to an email. The pictures either feel good or they do not. If we think about it, our thoughts have an emotional content and feelings attached to them as well. Our thoughts can either prompt us to feel good or not. This is why many motivational speakers tell us that if we are having thoughts that do not support us in feeling good, we can choose to change our minds (our minds being the only thing we really can choose to change in this life).

With this essay I wish to suggest we can all be better conversationalists with our horses and in doing this we will become more successful with them. A conversation does not have to be long to be good. It does not have to be particularly 'deep' as to subject or topic to be successful. It does, however, have to leave both parties feeling good. Then they will
probably be very happy to come back together for more.

Humans mostly 'make' their horses go into competitions. True some horses enjoy competition. Some horses love to jump and some horses love to race each other. Some horses also really enjoy carrying their riders around without bridles or saddles and do so brilliantly and gracefully without being controlled or restrained. But, unfortunately we generally only see this sort of horsemanship in Equitana expositions or Horse Expo shows. What we see a lot of in competition is making our horses comply using over flexion, severe bits, heavy hands, aggressive use of spurs and whips and unnecessary draw reins in order to force our agendas on them. The relaxed form of classical dressage seems to have been overtaken by over collection. The physical and emotional damage done to our horses through hyper and forced collection are only now beginning to be understood. Judges are finally learning to not reward such riders and performances.

I think an answer is to better horsemanship either on the ground or in the saddle is our willingness to become empathetic with our horses. Humans wanting to improve show performance, or any activity with their horses, need to somehow tune into the emotional lives of their equines and feel what the animal is feeling and then make adjustments accordingly as to how they are training and handling their mounts. I am asked often how to tune into the feelings of horses. The thing I tell people to do first is to have a sincere and honest desire to join with the animal's feelings. The next thing would be for the human to, for a little while at least, let go of their agenda. Being fixated on a big agenda causes humans to have narrow vision and limited ability for being flexible, tolerant and patient. Not being fixated on a specific agenda allows humans to be open and more able to adjust to variations in whatever a particular situation produces. Giving up agenda gives the human a better view of the bigger picture. It removes limitations and blocks to progress and allows more opportunity for success. Giving up our agenda offers a rare glimpse of freedom to the horse and the human. Empathy is a huge key and essential element to successful relationships of all types, including with our beloved horses.

An empathetic horseman was what Robert Redford's character was in the movie The Horse Whisperer. His character was able to empathize with the injured and fearful horse as well as the young rider who lost her leg. His ability to be empathetic was part of what made his character a great horseman and a great man. I suppose looking like and being Robert Redford didn't hurt either. But the point is, greatness in humanity seems in part to always contain the quality of empathy. When empathy is combined with compassion and kindness huge strides are made towards a better existence for all. With our horses, if we can add the ingredients of great equestrian skills, wisdom of the mind of the horse and excellent leadership, then high levels of success are assured. Think about becoming an empathetic horseman and, at least attempting to feel what your horse is feeling. You will be amazed at how much closer you will become with your horse and how much closer that horse will become with you.