Common Sense about Horse Communication

The first thing to remember about horses is that their senses are just better than ours.

I’ve never trusted my own senses. I consider it a good thing.

While I was still in grade school, I broke my nose on a sheep. These things happen; he was a big cross-eyed ram by the name of Grandpa. So, I don’t have a good sense of smell, but no worries, if I imagine what it might smell like I get by. It should impact my taste but you can’t convince me that raspberries taste better to you.

I was born with flimsy eardrums and flunked all my hearing tests in school. Two childhood surgeries later, no improvement. My parents debated whether I wasn’t able to hear or just didn’t listen. I do in fact have a hearing loss. It’s the lower tone range, so it’s mainly men I don’t listen to. I mean hear.

My eyes are my strongest sense. I have a spectacular eye for detail. But even on my best day, if I hadn’t learned to triangulate llama noses, I’d never be warned about visitors on my farm.

It bears repeating: The first thing to remember about horses is that their senses are just better than ours. Every moment.

Horses have a better hearing range with greater frequency than humans. They use it as an early defense system and we usually decide they’re distracted.

Their sense of smell is not as good as a dog, but still much better than ours, as evidenced in the spring when they become besotted with of the smell of new grass. We can’t tell unless a lawnmower has been by.

Their sense of touch is extremely acute; they can feel a fly on their lower hind leg. Do you think we might over-cue?

And vision -the equine eye is the largest of any land mammal. And like most prey animals, their eyes are set on the sides of their head, allowing them close to a 350° range of vision. Horses also have both binocular and monocular vision, which means they can process two separate images at the same time. Go ahead, pause here to push your glasses up your nose.

Most of us think our horses are psychic because it’s easier to believe than the truth about our own limited senses.

Compared to prey animals, we’re not nearly as aware of our surroundings. We tend to be loud and dominating, especially with our hands. We act like we know everything.

Back in the day on Saturday Night Live, Garrett Morris translated the “News for the Hard of Hearing.” He’d stand at the side in a bad parody of an ASL translator, cup his hands to his mouth and yell. Just holler it out. It gave me a deliciously guilty, politically-incorrect laugh.

But that’s how we are next to horses. We stand and yell, our normal tone qualifies, slowly enunciating each syllable as if the horse is deaf or stupid, or sadly, a child. We repeat ourselves, we escalate our cues. It’s what we were taught to do but they “heard” us the first time. It’s pretty arrogant for a human to think a horse isn’t aware of things twice as obvious to them as they are to us.

As the theoretically superior animal, it’s up to humans to learn the horse’s language. This is where not trusting your senses comes in handy for a horse-woman. It makes it easier to want to listen if you aren’t sure what’s going on.

I use the word “conversation” when writing about communicating with horses… but I don’t mean verbal. It isn’t about constantly chattering along, explaining to the horse that his mane is being brushed, that you’re going to pick up his feet now, that the saddle is next. He knows.

And it isn’t just baby talk and explanations about grooming. We sit crooked and our legs flop. Sometimes we kick with each stride. We twist around in the saddle like kids on a school bus. We can’t look to the side without flinging our shoulders around. You’d think we didn’t have peripheral vision

We create such a racket to their senses, that horses stop listening, not being disobedient but just to quiet the roar. It’s a calming signal to us. The cue that we can do less.

Much of what we do with horses is for ourselves. We use them for comfort and that isn’t a bad thing… unless we never give back. Unless we always think that it’s all about us. If you are looking for a better relationship with horses then listen more. Strive to understand them more for who they are rather than who we want them to be.

I use the word “conversation” with a horse because of what it doesn’t mean: Lecture. Soliloquy. Pontification. Sermonize.

Instead, let the air rest. It’s easier to listen then. Be curious in silence.

Say what you mean and mean what you say. Let the rest go. It’s the opportunity your horse is waiting for. He might need a while to trust it but then he’ll tell you his side of things. It will make perfect sense.

Sometimes now as a clinician, I find myself speaking to a group while standing next to a horse. I’m talking as clearly and audibly as I can for the humans, even as I’m aware that I’m sounding like “News for the Hard of Hearing” to the horse.

They tolerate my noise because of another sense that I think horses have. It’s an awareness of intention. It’s the sentiment beyond silence.

I think it’s the best we can hope for from a horse; to find a bit of grace for our loud and rude ways. Perhaps he hopes that one day humans might learn to communicate.

 ….
Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro
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Seeing Things Like Horses Do.

WMfine eyeWe see things differently than horses.  And like usual, I think we should try to be more like them.

To start, one of the easy ways to tell if a mammal is predator or prey is eye position. Predators, like us humans, have our eyes close together, aiding our depth perception and ability to see in 3D, while prey mammals tend to have wide-set eyes with a nearly 360 degree range of vision. They have side-vision on both flanks to see predators. In over-simplified terms, humans scrutinize a small area but horses literally see the big picture. We’re that way about more than just our visual senses.

Meaning a rider might say out loud that she has a problem with a canter depart. Or getting bend. Or head tossing. Anyway, as your horse will tell you, saying it out loud is about all it takes to get a fleeting moment-in-time to form up into a totally aggravating thorny little rock that’s impossible to ignore.

Humans like to shine a spotlight on such a rock and then go at it with a magnifying glass and tweezers. We fuss and poke at it. We repeat the poking behavior again and again, as if doing the same thing will magically get a different result. Instead we prove our wrongness again and again.

Horses, on the other hand, don’t keep secrets well. And they have just one way to communicate with us, and that is with their behavior. So sometimes an honest horse behaves badly and we might try to take control and correct him, when all he wanted us to know was that his back hurt. Or that he was tired. They act out their discomfort in a version of equine charades, trying to get us to listen and we tell them to shut up and keep working. Sigh.

It’s so rare that I see a horse willfully disobey. Usually something is hurting them. It could look like simple confusion about the cue but we are so rat-on-a-wheel focused on getting the right answer that we hurry the horse and interrupt him right about the time he was just ready to answer, and then do that a few more times, until the horse is totally out of balance–anticipating and resisting at the same time.  Horses really struggle when cues contradict each other. Especially if that something still hurts.

But by now you have driven your horse nuts, at least temporarily, because you keep poking at  your little thorny rock instead of hearing what he said in the first place.

Reminder: If your horse is laid back, calm and never complains about anything, listen extra-carefully. It isn’t that nothing bothers him; he’s just as sensitive as any other horse but when other horses come apart, he shuts down. Don’t mistake his silence for agreement.

One of the few things we humans have in common with horses is fluid communication. We have a hundred meanings for the same vague word, just like horses have a hundred meanings for an ear movement. To understand horses, we need to understand that individual horse’s entire body language. It’s a lot to take in, and then it can change in a heartbeat. Any five people might come away with a different, and not entirely wrong, message. Sound complicated? It is, and since we have that razor-sharp mind for turning possible symptoms into huge training issues, half-halt your brain to listen with a wide open, creative intellect. Let your heart have a listen as well.

Too often we humans micro-manage a small situation with fear or anxiety or an unrelenting need for perfection. Any horse will get the “I can’t please her no matter how I try” feeling and the conversation stops once we make the horse wrong. Then he gives up connection and we are left staring at our small thorny rock.

My advice is to get a horse-sized view of the situation.

First, do no harm–is he sound? Don’t just nod, look at the big picture and really check. How are his teeth? They impact his TMJ, and pain in the poll is enough to ruin his balance and that  ruins everything else. He can have a “tooth lameness” that destroys his canter. No kidding.

Is he muscle or joint sore? It’s another huge question with no quick answer. It would be easier to ignore it, tighten the girth, and push him on. But that might be how you got in this fight in the first place.

Then take a wider environmental view. Is a weather front coming? Have there been changes in the barn? Could he be missing someone or up all night partying with a new friend? Is he uncomfortable because his stomach is empty enough that painful acid is splashing? If it isn’t immediately obvious, give him a break.

Always know his life is much bigger than the moments you’re in the saddle.

A wise vet told me once that diagnosing lameness, (or anything else for that matter,) is like pulling skin off of an onion. There is always another layer just underneath. That’s why it feels like fixing one thing makes another thing come apart. That’s just horses. We’d do well to get used to it because the wider and more inclusive view we take of every aspect of their lives, the better partner we become.

Most of all, remember this: Horses are honest. There’s no reason to think he is trying to deceive you and it’s Neanderthal thinking to insist you have to win every fight. Listen and give him the benefit of the doubt. Earn his trust–by trusting him first.

And then take a walk together and breathe. More problems are solved at the walk that anyone–but a horse–would ever guess.

Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.

Please consider following my author blog at www.annablake.com for news of my upcoming book. Thanks for your support.

Weekly Photo Challenge: The Hue of You

WMshadesofgray

Infinity Farm is a pretty colorful place, a vibrant palette of sky and landscape, with bold, iridescent personalities in our herd of many species. I still think our overall hue is gray, somewhere between black and white on the continuum. Gray is the color of fog and deception, or in our case, this in-between hue is the color of perception, nuance, and finesse.

When I was younger I saw the world with strict simplicity, in limited lines of black or white. Now I languish in gray, fascinated to listen and articulate more clearly, all the while knowing that for each of us, young, old or donkey, communication is the most creative and valuable art of all.

Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.

WordPress Photo Challenge is a weekly prompt to share a photo- I enjoy twisting these macro prompts to share our micro life here on the Colorado prairie. My photos are taken with my phone. No psych, definitely not high-tech.