Flashback Friday: Do You Hear What I See?
I’ve been teaching, lately. Not just the horses, but a human who wants to know them. As Ironman spends more time among the Barbs, I find myself articulating scraps of horsemanship I’ve picked up over the years. One of the most important was featured in this Flashback Friday post from spring 2008:
DO YOU HEAR WHAT I SEE? (Originally published March 14, 2008)
I can’t walk past a window on the north side of my house without glancing out at the horses. This frequent, subconscious check on their well-being has led to the early interception of several minor colics over the years.
Yesterday evening, I glanced out the master bedroom window just in time to see Ripple lowering her hind hoof as if from a kick at her own belly. I paused, felt the familiar singing of my nerves as I watched her pivot and lie down to roll. Lying sternal, she turned muzzle to flank.
I reached for my boots, already ticking off a plan to gather stethoscope, thermometer, and cell phone, as she lurched back to her feet and shook dust from her mane. Looking annoyed, she twisted her neck and nipped at the point of her shoulder. My own shoulders relaxed a bit. Just an itch?
Ripple marched over to Sandstorm, who shared her paddock. The older mare reached right for Ripple’s chest and raked the skin with her teeth. As Ripple’s ears flopped sideways, my frown gave way to a bemused smile.
How do they do that? Sandstorm obviously understood Ripple’s problem as clearly as a human friend does when you say, “Just left of my spine, a little lower…ahhhh, there!”
Indeed, horses are masters of communication through body language, and therein lies one of the great secrets of training. We humans, intent as we are upon our many words, too easily forget that vocalization means relatively little to an equine.
Early last year, I self-imposed a ban on nearly all verbal communication while working with horses. I made one exception for “whoa,” which I like to make a part of every horse as surely as his lungs or heart or hooves are part of him, but everything else I wanted to say, I communicated strictly via the angle of my body, the slump of my shoulders or thrust of my chest, the speed of my breathing and focus of my eyes, the giving and taking of physical space.
And the world opened up. The horses responded with greater willingness and accuracy. They grew more attentive, quicker in their responses. As our relationships deepened, they seemed to read my very thoughts.
I like to do a lot of liberty work in the round corral, asking for gait changes, inside and outside turns, consecutive circles off the rail, figure eights, small and large circles around me, and even spins. It is a dance in which one movement flows into the next, pulses rise, hooves pound, and our two consciousnesses merge. Often, I do no more than picture the next step and, before I give the command, the horse performs.
This is the subtlety of which horses are capable — to see my body prepare to move while the impulse is still en route from my brain. Imagine what we could achieve if we humans were so observant!
Fortunately for us, horses are generous creatures, tolerant of our inept social skills and appreciative our smallest successes. A few days ago, I was working with Acey when she, like Ripple, became frustrated by an unreachable itch. I obliged her with a scratch, and the resultant lick of her lips said “thank you” — loud and clear.