We all wish we knew exactly what our horses were saying to us. Is that a nicker of welcome, or just, “Bring me breakfast”? Are you walking away because you want me to follow, or because you are tired of my company? Are you rubbing against me out of affection or to put me in my place?
In the fall of 2017, horse trainer and rehabilitation specialist Sharon Wilsie took the international horse world by storm with her system of “Horse Speak” and the bestselling book by the same name. It offered a practical approach to “listening” and “talking” to horses in their language instead of expecting them to comprehend ours. In her book Horses in Translation, Wilsie offers new angles to her ideas and true stories that demonstrate their effectiveness.
As human beings, we like to talk about stuff, name stuff, and we like to tell stories about stuff.
However, horses do not objectify the way we do. We name everything, and knowing the names of things gives us a certain sense of control and power over the world. If we walk into a room, our brain names all the objects there—door, window, wall, rocking chair, book, cat, and so on—because when we “know what that is,” we no longer fear it. Just think: If you were abducted by aliens and opened your eyes to find yourself on a spaceship, imagine how terrifying it would be to look around at a bunch of strange objects and not be able to identify them.
We use our reason to objectify and generalize the world and do not need a direct experience of things to understand them. Horses, however, are the opposite of this. They exist in a river of experience that they are constantly aware of—and commenting about. They are sensory machines. All their senses are firing at high levels to keep them constantly hyper-aware of their environment.
So, if a horse expresses concern about his world right in the middle of a “conversation” we are having with him, all other thoughts must be put on hold while we address his concerns. Luckily, the more successful we are in retraining ourselves to do this, the more secure horses feel about the world. This brings nearly an end to spooking, and when a spook does happen, horses tend to regroup with us, rather than believing they need to escape from us.
Learning to observe
It is common practice to look at a horse and immediately analyze his features or parse what he can or can’t do. We need to realize that fixating on a horse’s features, for example, limits our ability to show up the way a horse needs us to—present, honest, and calm.
I have often told an owner not to talk about her horse right in front of him. If she wants to tell me a story about his behavior, I suggest we do it outside the barn. On countless occasions I have witnessed a horse begin pinning his ears, prancing around, and fidgeting as his human gets stirred up and fixated on the details of the horse’s backstory. Horses are masters at observing proprioceptive shifts—the almost imperceptible changes in our bodies when we get emotional. We must attempt to observe the horse’s micro-movements, too, but many people find it challenging to stop the internal dialogue and just be present, allowing themselves to see what is really there, in front of them, without editorializing. Learning to observe without a “little note-taker” in the back of your mind, comparing everything to everything else and asking, “Why?” all the time, takes practice. Taking notes and asking “Why?” in a broader context is fine, but the goal here is to try to suspend it while you are learning to observe.
Is it anthropomorphism?
We base most of our decisions on feelings, and whether we like it or not, we can get offended or frustrated with horses simply because we have assigned them anthropomorphic qualities: “He knows what he should do, he’s just being stubborn.” “Don’t let him get away with it, he’s trying to fool you.” “Horses are inherently lazy—you must get after them.” “He’s not respecting you.” And: “He’s my big baby!” “He takes such good care of me.” “He’s such a ham.”
And so on and so forth.
These are all common misinterpretations of behavior seen in the horse world, and they unfortunately drive a great deal of what we do with our horses. The fact is, we anthropomorphize because both humans and horses are mammals and we both have feelings: attachments, conflicts, and the desire to feel safe, as a few examples. But when we assign human emotions to a horse’s reactions, that is often where the source of conflict comes in. The problem is not whether an animal’s feelings are valid in a laboratory—none of us lives in a laboratory! The problem is reading and interpreting animal body language for what it is as accurately as we can without dumping our preconceived notions all over it.
Horses not only have feelings, they are feeling-based creatures. The way they feel is one of the things that draws us to them. Horses have horse emotions, and humans have human ones, but together we can share the best of ourselves, when we learn how. What Horse Speak offers is a way to clarify both our observations and our ability to interpret them.
This excerpt from Horses in Translation by Sharon Wilsie is reprinted with permission from Trafalgar Square Books (www.horseandriderbooks.com).