Thursday, February 6, 2020

Body Language 101: the Value of Quiet Work

by Mary Gallagher

Nina and Mary working quietly.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the deeper aspects of communicating with our horses. We all know, more or less, that we humans tend to express ourselves with words, and that horses are more about body language. Most of us are accustomed to our horses watching and responding to us in our daily interactions. For an obvious example, your  horse notices when your hand enters your pocket, right? and responds by asking for a treat? Or when picking out your horses feet—does he offer his hoof to you before you ask? or even better, does he shift his weight as you prepare to ask? If your horse can do this, how much more might he perceive?

Things go along pretty well as we use all the horsemanship tools we’ve been given to direct the actions of our horses. We even call it ‘schooling’, with us as the teacher and the horse as the student. Horses pretty much buy into being schooled, as they are hard-wired to accept leadership. But if we really pay attention as we school our horses, we may discover that they are teachers in their own right. How many times have we thought we have things going pretty well, only to have our horse show us something we missed? Or maybe it’s just that we aren’t getting the result we were looking for, and despite our best efforts, we seem to be at an impasse…?

Learning through being quiet. Lately I have found deeper connection, communication, and cooperation with my horses by staying quiet while we are working—not talking, not clucking, or making any noise at all. I am finding that by managing myself in this way, my body language is much more focused, clear and effective. It's gratifying as well as fascinating to see my horses watching and trusting what my body is saying. I mean, I already knew this, right? I teach it? Well…. there’s always more to learn and I am here to say that it gets even better as I re-commit to quieting down and paying closer attention.

Let’s break it down into voice and thought (yes, thought—bear with me).

Voice. I’ve come to think of the voice as a distraction for horse and human. Think about it: the horse has just a few "words"—familiar, expressive sounds—a quiet nicker of greeting, a squeal with head up, a whinny from afar, blowing out with head high or head low. And we humans are full of things to say. Even when we switch from friendly chatter as we groom, to quieter ground work or riding, we tend to talk to our horses. We often augment our actions with vocal commands, even if we are disciplined enough not to talk to our horses as if they were our kids, office mates, hired help (ahem, the list goes on).

How to practice: I’d invite you, next time you are alone with your horse, to try using no verbal commands or ongoing chatter. Slow your body language down so it is distinguishable and clear. When your horse gives, you release, even a little. Let both of you enjoy that moment of connection, before going on to the next thing, or even repeating the same thing.

Thought. This one seems a bit esoteric, until we stop and consider again what we humans bring to the party—usually a semi-conscious bundle of preconceptions regarding what we’ll be doing today (and that’s if we are fairly focused equestrians). Of course it’s good to have plans and an idea of what we’ll be doing; what I am talking about happens when we start the doing—the map and then the actual territory. Not only words and sounds, but our very thoughts can interfere with our connection and communication.

Let me back up and say that by ‘thoughts’ I mean the way we assign meanings to what we see. Observation is what we do and what the horse is doing, moment by moment. It’s the almost instantaneous jumping to conclusions that messes us up.

(Yes, horses do this, too. There are wolves hiding behind that part of the fence, and that door slamming signals threat! I am talking about us humans, here.)

It is easy for us to get distracted by our imposed meanings about what is happening. It is worthwhile noticing how much time we are spending time proving  our preconceived opinions and not seeing the body language pictures the horse is offering us.

How to practice: Spend some time with this idea, I think you will find it’s true. Start with how you habitually think about your horse, explain his behavior, describe challenges you face, etc. See what you notice about yourself. See if you can separate it from what you notice about your horse. If you can do this, you are on the way to better connection and communication.

Mary and Nina practice quiet work.

Meeting the horse where and how he is. The next step is to understand and respect that your horse is always communicating with you. Horses naturally test what we ask them to do, to better understand our intentions. They do this by making subtle changes in their movements to see if we alter ours. It’s what horses do, 24/7. The only way they can test our meaning is with their body language and if we are distracted with our own internal noise and non-stop thoughts, we miss the silent and often obvious responses from our horse through his body.

Horses have an uncanny ability to recognize specific body language and emotions, which requires us to simplify our movement so we don’t over-stimulate the horse. This is why speaking can be so troublesome when working with the horse. We humans put a lot of emotion in our speech, and are pretty unconscious about our bodies. When we realize that our horse is reading our body moment by moment, we need to close our mouths and wake up with our bodies in order to express our intentions and emotion in a way he can understand immediately.

For instance, if we want our horse to be calmer, we need to put that into our body language, not our voice. I’ve heard riders yell “whoa!” while their body is saying “Oh NO, I’m scared!” (Or frustrated, or mad.) This is hugely confusing to the horse.

The challenge: develop a consistent recognizable language. I have been working on developing basic body language to help my students better connect with their horses, and my next article will share a set of postures and movements that help. They are very simple, but challenging to master because they require us to be present, precise, and consistent.

I should note that my students are generally bright, capable, caring, articulate people who are surprised to learn just how confusing they can be to their horses (who love them anyway). Each session brings challenge and insight for all of us, horses and humans, and we all learn and grow in a supportive environment.

Recently we’ve been talking about how our human ability to see the end product of an exercise can lead us to overdo it with our horses. We need to understand that the horse cannot conceptualize success as we do, which means that we need to learn specific and consistent body language. We can hold a clear picture of what we are asking, learn to embody that picture, and observe as our horse puts the pieces together a little bit at a time. It is amazing how much the horse wants to please, and how pausing to appreciate each small success can mean everything.

More on that, next time.

Want help putting these ideas into practice? Mary Gallagher is available to help you on your horsemanship journey, in person or limited online coaching. Friday Horsemanship Class at Freedom Farm in Port Angeles, Washington is a great way to start, including ground and riding. Contact Mary to discuss possibilities!

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