Thursday, September 2, 2021

Readable Neutral: the art of slowing ourselves down and allowing our horse to communicate

By Mary Gallagher

Readable Neutral exercise
Getting in sync, around the box slowly...
In our horsemanship ground class last week, we were debriefing after an exercise emphasizing real connection with our horses—literally getting in sync with their energy, rather than insisting they get in sync with ours. We had been working with this idea in earlier classes, and this week, we all seemed to get to the next level. Each student had their own insights, and as we reflected on our progress one commented, “Gosh, you can do everything ‘right’ and still not connect!”

In a nutshell, yeah! Let me put it this way—if you are constantly asking something of your horse, you are not connected. Connection is felt as much as observed; it happens when you do things together and both parties are relaxed. If we are busy directing, micromanaging, interrupting, and changing what the horse is offering then we will miss connection entirely. What we want is to find a neutral stance—a readable neutrality that allows the horse time to try things, and us time to see what he’d trying, and respond in a way that is in sync with him and encourages next steps.

Finding neutral. Connection is found when we become neutral—stilling our own impulse to do something and allowing us to take in what the horse is doing. The key lies in developing our ability to observe: when you are a good observer you can see and feel ‘of the horse’—how he is reacting to your input, what he is asking or suggesting. When we see clearly, prior to reacting, we are far less likely to micromanage and make huge changes that disconnect us from our horse. We become OK to allow things to happen, allowing the horse the opportunity to manage his own comfort without our help.

By nature a horse tests everything. He observes what is happening in his surroundings— including our body language and how we respond to his tests. Horses are so good at observing and testing that they can do very little and get you to do a lot! Most of us fall into that ploy pretty quickly. We tend to be reactive and a bit defensive, in the guise of being in charge and trying to express leadership through constant micromanagement. The result of that cycle of ‘test and react’ can be frustrating for us and our horse, creating a reinforcing loop. But if we slow ourselves down, still our bodies, and learn to “observe, observe, observe”, we can actually find joy in watching the horse processing and testing, and we can try subtle changes, looking for a different response.

As we become better observers we will notice more, discover more possibilities, and generally experience a more agreeable way of communicating with our horse that invokes cooperation. If we look for what the horse is offering and then (and only then) offer our own communication within those parameters—then we can begin growing the connection through communication and cooperation.

Calm, clear, consistent. Horses’ first language is body language; unlike the human, they are very good at it and are watching our bodies all the time in order to test the safety of the situation. If our bodies are always in motion due to correcting the horse frequently, then there is no ‘readable neutral’ for the horse to connect to. They are very adept at synchronizing; they look for opportunities to synchronize as a way to find comfort. So it’s our job to understand the horse’s perspective and methods, and adapt our own to connect our worlds and work in a way that’s understandable to us both.

Back to our horsemanship class: For the students, understanding the above meant realizing that too often, they reacted to their horse’s test by trying to stop them from “making a mistake”, such as stepping into the boundary box, or stopping before being asked, etc. We had a good laugh over one student’s comment that she’d been “flailing”, raising both arms, waving her training stick, and moving her own feet in response to whatever test the horse presented. She intended to be a good leader, keeping them both on task, keeping the horse focused, etc., but alas, that so often was not the result!

“…with any of my horses, I try to focus not on what they’re not doing, but to focus on what they are doing, and what they are offering, and going from there instead of having an agenda.” -Jenenne & Sabre

We also agreed when another student shared that she is working harder at not being critical when she’s observing her horse, but rather looking for the things that the horse is already offering, beginning her communication in a more neutral place. And that’s what it’s all about: “Observe, observe, observe.” Only when we create that window of observation do we give ourselves the space to see what’s going on for the horse, and respond accordingly and in sync with his world.

For the horse, it’s much more like being in the herd—a place of clarity and safety. For us, it’s a way of waking up and being present in each moment—something horses understand well. Ironically for the human, finding ‘readable neutral’ undoes the numbness of habits that served us in the past but are keeping us from growing now. I highly recommend it.

Mary Gallagher teaches her horsemanship class every Friday at Freedom Farm in Port Angeles, Washington.

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