Speak­ing the lan­guage of horses

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The new book Horses in Trans­la­tion shows how the Horse Speak sys­tem can lead to hap­pier and more pro­duc­tive eques­trian part­ner­ships.

Horse Speak is both a sci­ence and an art. There is a sci­ence to the me­chan­ics of mov­ing your body in spe­cific ways to com­mu­ni­cate. The art of Horse Speak de­vel­ops when a per­son be­comes flu­ent enough to re­spond to nu­ance.

For horses to be­lieve our body lan­guage, we must match our in­sides with our out­sides. Try­ing to hide an emo­tion---like fear, for ex­am­ple---will never work, be­cause horses are uniquely clued in to the in­ner state of a preda­tor species (that would be us). You can­not lie to a horse. It is, there­fore, more use­ful to sim­ply ac­knowl­edge and la­bel the emo­tion you might be ex­pe­ri­enc­ing than to try to hide it or ig­nore it. Your horse does not care if you are feel­ing a par­tic­u­lar emo­tion---he only cares that you are hon­est. Many of my stu­dents have found that by ar­riv­ing at the barn and im­me­di­ately telling the horses all about their daily stress, they feel bet­ter---and achiev­ing con­gru­ency in­side and out in­stantly calls the horses to them.

The “leader” of the herd is the horse with the calmest nerves, the most at­tuned senses and the sharpest mind. Horses do not thrive on stress; in fact, it wears them down. For a herd to be healthy, its mem­bers need to stay in that state of mind I call Zero. Be­cause peo­ple have so many at­tach­ments to la­bels, words and mean­ings, telling some­one to “stay calm” may have the op­po­site ef­fect. I use the word Zero to sim­ply mean be­ing in a state of in­ner calm; that is the kind of lead­er­ship your horse is look­ing for.

Lead like a “Mom”

Lead­er­ship is not the same thing as dom­i­nance. No animal claims to­tal do­min­ion over an­other animal as a rule of thumb, ex­cept for hu­mans. Within a herd, pack or flock, mem­bers all form links in a chain, and the strength of the com­mu­nity is the most im­por­tant part of the whole. The most im­por­tant el­e­ment is not, as some be­lieve, the “al­pha role”---what­ever that is. The man who coined the phrase “al­pha wolf,” David Mech, later re­canted that idea. As his stud­ies of wolves pro­gressed, he came to un­der­stand that the be­hav­ior and roles in a pack were more nu­anced and sub­tle.

In the wild, the strong­est male is

The new book Horses in Trans­la­tion shows how the Horse Speak sys­tem can lead to hap­pier and more pro­duc­tive eques­trian part­ner­ships. By Sharon Wilsie

usu­ally the one who earns breed­ing rights, which en­sures good genes for the ba­bies. Other than dur­ing mat­ing sea­son, how­ever, large males are not nec­es­sar­ily the lead­ers. Most of­ten packs, herds and other large groups have strong fe­male lead­er­ship or are en­tirely made up of fe­males, as you find in ele­phant herds. The group fo­cus is on mu­tual safety, ca­ma­raderie and com­mu­nity. The daily life of most animal groups is con­cerned with get­ting enough food, shel­ter and wa­ter and watch­ing out for each other. Wild an­i­mals do not want to waste pre­cious en­ergy bick­er­ing, and so­cial groups have a wide va­ri­ety of sys­tems to en­sure the peace and quiet that sup­ports the health and vi­tal­ity of the group and avoids at­tract­ing preda­tors.

Our do­mes­tic horses live in box stalls and fields or pad­docks that are sur­rounded by fences. There is a lim­ited amount of ex­pe­ri­ence young horses get out in the wide world. That is where we come in. If a horse has never been on a trail ride, his first one may be com­pletely over­whelm­ing. Mom never got to teach him how to han­dle the woods, or the rocks, or the fallen logs.

Horses map their sur­round­ings in their heads; it is one of their sur­vival skills. If Mom gets turned out in a new pas­ture with her baby, she scans the hori­zon, sniffs the fence line and tours the area to see what is what. If she tenses up for any rea­son dur­ing this ex­plo­ration, her baby is sup­posed to freeze and wait for her to say, “All clear!” or “RUN!”

The lead­er­ship role that is the eas­i­est for hu­mans to pick up and em­u­late is that of the mother. Note that this is not to be con­fused with treat­ing your horse like a baby; in fact, “baby­ish” horses (like the 18-year-old Thor­ough­bred who acts like a year­ling) will be­gin to “grow up” if you be­come “Mom.” Tak­ing on the lead­er­ship role that Mom left be­hind means you be­gin to fin­ish ful­fill­ing the horse’s need to fol­low the most im­por­tant be­ing in his life. You will be able to in­flu­ence bound­aries, bond­ing and de­ci­sion­mak­ing. You will be able to use the same kind of lead­er­ship his mother did to help him make new maps of the world, learn bet­ter, and feel calmer and more cen­tered (that all-im­por­tant Zero).

With the wide va­ri­ety of ac­tiv­i­ties in which we usu­ally ask our horses to par­tic­i­pate, of­fer­ing the role of lead­er­ship that en­cap­su­lates clear, calm, as­sertive­ness is a good idea.

The horse’s zero

Many horses have lost their Zero due to long-term stress. Horses can­not find this state of in­ner calm for them­selves once they’ve reached this point, but when we make Zero our goal for our­selves in ev­ery sit­u­a­tion, the horses find their way back, too.

Since he can­not usu­ally ei­ther fight or flee from peo­ple, the do­mes­tic horse some­times re­sponds by freez­ing in de­pres­sion, con­fu­sion or anx­i­ety. He might also act out: Stomp­ing, nip­ping, fid­get­ing, head-toss­ing and rub­bing on you are al­ways in­dica­tive of a horse los­ing his Zero. A healthy, well-bal­anced horse does not need to “de-stress him­self” by act­ing out.

Rather than start­ing by ad­dress­ing each lit­tle is­sue with a horse (crowd­ing, paw­ing, pac­ing the stall), I aim straight for re­turn­ing him to Zero. I find prob­lem be­hav­iors of­ten lit­er­ally melt away as in­ner calm is re­turned to the horse. A calm horse is one who can pay at­ten­tion, learn and per­form as a part­ner. He

When a horse is calm, he is happy. If you help your horse feel happy, he will seek to please you and will of­fer so much in re­turn.

will of­fer to be with us in ex­change for feel­ing this good in our pres­ence.

To il­lus­trate this, think about be­ing a kid in school and get­ting called up to the front of the class to an­swer a ques­tion. The stress of be­ing put on the spot might cause you to freeze; maybe you can’t even re­mem­ber the ques­tion. Stand­ing there, sweat­ing, pan­ick­ing, and feel­ing worse by the mo­ment is not a good as­so­ci­a­tion with the les­son. Now imag­ine the teacher starts yelling at you or be­lit­tling you for not know­ing the an­swer!

Most of us, how­ever, had at least one teacher in school who was calm and un­der­stand­ing. That teacher might be fondly re­mem­bered, her im­age basked in a warm glow in your mind as you feel grat­i­tude for the time you spent with her. Her own in­ner state of calm en­gen­dered the same in you, and this made it pos­si­ble for you to not only learn more, but also ea­ger to please and ca­pa­ble of per­form­ing bet­ter in the class­room.

When a horse is calm, he is happy. If you help your horse feel happy, he will seek to please you and will of­fer so much in re­turn.

How Horse Speak in­flu­ences train­ing

I con­sider “train­ing” what­ever it is that you en­joy about horse­man­ship. Whether you like driv­ing or trail rid­ing or jump­ing or dres­sage, train­ing is the “work” you ask your horse to per­form with you.

Most of us work with other peo­ple, and we know there is a time to be busy and fo­cused on your job, and there are also mo­ments to “hang out at the wa­ter cooler” and talk. In ad­di­tion, we know that when there is a work-re­lated ques­tion, you of course must com­mu­ni­cate with oth­ers to ask it as well as be pre­pared to re­ceive and un­der­stand the an­swer. With Horse Speak, you should be­gin to be able to not only “hang out at the wa­ter cooler” and talk to your horse, but also de­code what work-re­lated ques­tions your horse may have for you, then ef­fec­tively com­mu­ni­cate your an­swers back to him.

Although Horse Speak may cause you to re-eval­u­ate what you are do­ing with your horse or how you are do­ing it, it doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily need to be con­sid­ered an al­ter­na­tive to the kind of train­ing you pre­fer or en­joy. This ed­u­ca­tion can sup­ple­ment your rid­ing, driv­ing or ground­work, al­low­ing you to gain clar­ity and in­sight into how to help your horse de­velop into the po­ten­tial you feel he re­ally has. Horse Speak will also help you be­come the per­son your horse needs you to be.

I have suc­cess­fully ap­plied Horse Speak in con­junc­tion with a wide va­ri­ety of train­ing modal­i­ties. Fre­quently, rid­ers gain a com­pletely new per­spec­tive when it comes to their work with their horses.

When a horse senses that you are re­ally try­ing to un­der­stand him, he is fre­quently so grate­ful that he seeks con­nec­tion with you in new and sur­pris­ing ways.

Dreams and re­al­ity

Horse Speak can help you and your horse reach the po­ten­tial that you each have within you to be­come the best ver­sions of your­selves. How­ever, Horse Speak can­not mag­i­cally turn your horse into a dif­fer­ent horse.

If you want a Ger­man Shep­herd, don’t buy a Poo­dle. Horses are who and what they are. As you grow to­gether with your horse, you may need

If you want a Ger­man Shep­herd, don’t buy a Poo­dle. Horses are who and what they are.

to re-as­sess what mo­ti­vates you to be a horseper­son. We all have a dream in the back of our mind, but we are still liv­ing in the here and now. Some dreams can come true, and some dreams are just the flash­ing light, point­ing you in a di­rec­tion you needed to go. But they are not the goal it­self.

Of all the dreams I have ever heard peo­ple talk­ing about, even­tu­ally most peo­ple re­al­ize that all they re­ally want is to feel at home in­side them­selves and with their horses. Big goals are fun, and dreams that come true can be fun, too. But horses don’t know about the pic­ture in the back of your mind that they are sup­posed to live up to. By dou­ble-check­ing your agenda, you clear the path to be able to take a long walk with your horse with as much gusto as win­ning the grand prize. Maybe tak­ing the long walk is your grand prize.

Too of­ten, we see a per­for­mance of one sort or an­other, and we are look­ing at the power, beauty or level of train­ing of a horse. We are “look­ing at the pony,” feel­ing the “wow” fac­tor, but per­haps not in tune to what is un­der­neath. Tak­ing the time to un­der­stand and use Horse Speak means you will start to see through any Wiz­ard-of-Oz clev­er­ness: Who is re­ally be­hind the cur­tain? Is there a feel­ing of joy or stress? What does a happy horse re­ally look like?

Ex­cite­ment does not in­her­ently mean hap­pi­ness. Ex­cite­ment can ap­pear fun, but one can be ex­cited and scared, as well. Hap­pi­ness for a nat­u­rally in­tense animal like a horse means that his ner­vous sys­tem is not all fired up; it means he is deeply re­laxed.

When I play rous­ing lib­erty games with my horse Dakota, she may en­joy rear­ing or trot­ting a half-pass or rolling a big ball. Her face may look al­most fierce, with back­ward-fac­ing, con­cen­trat­ing ears and an arched, high poll. How­ever, as soon as the in­ten­sity is over, it is over: if I hold my palm to­ward her fore­head and nod my head down­ward, blow­ing out a deep breath, she low­ers her head, and blows out, too. We never lost Zero just be­cause we be­came ex­u­ber­ant. Her happy place is to stand very still, breath­ing deeply with me and maybe lick­ing my palm.

When a horse has his Zero, then any other kind of per­for­mance you seek to en­joy with him is truly a shared ex­pe­ri­ence be­cause both horse and hu­man are deeply con­nected on the in­side, not just do­ing some­thing to­gether on the out­side. This is where it all be­gins.

About the au­thor: Sharon Wilsie is a pro­fes­sional animal trainer and re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion ex­pert who reg­u­larly works with horses for pri­vate clients and at equine res­cues. She de­vel­ops and teaches equine-as­sisted learn­ing pro­grams at the high school and col­lege level. Wilsie is also a Reiki Mas­ter/Teacher. Her book Horse Speak: The Equine-Hu­man Trans­la­tion Guide is an in­ter­na­tional best­seller. She runs Wilsie Way Horse­man­ship from her base in West­min­ster, Vermont.

By dou­ble-check­ing your agenda, you clear the path to be able to take a long walk with your horse with as much gusto as win­ning the grand prize. Maybe tak­ing the long walk is your grand prize.

“New Guy on the Job” Joni Bein­born www.jon­isponies.com.

“Hadley,” Pri­vate Col­lec­tion, Johns Is­land, South Carolina Jan Lukens www.jan­lukens.com

“Red Stone Saucer” Don Weller www.don­weller.com

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