The value of a voiceless day...
If you’ve ever read any of my past blogs you can probably imagine that in person I talk a lot. It is always a challenge as an instructor to convey to the student exactly ALL of the information I want to offer in a single session. Amazingly my voice holds up over my 3-5 day long clinics (thanks to the best-investment-ever PA system I have)… But usually once a year I’ll lose my voice for 2-3 days. Although it can be annoying, I find it can be a great reminder forcing us to raise our awareness in how to best communicate with other people when we can’t talk, so too could we use that same awareness in how we interact with our horses.
It is also the time of year in which I invariably get a few calls about young horses that are progressing in their education and have “suddenly” started acting dangerously; bucking, kicking, bolting in response to something their rider has asked of them… I find (and perhaps this comes from WAY too many hours spent pondering as I mow the property on the tractor and the riding mower) that there is a relationship in the various ways people “react” to my having no voice and how they attempt to interact with me, to being similar in how people approuch working with their horses in using “body language” when we communicate. I know the comparison may seem a little odd, but bear with me.
The times I have lost my voice and have been around young children, when they realize my voice is gone and I can only barely whisper, I’ve noticed an entire change in the child’s mannerisms. Behaviors such as responding to me in a whisper because I’m whispering, or literally changing their posture into a more “submissive” manner with their shoulders rolled forward and head slightly hunkered down as if they were telling me a secret when we were “talking.” There also seems to be a slow tentativeness in their behavior such as when passing me an item or taking something from me.
I find the same goes with young horses. Horses are born with a curiosity that all too often humans diminish rather than support. But initially that young colt or filly is curious about everything. You go out to fix the fence, pull weeds, etc. and if you do it long enough, eventually that youngster will come over and inspect your activities. If you’re “hunkered down” fixing fence, they will actually lower their posture as they inspect what you are doing. Now they may bolt off and then come back again, but there will be gentleness to their curiosity.
Back to the days of no voice, when interacting with teenagers, at first there is a shock that I have no voice, and then you can almost see the impulsive, mischievous thought, “So if she can’t talk, then maybe I could __________.” They may not actually act on that thought, but any initial intentions tend to be focused on restraining themselves from acting on those thoughts that might get them in trouble. Then as they continue to interact, they will often come up with a sudden bunch of answers for you every time they ask you a question. But none of their answers will really be appropriate and most will just be a result of them brainlessly talking.
All too often from a horse’s two to four year old age, which is usually the most common time people really start to handle, saddle and start young horses, the horses wind up getting anticipative while they get more “creative” in how they are reacting to the human. The horse doesn’t really mentally slow down, so they wind up with a lot of excessive movement and chaotic thoughts, which eventually leads to them scaring themselves and not feeling too good around the human. Because of the anticipation, they get defensive, usually by starting to offer dangerous behavior as a preventative measure to stop the human from asking more of the horse.
When voiceless and dealing with humans who are in their 20s-30s, often when they realize I can’t speak out loud, they tend to immediately “shut down” and end any form of communication, as if to say, “Since you can’t ‘talk’ there is no point in interacting.”
Often with horses from 5-10 years old they will have enough confidence and exposure to “get by” in how they interact with humans, but they have started to become accustomed to patternized behavior in how people interact with them and what performance is expected of them. These patternized horses that often are calm and “quiet,” can suddenly turn into a fire breathing dragon when something is presented in a way they are unaccustmed to. People don’t realize how their complacency in working "routines" with their horse can actually teach their horse’s brain to “shut down” towards anything new.
When dealing with people in their 40s and 50s when I have no voice, they tend to become the “let me do it for you” sorts… Meaning, that if I have no voice, in their good efforts and intentions, they will take over “all decision making” as if my ability to do that was directly related to whether or not I had a voice. If you show signs that you do not want them to takeover, they tend to blow you off and continue.
Take a horse in their early to mid-teens and often their rider is someone re-entering the horse world after years of “having a life with school, work, and family” and now finally have to time to get back in the saddle. All too often this group of riders has fantasized so long about “how it used to be” that they often lack the ability to really “see” what their horse is communicating to them. They tend to assume they always understand and “know what is best” for the horse. This can often lead to another version of “mentally shut down horses” that are old and mature enough to have the patience to put up with their riders ignoring them. But they also are the group of horses that many times wind up having harsher bits, spurs, crops, etc. in order to get a response from them because they are “dull” or “stubborn”.
When dealing with older folks while I don’t have a voice, at first they think it is them that is having the problem in hearing me. Then they realize it is me that can’t speak. Then their eyes light up, as if they have nothing else to think about, and all the time in the world to “play” guess-what-I’m-trying-to-communicate. They have the time and enthusiasm and can usually decipher what I’m conveying pretty quickly.
The older folks who interact with horses of all ages often have quality relationships because they aren’t in a “rush” to hurry up and accomplish anything. That doesn’t mean that they don’t have goals, but often they enjoy the process of getting to the end goal, rather than just value in the sole accomplishment of the goal. They also tend to notice a lot more of what is “going on” with their horse, even if they aren’t sure what to do about it. If things don’t go “as planned” they don’t get stressed out. Their horses also tend to respond a lot more positively to change and trying new stuff.
So my point is, we affect and have the ability to influence every moment of how we interact with our horse. The slower and more open minded we are, the greater the opportunity to take the time to really “see” what is going on. Somehow I think being able to communicate vocally in the rest of our life, allows us to rush in our intentions, energy and movement when we work with our horses. If for one day we had to rely more on our senses and pay attention to what we were actually doing, we might re-sensitize OURSELVES and be in awe of the mirror affect it would have on our horses.