Riding high on horse-human communication
Susan Salk and Jim Stellar
Susan is a professional writer and we became friends at our previous jobs. Recently, we began talking about the blog and how interesting it is that animals and humans seem to be able to communicate well. People think you are talking about dogs when you say that, but nothing represents this interaction better than horses. Sue sent me the following note after a recent talk.
As a professional writer, some the biggest strides I’ve made in communications have taken place on horseback.
While approaching a 2-foot six-inch jump astride Diana, a Thoroughbred, for example, we move at a slow gallop, (a canter, in equestrian terms), and our brains and bodies work together toward a common goal of clearing the fence cleanly and safely. Neither of us wants to fall, and we know this.
As the ground zips past and the jump comes into focus, Diana moves her ears from an “I’m listening” position (one ear forward, one back) — the recognized signal among equestrians that the horse is paying attention to rider signals — to a both-ears-forward position, indicating she is locked onto the jump ahead.
I make several moves to signal her I am readying for take off, moves she has come to recognize over years of working with humans — I shift to a “jumper” position, leaning slightly forward, and off the saddle, and simultaneously shorten the reins and ready to give the signal she should “take off.”
That signal, a squeeze of both legs around her midsection, is called “asking.” As in, please, Diana, can we leave now?
The funny thing is, you can ask, and maybe she’ll listen, and depart the ground at precisely that moment, or maybe she won’t, instead, making up her own mind.
Many riders in my barn have joked that the human-horse decision making process is never so evident as it is before the decision to jump. One barn friend once said, “That’s when I really realize there’s two brains at work here.” That same rider has shaken her head and laughed at how differently she and her horse “judge distance.”
Horses, to those of us who spend time with them, are a lot like children. They exhibit jealously — try feeding one horse a carrot in front of the herd. Depending on personality, a horse will start banging on his stall, or nickering, or pawing the ground, all saying, “Where’s my carrot?”
When I rediscovered horses and riding in adulthood (I’d spent many early years as a rider) I began relearning how to communicate with the horse. Natural flight animals, horses are most comfortable in a herd, and possess a similar mentality as a popular crowd might in a high school setting.
To meet a horse, you do not reach out to pat them on the head as you would a dog. Although some will tolerate this, others will extend their heads high up, out of reach. Instead, the greeting involves putting human nose to muzzle, and allowing the horse to inhale your breath.
I don’t know if in these first instances a horse can size you up the way businessmen might over the firmness of a handshake, but as one who has been at the lowest end of the pecking order, probably for being too nice, and not showing leadership, I have been nipped and swiped at with front hooves.
As I grew more confident, I was able to stand up to some bad behavior. A turning point with one horse, who nipped me constantly, leaving bruises on both of my forearms, occurred one day after I decided to run and throw myself against him. At 100 pounds, I didn’t make much of an impression on his 1,100-pound bad self, but it was the start of me trying to show dominance, and the nipping soon stopped.
With Diana, I followed the advice of the famed horse whisperer Monty Roberts after reading his bestseller, “The Man Who Listens to Horses.” Roberts describes a moment in the relationship between horse and rider in which the horse acknowledges the human as a member of the herd.
That moment is called “joining up.”
In the barn one day with Diana, I decided to go through the exercise Roberts suggested. In a show of animal dominance, I turned my back on Diana, first trying to wave her away. There was more to it than that, but, moments later, as Roberts said would happen, Diana approached me at a slow walk, head lowered to the ground. This, he says, is a horse showing subservience.
Soon after, Diana stood very, very close to me with her muzzle near my neck, the gesture mimicking the way herd animals stand together.
There are so many little moments of communications discovery I have made over the years with this horse that I’m not sure what makes me happier, the riding, or the interpersonal relationship.
Notice how both rider and horse learn from experience of each other. How can such a rich interaction take place? Notice the joy from the communication. This joy is a positive sign and tells me that the interaction is taking place to compute how to move the team forward. In this case one team member is literally riding another. But in the world of humans, we might say that at this moment, one person carried the presentation or the thinking of the group forward. How satisfying is it to earn the respect of one’s peers in carrying the group forward? That is such a powerful experience that if you have it a few in a particular field, it could make that your career choice. This exactly happened with me when I first entered a research lab in my junior/senior summer and loved it. I loved the ideas and the people. I was so pleased when I could say something that the group liked in a laboratory meeting. How parallel is that to the joy of riding – and the mutual joy of the interaction?
Exactly, Jim! I think the joy of learning and gaining competency, in the lab, or in the barn, is enhanced by the experience of learning to communicate with those around you. In the lab, other partners “join up” with you, your thoughts, your discoveries, and similarly, in the barn, Diana quite literally “joined up” with me, accepting me as a herd member as you were accepted as a lab partner of equivalent, or greater, value. In both cases, we learned to lead a group (or a horse) over time spent in the joyful endeavor of learning, hands-on.