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Listening Versus Whispering
The Power of a True Dialog with Your Horse
One of my favorite horse rider pairs - Dr. Reiner Klimke on his legendary Ahlerich - is also the subject of my favorite inspirational rider images, when it comes to complete unity between horse and rider.
Ahlerich’s ears are on Klimke, Klimke’s focus is completely on Ahlerich, they are one unit, one circle, one dialogue. The focus is on togetherness, there a ‘we’ factor. Nothing else seems to exist around them, not thousands of people, no announcer, no flags... the image has a serious but rather meditative expression.
In this combination, this true two-way communication, horse and rider become a team and sometimes - as in the case of Klimke and Ahlerich - a quite unstoppable team.
Thanks to modern media, we see plenty of the other type of picture: The rider is ‘in control’, tight-lipped, pushing, prodding, pulling, the horse's face tense, the horse going through motions, visible strain, eyes bulging.
A two-way communication with the horse not only makes for a more elegant presentation, riding with almost invisible aids, but also does our horse justice as the majestic, intelligent, and sensitive creature it is. How do we go about creating this dialog? Do we have to become horse whisperers?
Beyond Horse Whispering
The term ‘horse whisperer’ describes a person, who is exceptionally in tune with the nature of the horse and can circumvent its fear mechanisms enough to gain trust and cooperation. This is best done in a quiet and non-confrontational demeanor. Historically, the majority of horse-handling folks didn’t have a clue of what went on and hence the term ‘horse whisperer’.
In all reality, even the best horse whisperer could not rely on whispering alone. Whispering, even when perfected, is still a one-way street of communication. I tell (albeit very quietly).... and you do!
Instead, there is another important ingredient, maybe the main ingredient of the success formula: Listening. Listening plus Whispering = Dialogue. There has to be a constant two-way dialog with your horse. Listen, respond, listen, listen again, respond.
Baron Hans von Blixen-Finecke (The Art of Riding) calls this the ‘running commentary (to what the horse is saying)’, bodywork expert Jim Masterson (Beyond Horse Massage) calls it ‘listening to what the horse has to say’, Eckart Meyners (title) calls it the ‘dialogue with the horse’, and we can call it whatever we want - as long as the conversation is a two-way street.
It Starts with Listening
My specialty is helping horses overcome (often mysterious) performance challenges. A large part of this challenge is beyond the physical. Too often, horses develop tensions, restrictions, unwillingness, and ‘mystery lameness’ as a result of mental and emotional stress. In my experience, much of that stress can be alleviated or prevented by ‘listening’.
How to Listen
Even though it would make some things easier for us humans, horses do not speak English. They also don’t count, make plans for tomorrow evening, keep score, dwell on the past or feel sorry for themselves. Much unlike us, they see no value in multi-tasking, either. This means, when they are with you, they are very inclined to be truly with you. This makes listening easy, there isn’t much unnecessary chatter going on. Just by being still, taking a deep breath and observing your horse, you can start the dialog.
Some first rules on the path to becoming a good ‘horse listener’:
See - The horse uses 99% body language to express his frame of mind and intentions. Once you start to really listen and understand this body language, you will also understand to ‘speak’ it. (Book) Breathe, breathe, breathe...- We hold so much tension in our bodies and our minds, there often isn’t much room to let things in. Take a deep breath and make some space. Then start your ride. Feel - Close your eyes a little. Grooming? Just standing with your horse? Riding quietly at the walk? Close your eyes for a few seconds or even a minute and take in sounds, smells, and sensations. You will sharpen your senses. Watch - After putting your horse back into the paddock, stick around for a while. Watch how he interacts with the herd mates. Get to know him a little better when he is just being a horse.
Last not least...
DO leave home without it
Leave your problems in the parking lot. Tax return due? Kids late for dance class? Sick puppy? Imagine these things - that your horse has nothing to do with - as very effective ear plugs when it comes to listening to your horse. Make it a habit to leave all that in your car when you park it at the barn.
Smile! Smiling not only changes the way our face looks, it also changes our brain chemistry for the (happier) better. Give it a shot! If it feels forced, think about things that make you smile. I’m sure you can start with your horse!