It’s a regular ritual to take my horse, Chaco, for a walk and to bring his pasture mate, Elsie along with him. Sometimes, though, when I show up with halters in hand and ask who wants to go, it’s Elsie that stops eating and turns and walks over to me at the gate to get her halter on so she can go.
Once she has her halter on, I ask Chaco if he’s going to come with us. Sometimes he comes over immediately, other times it’s after some coaxing. If we actually start to leave, he is at the gate ready to go, not wanting to be left behind by himself.
However, it’s not always clear if he really wants to go, or if he just doesn’t want to be left behind, or if he’d prefer to go by himself. It is probably all of those things and many others that I have yet to discover.
It was with this on my mind that one afternoon I walked out into the field with both halters in hand. My plan was to only ask Chaco and Elsie if they wanted to go. If they did, then they needed to put their head in their halters all by themselves. If they didn’t, then I would take that as they didn’t want to go.
I approached Chaco first. He stopped eating, facing straight ahead, with wide eyes and no blinking. There were no white of the eyes, but they weren’t blinking. (I interpret whites of the eyes as fear or high stress, while blinking is a relaxed response). I came within 10 feet and stopped, waiting to see if his body language would change. It didn’t. In my humanness, just to be sure, I held the halter out parallel to him. He just stood there, not changing his body language.
“Ok, I’ll take that as a no,” I thought to myself.
I set his halter aside and approached Elsie. She kept eating, then lifted her head, looked at me and put it in the halter all while she continued to chew grass.
“Ok, I’ll take that as a yes,” I thought to myself.
I started to leave with Elsie walking behind me with slack in the lead rope and picked up Chaco’s halter on the way out. As Elsie and I walked across the pasture, I glanced over my shoulder and there was Chaco picking up the most elegant, relaxed, healthy horse looking walk I had ever seen. His expression was bright, his body moved in freedom and swayed with ease, and he had curiosity, choosing to follow Elsie just off her hip. It really was beautiful to see.
When we reached the gate I offered the halter to Chaco again, but he just looked straight ahead, with the fixed eyes and didn’t move. In my mind I did not want to walk down the road with 2 horses without halters, so I interpreted his body language as he did not really want to go.
So I left with Elsie and walked up the driveway leaving Chaco behind alone. Knowing horses are herd animals I knew deep down he did not want to be left alone. As Elsie and I neared the top of the driveway, Chaco picked up a trot along the fence line following us, clearly wanting to come with us.
Elsie and I turned around and went back to the gate where Chaco planted himself. I held out the halter again, and this time he tipped his nose into it. I also got the sense that it wasn’t that he didn’t want to go, but rather, he didn’t want a halter. I told him, “I get that. I wouldn’t want one either. Unfortunately, this is the best I have right now.”
We had a great walk, found all sorts of plants to browse, and I found some blackberries to pick. But it stuck with me that he didn’t want the halter, but given his options, he was willing to acquiesce.
The next day all three of us attempted another walk. I appeared with the halters. Elsie lined up to get hers, ready to go, and then Chaco positioned himself in a way I had never noticed until then. He was pointed toward the gate like he wanted to go, but he put me on his right side, 45 degrees off his head. From that place there was no way to easily put his halter on since halters fasten on the left side of a horse. For a moment, I almost considered repositioning him or myself so I could be in a better position for haltering, but I stopped myself and waited to see what would happen.
Horses are so spatially oriented, that where and how they position themselves is never an accident. Their primary language is body language. With this in mind, I waited. Nothing happened, except with a relaxed demeanor, Chaco quietly maintained his position.
And then, the realization hit me, and I had to smile.
“You want to go, but you don’t want a halter on,” I said to myself.
I thought a moment. What could I do to let him know that I heard his request? I’m still not ready to take two horses down the road without halters, but I could change our plans and just walk across the property to a lightly wooded area they enjoyed and had some great plants they could browse.
I opened the gate and led out with Elsie in hand, and Chaco happily followed right behind, sans halter. We walked straight to their special place, and I threw the lead rope over Elsie’s back, and both Elsie and Chaco got down to business eating their favorite plants.
To me, that was success. Chaco made a request. I heard it, and was able to let him know that I heard it and could honor it.
It’s these simple two-way communications with horses that are so fascinating to me. Chaco’s been teaching me his language for over 10 years now, and ever so slowly, I’m starting to catch on. I’m sure there is more to learn. Sometimes I wonder what it must be like for Chaco trying to train a human.
There are moments with him where I exclaim, “Yeah! This new thing I’ve been trying in his rehab is working!” I’m sure he has moments where he exclaims, “Yeah! She hears me and gets it.”
One thing I know for sure: “Chaco, it’s an honor to be your student.”