What Does Listening Look Like?



Listening in action.








Having spent years around horses, and the past 10 years rehabbing senior horses, I hear people talk about listening to your horse.  Since horses rarely use their vocal chords for communication, and we humans use a lot of verbal communication, just how then do we listen to a horse?

I recently went to take my horse, Chaco, for a walk.  He was finishing eating his hay while I went and found his halter.  As I approached, he turned and walked off.

“Okay,”  I thought.

Rather than take offense that he left, or think that there was something about me he didn’t like, or think that I needed to correct disrespectful behavior, I just stood there without judgment and watched what was unfolding before me.

He walked down the fence line to the back of the paddock over by the manure pile.  There was a gate back there to the field.

“Did he want to go out?” I wondered.

As I watched him, I did nothing.  I just observed, curious to know what he was up to.  He knew I had a halter in hand, and he clearly left when I came for him to go on a walk.  I wondered what he was saying.

I could go after him, use my body language to stop him from walking off and put the halter on him.  If I insisted I knew he would acquiesce.  But I didn’t want acquiescence.  I wanted to know what he was thinking.

So I just stood there, not moving an inch and observed, knowing that if I waited long enough, his intentions would become clear to me.

He meandered around the back of the paddock, found the perfect angle to plant his body and then lifted his tail.  Within 10 feet of the manure pile, he passed his own pile of manure.

“Oh, that’s what you wanted to do,” I thought to myself.

But I knew his communication wasn’t over yet, so I stayed right where I was curious to see what he would do next.

“Would he come back to me to go on the walk?” I wondered.

There was no guarantee, but that was the beauty of it.  It was in Chaco’s hands, not mine, and this is where I would get to see what Chaco really thought.  Knowing what he thought was more important to me than the walk.

Sure enough, he meandered back my way with soft eyes and a low head.  He was the picture of relaxation.  He stopped about 10 feet away from me with both eyes looking at me.

This was significant to me because when a horse gives both their eyes to whatever they are looking at, they are giving it their full attention.  If their eyes and head are in a relaxed position when they do this, it is a big green light.

10-15 feet is also a horse’s sense of personal space, so him stopping about 10 feet from me was like a friend walking up to me and stopping at arm’s length, which is a human’s sense of personal space.

He also just so happened to stop next to the gate that opened out to the driveway and the route we typically take on our walks.

In human terms, all of these cues told me that he just wanted to run to the bathroom before we left for our walk.

At this point, I approached him at his shoulder.  He didn’t budge and his eyes and head remained relaxed.  I held out the halter for him, and he put his head into it.  That action sealed the deal for me.  Yes, he wanted to go.

How do I know for sure he really wanted to go?  There have been times when he has said “no” by not putting his head in the halter himself.  There have been times when he has said “no” by walking off and leaving completely and not returning.  In those cases, we don’t go for a walk.  By honoring his “no”, and him knowing I will honor his “no”, he is then free to say yes.

(Have you ever known a person who always said “yes” to you?  They’ve never said “no” to you.  Can you really trust their “yes” actually means “yes”? Without a healthy “no”, a true “yes” doesn’t exist).

Listening to a horse takes time, sometimes a lot more time than we humans might like or allow.  Their resting heart rate is half the speed of ours, and when they are relaxed, they really don’t move that fast.  But if you want a calm, trustworthy horse, slowing down and matching their pace will do wonders for being able to listen to them.

The slower I go, the more I am able to listen and pick up the fine nuances horses are communicating all the time.  In fact, I go so slow that I end up spending considerable time seemingly doing “nothing”.  The irony is that in that “nothing” there is a whole lot of listening going on, and ultimately, two-way communication.

The more I practice listening to Chaco, the more the mystery of who he is unfolds before me.  I can’t get enough of it.  I just love hearing what he has to say.

On this Thanksgiving, when you listen to your horse, what does he or she have to say to you?

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