For most of the history of horse domestication, we've tended to have communications between humans and horses that are unidirectional. Humans order, horses obey. But now many people are realising that communication could be a two-way street. Horses do communicate with humans, and more and more people are learning to listen.
If the cognitive abilities of horses are misunderstood their treatment may be inappropriate. Equine welfare is dependent not only on physical comfort but on mental comfort as well. For some this is a challenging thought. If horses have mental capabilities then they are also susceptible to mental health problems. Potentially horses could experience post-traumatic stress disease (PTSD), depression, have learned helplessness, anxiety and numerous other mental health disorders that we accept occur in humans. It has taken a long time for mental health problems in humans to gain social acceptance, so it may take a while to extend this to animals. However it’s not that great a leap to make.
Horses are trying to communicate with us all the time. We are so conditioned to having one way conversations with horses that we often miss what they are saying. Horses don’t use vocal chords, they use their bodies and emotions. They are the grand masters of body language. They are communicating all the time and when we start to listen, and change what we do in response, they realise we are listening and increase their communication. This has a snowball effect.
I’ve met horses who are completely shut down because no-one has ever listened to them. After a while when they realise you’re listening because you make changes based on what they’re saying, they open up and start to communicate more and more. This results in a horse that trusts you better too because they know you are not always going to over-ride their desires and needs, they can relax around you knowing you will not hurt them.
An example is a horse I worked with recently who was speaking loud and clear but for a while wasn’t being heard. The current custodian of this horse, a lovely mare, asked me to help him as he was having troubles getting the horse to go over a bridge. The plan was I was going to drive up ahead while they rode and we’d all meet at the bridge. However the horse refused to go through the gate to leave the property, so I got out and helped them through the gate. Then we set off and she refused to cross the road at the corner. Again I went back and helped but by now I was seeing a pattern. He started to walk the horse beside the road. Again she stopped but this time I didn’t help, instead I gave feedback on what I’d been seeing. To him the horse was being stubborn and refusing to go. What I saw was that each time she didn’t want to go there were rocks present. Between each of the stony patches (the gate, the corner, beside the road) she was moving freely. She was communicating clearly that her feet were hurting in the only way she could. The rider wasn't listening, he had a goal and wanted to make the horse go to the bridge.
While this may seem a simple situation it demonstrates what horses are going through over and over. Humans get very caught up in their own agenda, what they want to do, how they want to do it, where they want to go. We can forget to check in with our horses and see how it is for them. If you make it a practice of trying to see things from your horses point of view it will be easier to realise what they’re saying. The benefits to be gained from listening to horses are enormous, both for yourself and for the horses.
Suzy Maloney B.Eq.Sc.
Happy Horses Bitless
Lismore, NSW, Australia
Ph: 0401 249 263
Facebook: Happy Horses Bitless Bridles