Developing the Listening Art
By Betsy Kelleher
I have enjoyed regular emails from Jane Savoie, titled Motivation from Moshi (her black Fresian), hypothetically written by Moshi himself! These wise tidbits from the horse’s point of view have great value for us humans!
One recent motivational piece began: “Lots of people talk to their horses, but not many actually listen in return. Have you noticed that?” Moshi goes on to say that the way he talks to the farrier is to pull a little bit with the foot he wants to put down. A horse’s leg does sometimes get tired, you know! So a wise farrier listens and gives the leg back so he can rest a moment. “I’m simply talking to him in the only language I have.” I assume you will think about that statement. I did.
I started thinking about all the ways that Lady tries to talk to me. She paws when she wants something—to be fed or to be taken from the paddock. Or she nickers when she sees me coming, maybe to say hello, or “get me outta here!” or knowing Lady, she’s probably saying, “it’s about time you got here!” A horse’s personality usually shows in what they say and how they say it. When ridden somewhere she doesn’t want to go, she will sometimes just stop. Or she may fidget or prance a little or try to turn around. A horse’s language is usually a physical movement of the head or a foot. It is our job to pay attention.
Have you ever considered what it might be like if YOU couldn’t talk? Or even write notes? What would you do? Would you use sign language? How many of your friends understand that?
There are books about this art of listening to your horse. I’ve read that some horses stop trying to talk to their owners, because they have learned the owners aren’t listening. Those owners are missing out on a precious relationship! You’ve probably already heard the story about the horse that bucked his rider off, and then told a fellow equine, “I tried to tell him the saddle was hurting my back, but he didn’t seem to care, so bucking him off was the only thing I could do!” We don’t want a discussion to go that far, do we? So let’s start listening to how horses try to tell us their needs. Let’s make a goal of it this year, to improve our listening skills. It’s really not that hard.
Learning a horse’s language is partly experience, but mostly just paying attention to their physical movements. Watch your horse at rest. Watch him at play with other horses. Notice the look on his face, his ears, his eyes, and notice how he places or uses his feet and tail. Watch what happens when something spooks him. His body is his language. As his owner, you need to learn it.
Learn to recognize how your horse responds to different things. Visualize how he acts when tired, or hurt or scared. Can you tell the difference whether your horse’s is tired or lazy? Scared, or stubborn? Know your horse. That’s the basic foundation. Then watch for behavior that is unusual. Don’t assume he is being stubborn, or defiant or lazy, unless you know this horse to have that kind of personality. Treat your horse as a living being that deserves respect.
Once you understand your horse’s personality, and what he or she is trying to tell you, then you can decide what to do about it. If your horse seems tired, you can evaluate his diet, maybe add a supplement if needed, or see if the hay is poor quality. Perhaps a veterinarian can help you determine if there is a problem of some kind. Or maybe you just need to look at the horse’s exercise schedule. Is it too much work for his age or diet? Is he out of condition from not being exercised regularly? Is he simply bored? There are several areas you might need to consider: diet, exercise, health, age, weight, teeth, or it might even be this horse is the bottom of the pecking order and other horses drive him away from the feed source. Don’t assume a horse is lazy. Be sure he isn’t really tired or undernourished.
A horse can’t tell you what his problem is. As the owner, you need to look at the whole picture and see what is going on. Horses do try to tell us what they want. I’ve walked into a barn and heard a horse rattling his bucket, and I know that horse is probably out of water. Or bored! Another horse looks out of his stall at you with those sad eyes, maybe a little nicker, or a knee bump on the door, and you know he is begging for a bite of hay. They really do try to talk to anyone who will listen.
When you listen and respond, you will have a conversation with your horse—and a connection! As he tries to tell you what he wants, how he feels, or when he is afraid, and you respond, he learns he can talk to you again. This also builds trust.
Life is richer when we pay attention to our surroundings, when we listen to life’s sounds and open ourselves to the possibilities around us. I believe that God also tries to talk to us. Of course He speaks through His Word in scripture. But He also speaks of His power and majesty through the beauty of the world He created. I once felt His Presence as I watched the wind blowing some tall grass. I sensed His message in a colorful autumn leaf in my path. The point is: He does try to reach out to us. I love Deuteronomy 32:1-2: “Listen, O heavens, and I will speak; hear, O earth, the words of my mouth. Let my teaching fall like rain and my words descend like dew, like showers on new grass, like abundant rain on tender plants.” I want to receive what He sends my way.
When we pray, do we take time to listen and wait for His answer? A relationship is more meaningful when both sides participate. And I’m not saying you should hear a voice from Heaven. But you will often sense it in your heart, if you spend quiet moments alone in His Presence. Don’t let the noise of your life drown out the precious voice of God’s Spirit trying to reach you. Stop trying so hard to make things happen your way, and let Him reveal His plan. Listening is an art well worth cultivating.
(Originally published in the February 2014 issue of the Illinois Horse Network)