When I read other people’s horse blogs I realize just how little of time I spend verbalizing when working with and around my horses. I do observe and set goals, and I can verbalize those if I need to. But verbalizing is an effort at the best of times and it interrupts the flow of my connection to the horse when we are working together. My non-verbal tilt has led me to having some really strange and interesting conversation with people who want to know what I call my horse as opposed to what his name is.
The latter question is pretty straightforward as most names people give horses are a proprietary labels. I could answer it by saying that a particular horse’s registered name with the Jockey Club is Domo. I can even elaborate and explain that most likely came about because his sire is registered as ‘Dome’.
But there are always a few who want to know what I call him, or in show parlance, they want to know his barn name. The names I call Domo are mostly a running commentary on our interactions. So there are days when Domo might be called:
- the Majordomo when he decided to take charge of the show, or
- Demosthenes when he demanded that I straighten up and act right, or
- Dumbo the Dummy when he decided to take the hose out of his water bucket, spray me and the general environs, AND break the handle of pistol grip sprayer he enjoyed working with his teeth so very very much just one more time
Explaining how I actually call him is a real challenge for me because if I want a horse’s attention, I get it through body language, breath, and movement which is how horses initiate and carry on conversations. While horses do whinny, snort, and squeal, in general vocalizing is for rare and occasional emphasis, times of danger or stress, and/or communicating over a distance. I do vocalize and play with horse names as well when noises seem appropriate.
But it was months before Domo would whinny a greeting in response to mine. Eventually we did get to where he would converse with me vocally. I would come outside and call out and he would answer me with a head toss, a hoof stomp, and a ‘ho-ho-ho’ through his nose if and only if I could hit the right vowel length, rhythm, and intonation myself. A couple of phrases worked especially well for both of us. One was:
oh-so-beautiful crooned to him as ‘O-o-oh s-oh-oh-oh beee-yuh-yuh-yuh-tiiii-ful’
The other was :
hey-my-pony-boy crooned to him as ‘hey-ey-ey meye-eye-eye puh-puh-puh-poh-neeey bouyh
This ritual also meant that occasionally I had an eureka moment when asked what about his name. I would burst forth with the announcement that what I called him depended on whether or not I wanted him to answer me, which tended to reduce my questioners into silence. I usually left them there, as that silence might actually be the best place to seek answers from anyway. I am not sure I even know how to go about starting to verbally explain the minute differences between my breath and posture and position and intent especially when differentiating between one horse and another.
I make a bit of a joke of how I call my horse, but the names we verbally oriented humans put on our horses’ non-verbal behavior has a huge influence on how we work with them. Labeling their behavior instead of observing their actions can close the doors to communication, especially with a horse that has been abused. In fact, ALL of our human-biased verbally-based stories about why horses are doing something are erroneous until and unless we consider the fact that horse brains are wired differently than human brains.
- Horses have no neo-cortex
- Their brain is the size of a walnut.
(Horse brains maybe the size of a walnut , but it is a walnut as it grows on the tree. A walnut is rather like a coconut in that the hard center is cushioned in a thick fibrous hull. Since I first wrote this post there has been some actual research into the equine brain. Based on autopsies of less than twenty horses, most of whom were geldings, horse brains weigh a little over a pound.)
- The three pound human brain has a huge neo-cortex, yet
- Our speech structure, Broca’s area, that puts things into words, is the size of the inside of a walnut
Not only do horses not have the physical neurological structures underlying our human story-telling abilities, when we humans route all of the input into our very large brains through our relatively small speech center, it slows our ability to process and respond to kinesthetic input w-a-a-ay down.
If we want to work with the horse on the horse’s terms, we have to be able to turn our verbalizing off, or at least by-pass it. My communication breakthrough with Domo came one day when I was going over him with my hands, looking for tension, heat, coldness, and imbalances after a brief workout free longeing in my round pen. He was standing there quite calmly when I came to the base of his neck on the right side and hit a cold spot. We stood for a bit with my hands over the spot.
It felt like an increasingly cold damp wind was blowing through my hands. Then Domo’s head suddenly flew up, his eyes showed white, and he leapt into the air, twisting, and striking out. I figured that we had hit some kind of trigger that set off a muscular release and some traumatic memory. So I stood back and concentrated on maintaining my own breath and balance.
Domo reared and struck, spinning about while reliving the entire episode. His pantomime did not take long, but when he was done, he was sweating and shaking. He then came to stand beside me, stepping close and leaning up against me with his head hanging practically to the ground. We stayed that way until his heart quit racing and his breathing settled down.
When he was cooled off and dry, I put him away where he and my other thoroughbred could eat and/or process what had just gone down, and sat down to do some processing myself. His history included some one beating him On one occasion, this happened while he was recieving a shot in his neck and the handler ended up breaking the needle off in the muscle.
t came clear to me just how important observing without reacting is. If I had reacted to Domo’s explosive remembrance and reenactment of trauma out of my own fear and violence, I would have anchored his fear and resentment of humans just that much more deeply. He was able to complete his release of trauma and make a connection with me because, while I did keep myself out of harm’s way, I did not react as though he was attacking me.
I was able to accept Domo’s behavior and acknowledged that he had his reasons for what he did more easily because I had also spent hours in the round-pen with my elder rescue Thoroughbred. My intent was working on his stiffness from old injuries. That was a challenge because not only had this horse been ‘round-penned’ and ‘desensitized’ to excess, he had also been so severely beaten with a police baton that he had neurological damage as well as the horse version of post traumatic stress.
When we first started working, this gelding would often panic and go into some combination of seizure and fugue state where he was locked into reliving the episodes of abuse. Any abrupt or big move on my part could send him careening about, bolting, spinning, and crashing into the fencing. I quickly found that the one thing I could do to calm him down at such times was simply walking in my own small circle in the center, paying absolute attention to maintaining my own slow even breathing. Our sessions would end when he was able to come stand quietly by me and we could breathe together.
In order to lay down new neurological pathways as well as release old patterns and memories he had to do some major repair and rewiring. So this went on for months. Days when I was feeling particularly frustrated or discouraged I took to calling him ‘My Recidivist’, my repeat violent offender.
Then one day a woman who had been bringing her daughter to the same barn for riding lessons cornered me. I was a bit bemused by her enthusiasm for my ‘killer’ horse, but she was adamant that he was a jewel beyond price.She informed me that she was struggling with high blood pressure and working long hours in the movies where deadlines and divas were a constant source of stress that made it difficult to control.
She insisted that my horse was the one thing she had found that got her blood pressure to drop. Apparently, he had whinnied to her one day when she was feeling particularly frazzled. When she came over to him, he hung his head over her shoulder and stood there breathing quietly with her until she felt calm.
Not only did she feel emotionally settled, her blood pressure had dropped into the normal range. She said that not only did he manage to calm her down in the moment, his effect on her physiology lasted from one weekly lesson to the next. Regardless of what I might have thought I was teaching, what that horse had learned was that in times of stress, one should stand close together and breathe quietly.
Not only had My Recidivist drawn his own conclusions from our sessions, he was able to extrapolate from our times together, and then offer what he had learned to another being of an entirely different species. I was and am impressed with the horse. Most humans leave their lessons in the classroom, rarely applying them in their own lives, never mind figuring out how to share them with others successfully.
To help facilitate my own shift from a verbal to a nonverbal mode of working, I adapted this quote from ‘The Little Prince’ by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. I think of it every time I meet a new horse and especially when I am working with abused horses:
“What must I do, to tame you?” asked the little prince.
“You must be very patient,” replied the horse.
“First you will sit down at a little distance from me–like that–in the grass.
I shall look at you out of the corner of my eye,
and you will say nothing.
Words are the source of misunderstandings.