On a warm spring day, I walked into an arena to help Dave with his sorrel gelding, Whip. Wide-eyed and snorting, Whip was flinging his head in every direction, and Dave was doing his best to hang on to Whip’s halter.
“Hi, Dave. Why don’t we let Whip move around a bit? Do you have a longer lead rope or a longe line?” I asked.
Dave turned to see if I was serious or not. His disbelief was punctuated by dodging Whip’s head. He gave the halter another tug and bent down to pick up his hat from the dirt before answering me.
“I don’t know if that’s such a good idea right now,” he said between breaths exhaled in short huffs.
“I think I’d rather just help him get settled down. He doesn’t do real good in any new place, but sometimes if I can make him stand still, I can get on and we can go to work.”
“How has that worked out in the past?” I watched as Dave was lifted off his feet by Whip throwing his head so high that I wasn’t sure if it was going to stay attached to his body.
“Well, it’s hit or miss,” Dave said, once his feet were back on the ground. He then added, “mostly miss, if I’m being honest.”
“Tell you what, let’s let him move a bit and if it doesn’t seem to be working, we can try something else. Deal?”
Dave released the halter, handing the lead rope to me with a small smile of relief and said, “Deal.”
When you ask people if they consider themselves good listeners, most will answer that they are, usually after having either finished your question for you or answered before you were done talking.
We don’t need to look far to witness this kind of behavior; tune into any radio or TV show and you will hear raised voices competing to be heard. Interrupting has become a form of social dialogue and whoever talks loudest and fastest often gets the most attention. We seem to interpret this behavior we see as acceptable because when we go out into the world, we feel it is ok to not let the person we are chatting with finish–or even have–any say of their own.
The recurring situation that’s got me thinking about how to return to the art of conversation is that I’ve been noticing when I meet someone for the first time, they will almost always blurt out a question in a kind of machine gun barrage of words. I used to reply the same way. There’s always been a nagging suspicion that neither I nor the person who sought an answer felt good about the interaction, so I’ve begun to change my response. Instead of answering the question, I’ll reply with “Hello,” or “Good morning.” Ask how they’re doing, and what their name is. When they ask the question again, it is often more coherent and slower.
I find myself slipping into the ease of interrupting as much as anyone else; not a day goes by that I don’t catch myself. Perhaps it’s our current Culture of Me, or social media, or the rapid-fire chaotic events that surround us these days, but engaging in a polite, coherent conversation seems to be far less sexy than having our say no matter what. And having our say no matter what, if we aren’t careful, will get applied to our time with our horse.
Whether they are doing their best to let us know about a physical problem, or that they don’t understand what we are teaching, or poorly fitting tack, horses communicate all the time. Their behavior usually escalates because we don’t know how to guide them to what we want (sometimes we don’t even know what we want), or we aren’t listening because we label them “spooky,” “stubborn,” or “cranky,” and the label relieves us of the responsibility of finding out what is driving their behavior.
After we got a longer rope for Whip, and let him take off just under the speed of sound, two things happened: he was able to start breathing (which helped him calm down) and we let him have a beginning, a middle, and an end to what he was communicating.
In other words, instead of interrupting him, which could sound something like this:
Whip: I’m —
Us: Stand still.
Whip: But if I could just—
Us: You’ll feel better if you would just. Calm. Down!
Whip: I NEED TO—
We did this:
Whip: I’m worried! I need to move!
Us: Ok. We are going to stay in a circle in this part of the arena and you can move as much as you want.
Whip grew calmer and quieter throughout the lesson, which confirmed that we were headed in a good direction. The next two days he and Dave made great progress as we practiced listening to what Whip had to say, and the ways to answer that helped both of them feel better.
It occurs to me that we are often so busy talking, and we think what we have to say is so important, that we forget the other person also feels the same way about what they have to say. And though a practice of communicating better with our fellow humans can certainly be difficult, I am convinced that it will yield fuller, richer and deeper communication with our friend the horse.