Horse, Interrupted.

 

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Photo: Crissi McDonald

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.”

 

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Photo: Crissi McDonald

 

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: Behave!

Whip: I—

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.

About the Author

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A lifelong horse woman, learning how to listen to horses.

44 Comments

We said!

I remember long ago, when I worked in corporate America, I had a training session on listening. It was very eye opening. I learned that most people are already forming their response in their minds before the person has even finished his/her statement. I was challenged to really listen to the person completely, until the person finished talking, then, after taking a moment to formulate my response if needed, reply. Even after 20+ years, I’m still continually working on this. Thank you for the reminder. And I love the connection to my horse communication a well.

Thank you, Kim! I also worked for in a corporate job and had a wonderful training by Stephen Covey; it made a big impression on me. I enjoy the conversations between you and me because there is a feeling of being truly listened to, and also being able to listen to complete thoughts.

Great observations, as usual. I, too, am trying hard to be a better listener, and try not to be concerned with what I need to say next, which can be such a bad habit. I was actually thinking about this yesterday when trying to convince a herdbound mare to leave the property when I hadn’t had any issues with what is her natural tendency for a few weeks. Was she trying to tell me something new? In the end I know her tendency to have ‘strong opinions’ and her history of some people fearing her, and insisted. We had a good ride after that, but I’m still wondering if there was something I missed since my senses are so much duller than hers.

Thank you, Andrea. Most days I am around horses, I have the same sneaking suspicion that I am missing so much. Your mare sounds like she’s offering an interesting opportunity to listen a different way.

If this isn’t so true not for me- but see it in conversations- social media et cet. I too catch myself doing the same- not only with people but with my horses. I have to remind myself to just stop- observe – especially when it comes to horses. It’s true- the Art of conversation had gone by the wayside it seems. Thanks to folks like you and Mark- I’m learning to how the horse sees things- from his perspective. Do I get it right all the time- no. It’s an Art- one to be continually practiced. Enjoy your blogs – and your site! Keep doing what you do- you both have helped more folks and horses more than you know! Thanks- Jeanne Morris

This not only was a good column on horse training, but people training, too. I frequently break in to someone’s speech when I feel they don’t know what they are talking about or are going on too long. The next time someone is speaking, I will try to remember Whip, and let them finish their statement, no matter how incoherent.

Well, my friend, if it’s any consolation, I have a difficult time in those situations too. And I am in them a LOT. But! It does afford me plenty of chances to practice. Thank you for your compliments!

Thank you for such a wonderful post. It is calming and vibrating and transmits such a wonderful message, so needed today. It filled my heart and mind!

Wonderful story and a brilliant, concise illustration of how “loudness” has become a societal norm. Unfortunate circumstances for many horses. Shared this with The Compassionate Equestrian’s FB page. Thank you!

Thank you, Susan. I’m glad it spoke to you (politely, of course), and I appreciate your sharing it. The more people who ruminate on these topics, the better horses’ lives will become.

Fabulous as usual. This is something I have been practicing also. Remembering that I am having a conversation and that both of us have input helps me to go with the flow rather than forcing the issue. Thank you for sharing.

Thank you, just read this article as I’m writing one on the “Art of understanding to Listen”. I judge at CTR’s here in Australia and at every competition there would be at least 50% that haven’t listened to pre ride talks or what a judge is asking them to do….most think in there mind what the outcome should be not what was asked….my question is nearly always the same to the riders……we speak the same language yet it’s not heard or understood properly and yet we ask our horse who speak a completely different language to understand us and then we get bent out of shape when he doesn’t do what we’ve asked, that’s not very fair!
Maybe if we learnt to listen we would hear so much more. Cheers

This really speaks to me today Crissi! As I was playing with my new horse Zeva, I found that I had to really slow down and just give her a chance to answer. When I thought I had given her enough time, I gave her some more. Lo and behold she would figure it out! It reminded me of when someone is talking and you want to complete their words or sentence for them. Horses teach us so much of how we can be better humans in this world.

They do, indeed. I love them for so many reasons; number 1,375,460 is that how they patiently teach us. Thank you Eileen and I hope you and Zeva have many years and a lot of fun together!

So true. I struggle every day to slow down and listen in ALL aspects of my life. It’s so difficult to turn off the inner instant reflex to respond I don’t always hear everything.

So true Miss Crissi~~ Thank you once again for your written words. I too strugle with this daily, having gown up interupting in order to be heard (ha ha ha). And then finishing sentinces wth besties all the time 🙂
Heaven has truely blessed us with horses to help us become better humans 🙂

I will be reading this one again and again~! I do miss conversations a lot. I love that it is an “Art”. xoxoxoxo

Thank you Tina – like any habit that no longer serves us but is well entrenched, it takes a lot of practice (spoken here from experience!). But it’s worth it. And yes, we are so fortunate to have horses who help us. 💜

I love this post, Chrissy. And something that I recently heard about listening that really hit home, and is particularly apt in our interactions with our horses: true listening implies a willingness not only to hear, but also to be open to changing our attitudes, beliefs, and actions on the basis of what we’ve heard. That’s a tough one, isn’t it?

Yes – we are such biased creatures and on some level equate our beliefs with who we are. And while that may be true on some level, it’s certainly not the whole picture. What comes up for me is that true listening also recognizes that the “other” is a living breathing feeling being, just like us. That there are more similarities than differences. That’s a tough one to embrace too! Thanks Chris. 🙂

So very true and very well written. Thank you for sharing this experience. I am often saying that we have 2 ears and 1 mouth for good reason – we need to listen more and talk less. I have been taking courses in EFL and liberty training with my horses for the past few years and have learned the value and clarity of non verbal communication from our horses and from other people. So much of the time I spend with my horses is now reflective and almost meditative. This translates into my everyday life and interactions with people. I find myself having less and less patience with those who do not listen and just keep talking as though listening to their own voice is the most important thing of all. I relish the quiet time with my horses.

Crissi, I loved the dialog with Whip. It really summed up how we march forward with our own agendas and don’t give enough consideration to the other living things we’re trying to connect with.
Recently, my horse Raz refused to load in the trailer, and this has never been a problem before. I believe that he has a reason for this behavior, and eventually I will hear what he’s trying to tell me so that I can help him move forward. For now, I ask gently, and he seems to take one more tiny step forward each time we work on it, but I’m not getting a clear understanding of what else he needs from me. Listening is a difficult skill to master!

Hi Laurie! Thank you so much. I could spend the rest of my life listening to horses and still be a beginner. They are so subtle.

You may have done this already, but do you have Raz on a joint supplement or Adequan? Maybe he doesn’t get in because it’s difficult to step in? Purely a guess on my part, but since I know him to be so agreeable, I find it interesting that he’s developed this.

Crissi, that’s a great consideration! It never occurred to me that he might find it uncomfortable. I still think of him as my young horse, but he is fast approaching 18. Your idea sounds good whether it’s the reason behind his reluctance or not. He’s at the age where he could certainly benefit from a joint supplement.
I’m still fantasizing about connecting again with you and Raz. Even at 18 and 62 we are both a work in progress. So good to hear from you!

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