Thursday, November 3, 2011

The Conversation

Working with Dawn yesterday made me think about how much working with horses - from leading to grooming to riding - is a conversation, or should be.  I think horses are much better at this conversing thing than humans usually are - we're often too distractible (I guarantee that if someone says "my horse is always distracted" it isn't the horse that's the problem) and we let the horse down by dropping our end of the conversation.  When we drop the conversation like that - even if just for a second or two, the horse has to carry on by itself and make its own decisions about what to do next.  And then we wonder why the horse isn't doing what we want?  It's no wonder - from their point of view, the line just went dead and somebody's got to keep making necessary decisions about speed, direction and destination and the only somebody left around is them.

There's two things that enter into this for me - attention and timing.  Attention means keeping our minds and bodies engaged in the task at hand, from second to second, and not interrupting the conversation.  It also means that the conversation is a two-way one, where there's an opportunity for both parties to speak and both parties to listen, often in alternating fashion.  Attention and timing also mean listening for the other party's  response and not talking over them just as they start to speak - every conversation needs to have its rhythm, and we need to listen in order to know what to say next.  In certain circumstances, the rhythm of the conversation may be slow, and in others it may be so fast it's essentially continuous.  Attention also helps to clarify where the horse may not understand what we are saying, so we can change what we're doing.

When I was in the process of rebuilding my horsemanship from the ground up (see my sidebar "Steps On the Journey" for more about where I came from and where I'm working on going with my horsemanship), learning to keep my attention engaged - as continuously as possible - and listening, really listening, for what the horse was trying to say, was exhausting and very, very hard for me.  I'm better at it now, but it's still a work in process and probably always will be - I actually find this encouraging as it means I can always find ways to improve my conversation skills with horses.

As Dawn and I were doing our lateral work yesterday, we were having an intense and fairly rapid fire conversation. I would move my eyes, head, weight in a stirrup, hand or leg, ever so slightly and she would respond instantly - that's how Dawn is.  Her response would tell me if what I did made sense to her or not, and if what I was doing was soft enough.  So, if she needed clarification, I would make a very slight adjustment and see what she said - this conversation back and forth occurred with many iterations within seconds and with a continuous, flowing quality to it - we were both "there".  When we were both happy with what resulted, she gave me a release by doing precisely what I had intended and I gave her a release by "allowing" her movement and then we both got a bigger release by relaxing on a loose rein for a few moments - the work is pretty intense for both of us.  Once she understood what I wanted, then I could reduce what I was doing to communicate even more until it was almost nothing.

It's hard to communicate in words how I do this asking and then adjusting of the ask, as it is a very physical thing and not very verbal at all - it's a matter of timing and "feeling" the horse.  I have general ideas of what I plan to do with my hands, seat, eyes, weight and legs - a lot of it involves "duplicating" the motion I want her to do in my mind and also subtly with my own body - in many respects my head and neck mirror in a very soft way what I want her head and neck to do, my hands, arms and shoulders what I want her front end to do, and my seat and legs what I want her hindquarters to do, and the same with weight.  We do the work together, and when the conversation is going well, it's pretty soft and seamless - it just comes together and flows. As I said in my post yesterday, it's like learning a common language where we both become more and more fluent.

Every horse is different - Dawn is ultra-sensative and very expressive so she's an excellent teacher for me.  I've found that most all horses - even those that start out dull, braced or disinterested due to the prior "training" they've had - are willing to have a conversation, once we pick up our end, and that the sensitivity and precision of our mutual communication just gets better and better.  But it has to start with us - our willingness to be open to the possibilities that attention and listening can bring.


  1. This conversation is why I often prefer to be alone with my horse, especially a young horse. Riding or hacking out in company can be very distracting, I can think of many occasions where my horse was spookier in company than when we went out alone on the road. Good post!

  2. I know exactly what you are talking about. When I ride Jackson in the arena, I have to be very focused. Laser focused because he is reading and responding so quickly. And if he doesn't understand, he is frustrated and that isn't fair. At least, it isn't fair if it is because I lost focus. But I like that. No, I love that. I love the dynamic conversation. I love that I lose myself in our conversation.

  3. This is very insightful and interesting. I particularly loved the last paragraph.

  4. Wonderful post. I love how you both understand and describe the conversation(s) that take place both in general, and with Dawn.

    Some of the horse people I know think I'm crazy to believe I'm have a conversation with a horse. I think those folks experience conversation as: "I give you directions, and you may respond, but only to ask minimal questions about my orders."

    This works for some horses and people. I don't like it very much personally. I've only ridden one horse it was impossible to have a true conversation with: I believe he was very low on the IQ scale, and being told constantly what to do, with no room for input, made him feel safe and secure. Not a horse you could leave to himself for a second. He needed the rider to 'talk' to him constantly or he'd get scared.

    I have to watch myself with Hudson, he's sensitive, but he also gets excited and carried away into HIS ideas. At times his "asking" about something has been borderline "telling" me how we're going to do it! I have to take a slightly more directive stance than comes naturally to me.

    I'm always awed by how different every relationship between horse and rider is. Great post!

  5. My first thought was exactly what twohorses commented. I usually have a better "conversation" with my horse riding alone, than when I am distracted by "conversation" with other riders.
    Another great post Kate.

  6. Such a great post!! Dawn sounds like a NICE challenge.
    Thanks for writing this it helped explaina few things I was wondering over :)

  7. Good post Kate. Just yesterday I was watching a Mark Rashid video and he was talking about conversations with horses. Showing how they ask and how you answer their questions.

  8. Great post.

    Your approach reminds me of my favorite trainer's oft used phrase when we rode with him, "Feel it? Feel it?"

    It was never "just do this or that," because being able to feel the horse's response and establish that communication was far more important than a mere technique.


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