Living in-relation with horses: listening

‘Listen to the horse’ (Tom Dorrance, True Unity, 1987, P 21)

Tom Dorrance was insistent that listening was the most important aspect of communication with horses. He said that, while most people start from themselves, from where they are, and try to work back to the horse, he ‘tries to listen to the horse… to feel what the horse is feeling and operate from where the horse is’. Listening, he says, is essential to the capacity to feel the whole horse inside ourselves (pp 12-14, 21), that is, to the capacity to participate in horse-and-human feedback systems (see the previous post).

I think that the idea of listening can help us with awareness, which is so important for connecting with horses. We can do a check: ‘Am I listening to the horse?’ If not, I’ll not be in-relation with the horse, and I’ll be unable to participate in feedback systems and respond with good timing.  

Listening might sound straightforward, but I think that, living in a world full of noise, we often find it difficult to listen, in everyday life, let alone in our communication with horses. For example, in my Italian lessons, I constantly need to remind myself to listen. If I’m having a conversation with my teacher and I’m busy thinking of things I want say, constructing grammatically correct sentences in my head, I will lose any fluency. I’ll be simultaneously in a rush and arriving too late – I’ll not be present to the conversation. When, on the other hand, I slow down and open myself to simply listening with full attention, I am much more likely to be able to respond appropriately. Through listening, I will be participating in the conversation, I will be in the rhythm of the language, carried by the flow.

I find that much the same happens in my encounters with horses, notwithstanding the difference in specific skills. With my horses, I frequently have to be reminded to listen. And, I recognise the same distinct state of being in both situations when I am not listening. Listening, then, involves a particular way of being.

This is what Tom is saying when he associates listening with an entwined experience of feeling inside ourselves what a horse is feeling. He says that people are either listening to and feeling the horse or they’re trying to ‘do an action’, make something happen, in which case they are not listening. In other words, we are constantly shifting between states of being – on the one hand, we are in-relation with a horse, and on the other, we are in a human/self-centred state. Tom indicates the problem when he says that most people take themselves as the starting point. He says that when people tell him they’re having a ‘horse problem’, he tells them that the horse is having a ‘people problem’. All the time horses are trying to tell us something, but so often we are not there, present, listening (12-15, 26).

It is when we’re full of our own ideas, and need to control and be busy doing things, that we are unable to hear our horses. A sure sign of not listening is that familiar experience of frustration: ‘nothing is happening how I want it to’. Frustrated with the horse, with ourselves, we try harder and harder to make something happen. We find ourselves in a rush, and everything is an effort.  Here again is a situation of having ‘too much wilful will’ and thinking that ‘what you do not do yourself does not happen’ (E. Herrigel, Zen in the Art of Archery). Caught up in ourselves and our goals and what we should be doing, we have cut ourselves off from a connection with our horse.

When I am feeling frustrated, I try to pause and reset, to slow down and empty my head of noise and chatter, for listening requires an open, receptive way of being. And stillness. By slowing down we can become present, so that we are able to hear and to respond to what is called for, with our whole bodily horse-and-human being. Then we can offer the right support to our horse at the right time, release and allow at the right time, allow ‘it just to happen’. And ‘when the whole horse is feeling together, he’ll feel good to you’. You can feel the life, the spirit, between you. Furthermore, as Tom suggests, this betweenness or relational being is the basis of true leadership, leadership through listening and being there for our horses. (Dorrance 17-21).

I think it worth mentioning here a common misunderstanding of what is involved in communicating with horses. People who practise natural horsemanship often speak about reading a horse’s body language. Here is how I think this is commonly understood: such things as ears back, ears forward, swishing tail, head up, head down, are taken as external signs or symbols standing for something – symbol x (eg ears back) means such and such. We, ‘humans’, observe the signs, interpret their meanings and then act upon them in order to get the ‘horse’ to do something. This is a human-centred model of communication, based on the logic of separation and distance. By contrast, the communication through feel described by Tom is based on the logic of relation and connection. Importantly, this involves the recognition that every horse, every situation, every relation, is particular. No generalised model of symbols can give us an understanding of particularity – it can only be known through being-in-relation.

If we find ourselves going down the reading body language path – ‘her head is down which means…’ – we can ask ourselves: ‘Is this what it feels like?’ In our horse-and-human being, we will know what is really going on because we are participating in the experience with the horse. Or, to put this another way: we know intuitively, through feedback, by listening.

With thanks to Andrew, Corey, Suzi, Vittoria.

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