How communication develops body awareness
The Horse Too is Allowed to Say “No”
by Imke Spilker
Translated by Kristina McCormack
In keeping horses, the trend is unmistakable: we give our horses more freedom because we have learned that it does them good. We give them an open stall or a paddock, and, with others of their kind, they can decide when and why and where to go, in which activities around them they will participate and whether they would rather withdraw. In the project: Communicating With Horses Imke Spilker carries this principle of free choice over into the foundation-building ground work. The horses may always decide whether and how they would like to participate. Does that sound strange? Read on to discover how and why this works, and how it affects horses and people.
Anyone who has worked intensively with animals over a long period of time notices that they have a very good sense for what is right for them. So why is it that this realization is so totally ignored when it comes to the training and physical development of horses? Why do we have to force them to do what is good for them, or should be, according to human conviction? I want to be with horses, to experience things together, and to do something for them to help them in their physical development. Our horses here know that. When they see us coming (carrying tack, for example) they all gather at the entrance to the fenced-in but always open riding arena, fighting to see who gets to go first. Their participation happens entirely of their own free will – they can at any time leave the arena via an exit passage that is never closed off. The horses are fascinated by this kind of work, as we are. No one gives them instructions about what has to be done – they have equal rights. Instead of the orders or demands of a strict hierarchy, they are met with fun, acknowledgment, and empowerment. So there are no “lazy” horses – because someone who comes of his own free will and works out of his own interest in the subject is highly motivated. How does this happen?
What benefits, motivates
You begin with those things that a horse clearly likes and finds pleasant, food for example, or scratching. I observe a horse very closely and think about how I can do a little something to make him happy. That can vary widely – for example, some horses view treats as bribery. And, no horse will piaffe in exchange for snacks. In the end the only motivation is that the horses realize that it is good for them to work this way. It helps them and they are possessed by the good feelings that ensue. Then it is more likely that you will have to temper their enthusiasm because they simply do not want to stop working (for those situations we have a consolation prize?).
Lord and Master, or Friend?
Horses must be dominated, according to conventional wisdom. When that does not happen, chaos ensues and a human being is hopelessly at the mercy of his horse. This is a macho-myth that is very helpful to people of a certain psychological profile. But, for others it is not. Many people have become very insecure because of this myth – simply because they actually like their horses. For them, questions like this arise: Do I have to enforce my will, even though I may be the one making a mistake? Must I be lord and master when I would rather be friend? May I be affectionate with my horse, may I let him nuzzle and “groom” me? Many people do not feel right autocratically laying claim to the “alpha” position. They are sensitive to the arrogance that lies behind this, they sense the ignorance – and the danger that ensues from such behavior…For these people the position of the horse in our project is more fitting. Kim, for example, has been part of the project for a couple of years. He was one of those Haflingers that everyone saw as too stupid, too lazy, too clumsy, stubborn...and he was handled accordingly. Kim believed this himself. He became white eyed, high headed, pulled people down, and tumbled off an embankment…just what you’d expect from a mixture of mountain draft with Arabian bloodlines. But he is actually not like that (no horse is), and today he knows it. He has come to very precisely know his strengths, his body’s power, and his hindquarters, and he carries himself even into piaffe like an Iberian. Playfully he unfolds his power, perfectly masters his body, and knows exactly what he is doing. In the photo (below) Kim has, through looks and gentle nudges, invited the person, whom he likes and has known for a while, to come into the arena and play with him. For the person this is all still relatively new, but he joins in the running simply because Kim has invited him. They are having great fun, experiencing unconditional trust and perfect harmony with one another. At the same time, Kim indicates with his “listening within” ear position that he is very much in himself, focused on his own body. His transformation into a sensitive and supple athlete is based on the increased trust in himself.
How lightly the rather massive Kim moves on his hindquarters – a bending of the haunches that he perfected on his own. He has become very agile, and very aware of his body.
A moment of quiet intimacy: when things become too wild for a person the horses sense it immediately and contain themselves.
Intuition, Not Rigid Methods
No one here just tacks up and leaps onto a horse’s back, rather we first come together with the horse on the ground, on the same level. Riding without the horse first clearly inviting, does not interest us. How the work proceeds depends entirely on the horse. There are no recipes, and it can be different each time, because both horse and person are individuals who are constantly changing. Our basic requirement is to be open when we approach the horse, and to like him exactly as he is. It is shocking how rarely one encounters that liking in practice, particularly among “professionals.” Bad intentions are attributed to the horses, they are handled as though they are deliberately dangerous, everything becomes an issue of respect, which is beaten in, and in the end one arrives at what the horses already have in excess: fear. Our inner attitude toward the horse is enormously important. We have all had the experience of someone treating us unjustly and with great mistrust. At some point we actually behave just as expected, confirming the prejudgment in retrospect. This influence can be positive, too. We can empower each other in our positive qualities. That is actually what we do with the horses here, or they with us…depending on the point of view. That is why the horses gladly participate in the work, why they come by to show themselves off, present their physical talents and develop them further. Fitness and physical development are quintessentially in their self-interest. Horses have only their bodies with which to express themselves, and they do that with enthusiasm.
Taking responsibility for themselves is a quality that is thoroughly driven out of horses from their youth on. They are not allowed to have an opinion, rather, they are supposed to obey. The more naturally they grow up and are kept, the more familiar they will be with self-responsibility. The example of Ole, a young Norwegian gelding makes this clear. At first he is still shy, does not want to do anything wrong, is a bit afraid. This makes him heavy-headed like many horses of his type. But, after 15 minutes of “communication” he begins to feel strong and self-confident. His movements become rhythmic and powerful and graceful. How? He was given no task to do, but discovered, through the human being, that he is doing nothing wrong and that the person finds him good. Through this sort of affirmation and acknowledgement a horse continuously develops himself further and the level of his work continuously rises. The horse offers exercises of his own accord even to the level of high school once he has gotten that far. Ole would rarely move as he does on the photo by himself. He needs us for that. In the work together, however, the development of the horses rapidly gains a surprising dynamic of it own.
Between these first two photos fifteen minutes passed which we spent together in the riding arena. Ole is here for the first time, and shy and insecure at the beginning. He gains more self-confidence just from the praise and affirmation of the human being, and it is mirrored immediately in the way he carries himself.
Icelandic stallion Toppur shows us how something like this looks at a much higher level. His measured rhythmic jumps in an uphill canter show a baroque exercise. The Galopade demands a very focused use of his haunches. Toppur masters this demanding exercise completely independently, without being disturbed with constant corrections. He remains wholly centered because he can keep his attention on himself instead of on the instructions of the human being.
Baroque elegance in Icelandic: Toppur is perfectly collected and balanced, totally focused on his body. Movement this expressive and in self-carriage is only possible because both horse and person desire it.
Help with Disabilities
This work in dialog is particularly suited to horses with physical or psychic(emotional/mental/spiritual) afflictions. “Untalented”, resigned, broken-down horses immediately sense the difference (unconditional acceptance from the human being) and quickly change for the positive as they internalize what they have learned and take it further. So, more and more they help and train themselves. It is admirable how deliberately and with how much energy handicapped horses in particular apply themselves. A physically damaged horse must always determine for himself the content and degree of difficulty of his exercise program. How else can I be sure that I am not over-facing or tormenting him?
To come to an understanding with communicative horses, the person must absolutely not be an “expert.” On the contrary, a “newbie” is more open, giving the horses space comes easier to him. The horses are happy to teach us and enjoy that role. A prerequisite is that the person has learned to pay attention to his partner, the horse, and respect his wishes. The horses sense whether or not a basis of mutuality exists. Once it is established, both parties can develop their sensitivity, to themselves and to the other. Intuitive understanding functions (only) in both directions. Naturally, we are asked whether this kind of interaction can become dangerous for the human being. Horses are by nature peaceful beings who do not make victims of weaker ones, and who scrupulously avoid deliberately hurting someone. Danger exists when the person applies pressure and force, and the horse can no longer retreat from the situation. A horse who has the possibility of walking away, whose needs for peace and space are respected, will harm no one. A game into which the horse is pressured is no longer one (even if the person is amused by it). On the other hand, without force or threat, even the most strenuous exercises can be playfully easy for the horse. One must learn to let go, and one must think from the horse’s perspective – that is all too gladly forgotten about. To me there is nothing safer than communicating with horses in this way -- anything else strikes me as too dangerous. I do not like battles because someone always has to lose. The message that comes across when we communicate with one another depends to a large degree on how we say something. That applies to communication with horses as well. A horse must be able to say “no” at any time and have the freedom to leave, and then we human beings must design our work in such away that the horse truly benefits by it.
In the conventional perception whips are negative to both people and horses – instruments for hitting and punishment. Horses connect them with certain experiences. That is why it can be so exciting for them to confront whips. A parallel example: It is fun for children to be thrown into the air… in part because of the threat of falling. But this is a game only as long the child himself wants the excitement and feels protected and safe. If his feelings are not precisely observed and respected, the game falls apart and becomes trauma. Our horses sometimes “conquer” the whips so thoroughly that we have a great deal of wear and tear – the whips are bitten, trampled, and crushed.