I posted a journal entry in April which prompted a couple of comments from a reader the other day. In this particular journal entry I shared a long quote from an article written by Imke Spilker which I had found inspiring. One reader, however, found Imke's words to be misleading generalizations and wanted to share her concerns based on her own personal experience. I would like to address those concerns here because I think there may be something for us all to reflect upon in a helpful way.
The article I quoted from is titled, The Horse Too is Allowed to Say "No". The quote I used in my journal entry says:
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. --Imke Spilker
On June 12, this comment was posted which focused on one sentence (which I've made bold for emphasis) of the above quote:
I just wanted to post a question about the letter of Ms Imke. When she states that "a horse that has the possibility of walking away whose needs for peace and rest are respected will harm no one". With the solely spirit of learning their ways and with all respect due, I would like to ask a question based on that statement. How then low rank horses pick on lower rank ones, why horses that aren't high in the hierarchy will charge others only as a display of dominance aggression, etc (choose your word)and it will harm them if the other don't leave quick enough or if caught off guard?. It's their way, it's proactive way of testing their place in the group. They can display this behaviour with humans as well because for this horse we are lower so he can go after us just as they can go after the chickens, it won't matter who but the position, rank, etc they have a that particular moment in the group. Just to mention that the way Ms Imke writes it it's not necessarily so,maybe it depends.
I posted the following brief reply:
Thank you for taking time to leave a comment and pose a very good question regarding what Imke Spilker has written regarding allowing the horse the option to exercise a "no" by being free to leave.
If you would allow me a day or so, I will devote an entire journal entry to the issues you have raised here.
For now, I would simply like to suggest that the relationship we desire to have with our horses is not the same as the relationship horses have with each other...what ever means of communication we share will be unique to our horse/human relationship.
More to follow.
I do appreciate your taking the time to post your comments, Marisela.
And the next day, Marisela offered further commentary to assist our understanding of her feelings regarding Imke's statement:
I appreciate equally you taking the time to read and comment on this question. I also share your view relating to the relationship horse to horse is different from horse-human for a variety of reasons . I would like to illustrate this comment with my personal experience as I have experimented with the horses here. I did this excersise with a low-rank mare here where I played being intimidated by her. It took less than 3 minutes and she already bought my act, her next move was charge me. I show this just to illustrated that some individuals can and will show aggressiveness toward humans even at complete freedom with no restrains. Not all and everyone but there are exceptions. I don't think is about being human or dog, chicken, it's about hierarchy, pecking order or similar concept( again plain personal observations). Ms Imke comment is generalizing horse behaviour and it can be misleading and foster a preconceived believe with which we can force (in our minds) behaviour instead of just accepting what is there, just plain noticing based on blank, nothing, no expectations, just as is not as we wish, hope, need should be. All I did was to use body language and within a very short time it empowered her to charge, ears, teeth , pied-a-terre type of movement and all she had. What I just said it's based only on my personal observations.
Thank you again for your time and thoughts.
Since receiving these comments, I have, of course, been reflecting on Marisela's words and the concepts of hierarchy and aggression and how Marisela's experience relates to things Imke Spilker has written. I am reluctant to comment directly on Marisela's experiment, wherein she played being intimidated by a low ranking mare, as there are far too many variables undefined which may have effected the expression of aggression this mare demonstrated. Rather, I'd like to relay that Imke Spilker is not unaware of the potential for horses to act out in aggressive ways, and, in fact she has some interesting stories of her own to share in her book, EMPOWERED HORSES. Imke devotes herself to finding a way to empower horses that is beneficial for them and uses observation of each horse's means of expression to develop exercises that channel their energies into positive actions that help horses mentally and physically.
Let's look back at the other elements of the quote in question...the sentences before and after the one that Marisela feels is misleading. Then I will share what meaning I find in them and how it applies to my interactions with horses. Hopefully using this means of reflection will help Marisela understand the spirit with which Imke wrote the statement in question.
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.
Danger exists when the person applies pressure and force, and the horse can no longer retreat from the situation.
A game into which the horse is pressured is no longer one (even if the person is amused by it).
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.
Within the variety of equines I share my life with here at Ravenseyrie, there are four horses in particular that, should I want to experiment by playing a game that pretends I am intimidated by them, would in all likelihood be perceived as strange, potentially threatening behavior from me, which would cause them enough mental stress to act out aggressively as a means of getting me out of their space. I find this to be their absolute right to make their opinions so obvious. I know that Altamiro, Belina, Zeus and Zorita each are easily agitated and things they find unsettling bring out expressions of aggression, and therefore it would be inconceivable that I would use a hierarchical "game" for any reason, because I know it is not something they would find the least bit of pleasure in. A game like this with any of the others would prompt sufficient befuddlement from them, but they are not they type of horses (or mules) to feel threatened by my pretending to be intimidated by them.
The importance of paying attention to the essence of each horse and respecting their wishes is what helps the horse discern our mutuality. My intentions, the feeling in my heart, my overall desire to find common ground with the horses is something that I must continually monitor and recognize that the single most thing a horse will measure me by is if my inner thoughts match my body's expression. Complete honesty in how I present myself to them is essential in assuring the horses that I respect their need for peace and space. It is also the basis of how I can assist the horses in knowing themselves in relation to me and how we proceed with developing our relationship further. In this way, when I am interacting with a horse I avoid situations that would bring out aggression toward me and foster a self-control and understanding on the horse's part that forgives and overlooks (or simply leaves my presence) in times when I fall short of being the best partner to them that I can be.
On page 176 of Empowered Horses, Imke wrote:
A horse that learns to know himself also learns to master himself. Horses can and want to understand vulnerability. They know what it is to be afraid. Of course, for our part, we have to lay open our weaknesses rather than bury them in a dominant approach. A horse that is master of himself is an absolutely reliable partner: it is, after all, about togetherness, about friendship.
When I approach my horses, I do not think about hierarchy between us at all. I am, however, aware of how each horse behaves among his herd mates and take this into consideration on how he or she may potentially respond to me and tailor my interactions in ways that are empowering but not provocative. I approach each of my horses in an egalitarian, admiringly respectful manner, whether I am reaching out to connect with a young foal, an aloof mare or the vigilant stallion. I come to them as an equal being who desires interaction--not as a parent figure, or a boss, or a dominant leader, but as a friend. I come as a human friend who is not as muscularly endowed as they are and cannot engage in physical contact in the same manner which horses do among themselves. (I believe this is what Imke means when she writes, "we have to lay open our weaknesses rather than bury them in a dominant approach".) If they desire to spend time with me, we might then explore play, work, schooling, leading, following, etc. all in a fluid "back and forth" dialogue. Perhaps on a given day, my horse desires me to be the leader so that he can follow me into learning something new. On another day, my horse might want to take the initiative and determine for himself what he'd like to pursue and have me support him as a coach or friend.
Yes, horses use hierarchy and pecking order amongst themselves and sometimes they have outbursts of aggression (though observing my herd living a semi-wild existence I feel hierarchy and aggression is much more fluid than most doctrines which base their training on it would have us believe). The intention to do harm is not something I have found to be part of these outbursts - their intention is to be understood...and when there is understanding, there is an overall peacefulness that is not disrupted by petty squabbles that appear so physically violent to us. In developing a mutuality between myself and the horses, keen awareness and extreme politeness in friendship are the elements I use to bring about a deeper relationship that allows us to explore things together that horses and humans would not be able to do without each other.
Marisela, I don't know if this lengthy reply is helpful to you or not. If one takes that one sentence out of context, I can certainly see why one would find it to be a misleading generalization - however, I hope I have demonstrated that Imke's statement is based on elements of mutuality between horses and humans that must be addressed first and foremost in order to have full understanding.
I hope you will consider acquiring Imke's book, Empowered Horses, which will illuminate things so much better than I have tried to do.