Humans are loud, violent creatures. Even when we don’t want to be. I suspect some days that the reason most religious traditions include some form of silent meditation or prayer is because the universe has been saying all along “listen, I love you, but you’re at like an 11 and I need you at a 4.” Even when we’re not talking, not chattering on like monkeys drunk on fermented fruit our bodies are loud. Our energy just screams. I suspect it’s down to too much thinking. We spend so much time thinking, or avoiding thinking, that we’ve developed all those loud ways of drowning out our own too active minds.
Horses are quiet. If you’ve not spent a great deal of time with them you might just know them from movies, where humans depict them as loudly and wildly as we depict ourselves, horses screaming and whinnying and prancing about. But that’s really just a horse in extreme distress or excitement. Horses are quiet, it’s part of being a prey species. Sit down, be silent and watch horses with one another for a few hours. You might start to notice that they can communicate volumes with the tiny twitch of one ear, the clench of a few muscles, a look. Not a sound made, but everyone in that herd knows what’s being said.
Poor horses, we spend all our time shouting at them by our very nature. Even our body language is so loud the poor creatures find themselves having to shout back at times “for the love of apples I’m not DEAF stop SHOUTING.” And so if you spend much time with them you learn to tone it down a bit, you learn how our natural tendency to face something head on is aggressive and unnecessary, you learn to stand quietly and wait.
When we start riding we’re yelling all the time, kicking and pulling and leaning and God bless those poor horses that have to put up with our clumsy attempts to communicate what we want. If we’re wise and have patient horses and good human mentors we start to quiet down. If we’re any good at all our “aids” (the way we communicate with our horses) become completely invisible to an untrained observer. We learn to feather a muscle, to think our requests and our horses, perhaps the most refined communicators on the planet, heave a sigh of relief, take the cotton out of their metaphorical ears and get on with things.
We are loud, and we’re deaf. Often our horses have to shout to get their own points across because we just don’t listen. My mare and I have been struggling the last few months. A great deal of it probably has to do with it being winter and us both being miserable in the rain and cold that never ends. But part of it I suspect is a sensitive, intelligent creature finally getting sick of being SHOUTED at while her own polite communications went unheard. And so it hasn’t been a great deal of fun the last few months as we’ve tried to rebuild trust and communication between us.
This week I was walking her around the farm, no agenda, just out letting the rare sunshine warm our backs. Halter and lead rope, walking shoulder to shoulder. I wasn’t really thinking about much, just letting myself settle into the rhythm of walking, still feeling a little sorry for myself over all the fighting we’ve been doing when the sound I’d been hearing for the last little while finally sunk in and I realized our footfalls had matched. Not randomly, but perfectly. As my foot crunched down in the gravel of the drive so did hers, and the next, and the next. We walked in synch a perfect 1-2-1-2-1-2 drumbeat. I stopped and she did too, standing quietly. I looked at her graceful (mud stained) grey neck, her sweet pretty face. She flicked an ear my way as if it say “just noticed that, eh?”
I was reminded of a moment in the midst of our worst few weeks. During those days I came home from the barn in tears, I spent half my time at the barn trying not to cry out of frustration and despair. Blossom and I were fighting tooth and nail, screaming at one another. She’d hurt and scared me, and I’d been ignoring her warnings before hand and now we had no trust left between the two of us. I couldn’t even get on I was so afraid she’s catapult me off again. So I’d put her on a lunge line and (clumsily) try to do some remedial training. It hadn’t gone well. Eventually I’d given up anything but simple in hand work: walk with me, stop, stand, back up. And then I turned her loose to roll and buck fart her winter energy and frustration around and around in circles while I stood there feeling useless.
If I tried to walk up to her she turned and rocketed the other way, tossing her head and living up to her thoroughbred ancestry in impressive bursts of speed. Finally I stopped and heaved a huge sigh, I stood there fighting back tears and realized that things had gone quiet. I looked up, no Blossom, I looked behind me and there she stood, a few feet behind my back head down, ears toward me, eye quiet. I sniffed and took a few steps forward, away from her. She followed. I turned and walked the whole round pen, shoulder against the wall, and she followed quietly behind, always a few steps back. She never rushed passed me, she stopped when I stopped, she moved when I moved. Finally I stood still and waited and slowly a soft nose bumped my shoulder.
We stood together quietly for a while, me running my hands quietly down her neck, leaning my head against hers. We got quiet, we listened. Today we’re still working. We’re both struggling to listen to the other, to stay present. I am learning to assert leadership without violence or fear. She is learning to listen to what I ask in my awkward fumbling ways. We played a few days ago. I stood next to her, clicked my tongue and started side stepping like a line dance, to my delight she went with me, crossing her front legs over as I crossed mine. We went sideways, we went backward, we ran (I ran, she trotted) around in big spirals shoulder to shoulder like dance partners our footsteps matching the beating of our hearts, the blood in our veins; quiet and hopeful.