Spot on of course Romy! I love your concept of applying "I messages" to our horse relationships.
""You" statements often come from a perceived lack of power. Many people feel that they have to be tough with horses because they don't perceive themselves as having enough personal power to do otherwise. Often, when I see people first discard their (usually ineffectual) methods of keeping safe, it would seem that their belief is true, as the horses do walk all over them. They seem to be operating in a vacuum. They don't have anything to replace the power plays with except "being nice". But I see that nice alone, without certain internal strengths/skills/attitudes, isn't enough, and it can be quite a long road to teach them these things.
This super-attentive method of communicating and synchronising with the horse sounds like a wonderfully simple way to get people doing the things necessary to create that inner strength/skill/attitude change that will make "being nice" effective, help them believe in themselves, AND communicate politeness politely to the horse as well.
I think this is probably what I did with Harlequin when I took over his training last year and had to first work on manners with him. Although I didn't think of it like this. I just knew that he needed 100% of my attention 100% of the time, so that I could show him what I wanted and be really happy with him, rather than try to solve problems AFTER they occurred and be angry/annoyed/frustrated/scared/hurt. I suppose that this attentiveness would have translated into the kind of body tension and small detail that you describe. I was also actively and consciously modeling polite behaviour for him.
There are a few other catch phrases that I remember from my faraway days as a communication skills/assertiveness/conflict resolution facilitator that seem very relevant with horses too.
"Catch them when they're good." This is great for children and horses (and husbands!
Overlook some of the "unwanted" behaviours, focus on rewarding and praising the wanted behaviours and voila! Suddenly the balance swings! This is what I was thinking about when I was working with H.
Another is the concept of reflective listening. I think this is what I'm doing now (mostly,
-sometimes I still get caught unawares and react from a fear base without thinking) when I treat H or the others for "bad" behaviour, rather than reprimand them.
It's like when my daughter was little and couldn't communicate well. She would react in some way to show her emotions. If I verbalised for her, smiled at her and said something like "Oh, you're very frustrated that you have to lie on your back and have your nappies changed? I know. You don't feel good being helpless huh?" She would immediately relax and stop fighting me, even when she was so tiny that she couldn't possibly understand my words. Later, at three or four years old, when she hit her playmates over a toy, I would smile gently and say "Oh, you really like that toy and you feel like you really want to play with it now." Some parents would look at me in horror! "Punish that child! What kind of a monster will you create!" But she would nod her head, quit fighting, and usually even graciously decide on her own to give the toy to the other child. Consequently, she became very good at speaking in "I" statements herself. She quickly became kind and generous and wise, and could talk about what she wanted rather than acting out. Acknowledging their feelings, even when those feelings are expressed in aggressive ways, helps the child to own their own feelings and learn to express themselves in more appropriate ways, without needing to externalise and make it someone else's fault.
When horses "impolite" behaviour isn't motivated simply by ignorance, but indicates some underlying need or problem that they are having, then I think this "reflective listening" is super useful to them too.. It can be used as an alternative to any kind of punishment, even the mild CT type of "ignore" punishment.
An obvious (and easy to accept) example of reflective listening with horses is when we show them a needle and say "You're a little worried about this right? You know that it might hurt a little and you're not sure you want to let me do this. That's okay. I can wait till you feel okay about it."
Another example is when I go to pick up Rosie's hind hoof and she (still!) threatens to kick me. I smile, CT, and say to her, "I hear you Rosie. You're such a good girl for reminding me that you're worried about this." It immediately takes all aggression out of her response and renders it simply a communication tool that she has. We've been through this many times, so that is now the spirit that she "threatens" me with. There is no real aggression in it. As long as we play by the rules, I trust that she won't actually kick me, just as she trusts that I will listen. She has taken ownership of her own feelings, and turned her communication into her own "I" statement. "I feel worried about you picking up my foot" rather than "you are my enemy because you want to pick up my foot." My active listening has helped facilitate this change for her.
Lately, I've CTed Harlequin a couple of times for kicking out towards me during training at liberty.
I think this is also a way of reflective listening, and my experience has been that it has taken any aggression out of his behaviour, and helped him to feel really happy and confident.
I don't necessarily know exactly what caused the kick - maybe the movement was a little difficult for him and he felt unbalanced and kicked as a way of regaining his balance, maybe he felt too much pressure, even though he's at liberty (because he likes to stay up really close to me), maybe he just felt frustrated because it felt like hard work and at that moment he thought "agh! Why do I have to DO this to get my piece of carrot. I want it NOW!", maybe he felt momentarily annoyed at feeling manipulated, maybe he felt that it's always me making him move, howabout I move! Maybe he wanted a break and but didn't feel confident to turn away from me to get distance.
It doesn't really matter if I don't understand exactly what caused his reaction. When I smile and CT and praise him, I think what I'm effectively doing is communicating to him
"Oh, you're telling me you're a little uncomfortable with something here? You want to move away from me and you don't want me to follow you. Great! Well done for telling me." I use words and body language as well as CT to directly "speak" to him.
My observation (of course!!
) has been that this hasn't trained him to be more aggressive or kick me more. It's taught him that he doesn't need to fear my reaction when he has something to say, when his body gets tangled, when he kicks out for whatever reason, when he wants to go away from me. The kicks, when they have come again, have been less aimed at me, he's more careful, even joyous, in his expression with them. He confidently trots off to do what he needs to do to regain his equilibrium.
I feel that I've helped him to translate his communication from a reactive "you" statement, into a thinking "I" statement. He feels empowered. Empowered feelings lead to assertive confident behaviour that respects others rights.
Win win situation!
And of course, the icing on the cake is that he gets the idea of playing around with Haute Ecole kicks!
Thanks Romy for sharing the idea of communication with horses within the context of "ownership of feelings." Cool!
I have not sought the horse of bits, bridles, saddles and shackles,
But the horse of the wind, the horse of freedom, the horse of the dream. [Robert Vavra]