These are lovely, thought-provoking posts! Yum! Showing Emotion
Donald, I think I need to tattoo this on my forehead:
If the horse can read you, and you are being honest, transparent, and congruent (laugh when you are happy, cry when you are sad) the horse cannot help but feel safer.
You cannot lie to a horse. You cannot fake him out. But you can confuse him enough that he will come to distrust you
Lot of things spurred by this thought (including, "how many times do I need to hear this before I really trust it!"
), but also -- as adults in Western culture, we are really taught how to mask and deflect our feelings when we engage with others.
Some of this is healthy, no doubt, allowing us to interact in complex social settings, but I think where it gets dicey is how entwined it gets with power -- we mask because it allows us to hold and/or take power in a relationship or interaction.
So many horse trainers talk at length about not showing emotion with horses. Where this makes sense to me is as a reminder that our
emotions are not the only thing in the equation. And I think most often, they are talking about negative emotions along the anger/fear matrix. And I think learning discipline with this is important, in the same way that it's important when we engage with other people. (BTW, I think your relationship skill curriculum idea is dead on, Donald! Beautiful. And I can only imagine the confusion on that principal's face because it's sooooo far from what we think of as the "basics" here in the US...you crazy liberal hippy dude...
All that said, ultimately this teaching about showing no emotion to horses makes me really uncomfortable. I have found that when I approach my horses with an emotional version of a dead pan -- a blank face and body mask with all of my emotions tucked inside -- is not productive. I'm not fooling anybody, and they get wary with me when I try to pretend, as Donald suggests. We are all much better off if I let myself feel it and let them feel it -- especially when I can let it roll out without pointing it directly at them. (More true with the negative stuff, but even true, I'm finding, with the big positive emotions. When I have a huge rush of "I adore you!' I've learned to send it out widely -- if it comes directly and narrowly at them, it freaks them out a bit. Too strong, I guess, too focused, too pointy, if that makes sense.)
So, for me, the discipline is becoming not about either trying to control/hide my emotions (or theirs, either -- Andrew this is where things like NLP feel manipulative in negative ways to me), it's about learning to feel it, let it out, let it be the size and intensity it really is, and, most importantly, letting it come out and exist as some sort of etheric field alongside of all of us, which they can choose to step into or not as they wish. When I do this, we have amazing moments of connection, and more often than not they step into me to engage -- whether it's just to touch base, or to comfort me, or to apologize if I'm angry at something they've done.
And this becomes more true the longer we all invest in actually knowing and enjoying each other. I think that a lot of horses learn survival techniques of putting on their own mask -- doesn't mean they don't see through ours and doesn't mean they don't have emotions themselves, but I think they learn to tune out so all of the stuff coming at them doesn't make them bonkers.
(I'm thinking of the school horses at the last ranch where I boarded, for example. Those poor horses had spent so many years being treated as a means to an end by both riders and ranch owner they folded into themselves and gave nothing away. And they were described as "bomb proof." I suppose literally that's true, but it was the bomb proofing of shut down, not an open, experienced trust in their own capabilities and those of their human partners. I've written before about how Stardust was pretty much catatonic when I got him -- I think horses in these situations go to a similar, though often less extreme place.)Horses and Subconscious
Andrew, your statement about being interested in learning how better to read horses' subconscious movements also kicked some thoughts into gear. I think that this is a great goal in lots of ways. But I'm going to muddy the waters for you a little!
First, and I think most importantly, I think horses' conscious and subconscious thought processes work very differently than humans. I think the two swirl in horses, intertwined. I think present time and memory and conscious thought and unconscious thought (including what we humans rather over simply call "instinct") and personal thought and group thought all are cooking in horses all the time.
And while I do believe horses are capable of hiding what they think when they need to (ref. above and lesson horses, for example), I think this is adaptive survival behavior, and I think they just turn inward. They don't do the kinds of role playing people do -- pretending we're outgoing when we're shy, etc. They're not actors in the way that primates are.
Second, if in fact one can differentiate between subconscious and conscious movements in a horse, I think the best way to do so is to focus on becoming aware of one's OWN spit between conscious and subconscious movements.
I think this for two reasons:
1. There is, even subtly, an inherent sense of domination/manipulation about wanting to see, identify, and react based on someone else's (human or animal) subconscious responses. In the poker world in the US, these responses are called "tells" -- you're watching for movements that will give something away about how someone is thinking, whether they want you to see those or not. While what we want to do with this knowledge can be noble -- I want to understand you better -- I think this is where Rita's elegant points about "I and thou" are really important. It is like reading someone else's diary to focus in on and make use of others' tells...it is, in my mind, something of an invasion of privacy. We all do it all the time, but usually on a subconscious to subconscious level, which has a great deal more parity.
2. We truly don't know what horses are thinking at any moment. We can make lots of guesses (some educated, some not) but we can't be any more sure what they are thinking/feeling with any nuance any more than we can be with other people. But -- if we step further into our own skins, learn more about our own "tells" and learn to watch how horses respond to those, this is when we begin to get as close as we can get to understanding others. It starts from ourselves and works outwards.
Does the difference here make sense? It's one of the great, wonderfully seemingly backwards truth about the world -- I learn more about you when I take up the challenge to learn more about myself. When I see where my own warts and wants and fears and desires lie, and own them in all of their delightfulness and prickliness. And I take responsibility for what I'm sending out into the world with as much self awareness as possible.
When we do this, we eventually learn to open to others around us, so they can tell us about themselves in ways they
So, I guess my suggestion to you would be to, rather than look to something like NLP to learn how to read others' (horse or human) language, to look to learning your own as best you can. Self awareness build to awareness of others, and has the capacity to deepen into empathy.
If I were you, in addition to reading/watching other horse people (always open, but always thinking critically about what you agree with and what you don't) I'd be looking for learning experiences in other disciplines about this, both in your mind and in your body. The older I get, the more I realize how the experiences I've had across disciplines strengthens my understanding.
For the body, for example, a dance class... I wrote a bit about contact improv here in the Centered Riding thread
for example. Marvelous stuff for riders!! Even a social dance class -- swing or salsa, etc. would increase your kinesthetic awareness of movement and partnering. Or yoga, or martial arts, etc. And then there are lots of things you can do across lots of disciplines mentally/emotionally -- from guided meditation to writing to exploring psychotherapy. Your Reiki training will open up lots of doors, too, I would guess.
All of this can help open yourself to your horses and help you to learn more about them by giving you additional tools. But mostly, they'll teach you about themselves if you let them. Just takes time. I've spent a bunch of years in my life spending time with horses and I still feel like I'm at the beginning of learning what they can teach me. I would guess most people here feel that way -- even those among us who have decades and decades of engagement. It is truly a life long learning process -- and the farther i get into it, the less I'm looking for shortcuts, because the more i am in love with the moment by moment process. That's where the genius, the genesis, the generator all lie -- in the moment.
Well, I've waxed again...
As I was writing this, Donald posted more glorious pictures of Bonnie and company. Annaliese, you are brilliant! (Andrew -- another example -- as a professional photographer, Annaliese's genius is in intuiting the movement and moments as they're about to emerge -- maybe we can sweet talk her into talking a little bit about how she has honed her abilities to do that...).
And Rita -- Martin Buber! Serious yum. One of my grad school faculty members was a major Buber addict -- we don't read enough of him in the States, but she got us started. You've inspired me to go after more, thanks!