Listening With Your Eyes
by Scott Thomson
We were at a critical spot in a lesson. My student wasn't new to horses but had been away long enough that even she admitted she was pretty "green." She was eager to learn and teachable, and had obviously made the commitment to practice the basics between lessons. The kind of student every teacher wants, no matter what the subject.
This was one of those moments with a horse where you have to bring many different things together in harmony. It was complex groundwork, and it required smooth and coordinated use of the tools in each hand, movement of the feet, concentrated focus while having soft eyes, and proper positioning that had to be maintained even as the horse was moving. There was no room for confusion, as success depended entirely on clear communication the horse would understand. My student was set up perfectly in her mind and with her body, and initiated her "conversation" with her horse.
Then a funny thing happened. She did everything right but missed the result. She turned to her friend who was watching the lesson and asked, "Did I do it right?" Then she asked me the same thing. Both of us responded with great enthusiasm, assuring her that she had absolutely nailed a pretty advanced piece of horsemanship on the ground. The reassurance, support and praise from us humans gave her the confidence to set herself up to try it again.
I see this more and more with people and horses and it always gets me thinking about what has happened to our powers of observation and self-confidence in this connected age.
I've always felt the only feedback you need to tell whether you're doing something right with a horse should come from the horse. The horse never lies. He will always tell you — with an ear, a look in the eye, a drop of the head or the athletic grace when he moves with confidence and softness — that you have asked him for something he understands. In his own way, he will praise your efforts. Or he will make it clear you need to work on your communication skills. This should be the most honest one-to-one relationship you ever have. For both the horse and the human, it is based solely on observation and body language. There are no gray areas and no faint praise.
I wonder why so many people don't see it this way.
If I think about the true masters of horsemanship — not the current names with all the fancy shows, slick training videos and special equipment you can buy only from them — they were quiet, humble, even solitary people. Comfortable with themselves but not necessarily with other people beyond their families. They spent long periods of time alone and on their own, usually on ranches with just their horses. They were more about observing and thinking than talking and promoting. These masters were so good with horses because they focused only on the animals, and accepted the approval from the horse as the only positive feedback they needed to know they were doing the right thing.
When horses moved from a life necessity to a recreational pursuit, and when horsemanship started to become big business, it brought a whole new group of people to the world of horses. Along with that came all the emotional needs of human existence today. Most of us are just not comfortable on our own and we don't draw a lot of personal strength and satisfaction from individual pursuits only we see. We need lots of support from outside sources — promotions and raises at work, assurances from friends, recognition for any accomplishments, support from family or organizations that we have joined — in order to feel good about ourselves and what we're doing. Social media and instant access have only increased our ability to connect and share, and to get immediate reassurance.
When we're with our horses, this means we love to hear people say our horses are beautiful, smart or well trained, as if that is all a reflection of our accomplishments. We like it when people say we look good in the saddle, or even that our tack is so nice and well maintained. We have riding buddies and make the activity a social event, where most everyone is supportive. The approval we get from the outside raises our confidence and self-esteem. When things go off track a bit, we blame the horse or the trainer or anthropomorphize about the motivations of the animal or its reactions to certain situations or things so we don't have to feel bad about ourselves.
I'm not being judgmental here. With an undergraduate degree in social psychology and a long career in business, I understand we are social beings who need to find our place in society, and that support and approval from peers, family and friends is critical to our emotional and physical well-being. These are basic human needs.
But maybe all this connection and sharing and looking to the outside for approval for every action or decision has diminished our ability to lead our horses.
When I joined the horse world years ago, I came at it like many beginners. I wanted a pretty horse; I wanted a trainer to show me what to do; I wanted some riding buddies; I wanted people at the barn to compliment me on my progress and skills. Basically, I wanted this to be another part of my life — adding to career, sports and other pursuits — that would provide positive feedback and some ego stroking. I now belonged to another group.
Early on, I got a nice slap in the face that changed my thinking. After my first clinic, the clinician came up and said in pretty strong words, "When you get back to your barn, don't you dare let the trainer in your barn touch your horse." That was like, whoa, what's this all about? He knew the trainer, had high regard for her skills and experience, so this was obviously not about her in any way.
He explained that I had to learn to know my horse, spend time with him by myself and observe him. I had to learn to read his body; he had to learn to read mine. I needed to know when he understood and accepted what I was asking for, and when he was confused. I had to see and feel his approval and acceptance, and should take great pleasure in that. This should trump any approval you get from a friend, trainer or riding buddy. The horse is telling you, "You're doing it right and you're giving me what I need." He'll tell you when you're doing it wrong, too, but that should not feel like failure, just a message to step back and think about what he is saying and how you can help.
It takes a strong-willed person to skip a trail ride with friends in order to work one-on-one with your horse. It is hard to admit that your horse has a "hole," because that says something negative about you. Your friends look at you pretty strangely if you're off in the corner of the arena doing things by yourself. They can take that personally, as if you're making some judgment of their skills or the quality of their advice by going off on your own. If they don't understand what you're doing and why, then to them it means you don't understand it, either. Human nature.
But guess what? The only thing that really matters is whether your horse understands what you're doing.
I know how hard this is because I went through it. But if you want to be good with your horse, you need to find the time for solitary work. Don't be looking over your shoulder for someone to tell you you're doing a good job. Get the rewards and support you need from the animal standing in front of you. Without the power of observation and learning how to "listen with your eyes," you will miss the most meaningful affirmation of your efforts — your horse saying, "Thank you, I understand and I trust you." No pat on the back from another human comes close to matching that.
Scott Thomson lives in Silver City and teaches natural horsemanship
and foundation training. You can contact him
at firstname.lastname@example.org or (575) 388-1830.