Communication and Horsemanship

You are never not communicating. Think about that. The simplest theoretical model of Communication is a two way process where a single message is sent from sender to receiver. Now… we all know that most of the time that is not as easy as it sounds. Many different obstacles can get in the way and 99.9% of the time multiple messages are sent at once (even if they have the same intention). You communicate through words, tone, volume, facial expression, body language and countless other ways every second of every day. So… what does this have to do with horses? Well, you do not have to be an astrophysicist to know that animals are also never not communicating… hint hint… because you are one. Often, there is a huge disconnect between “human communication” and “animal communication” (not in the psychic sense, but actually communication between animals) and I for one find this disconnect fascinating. Why have we separated ourselves so much from non human animals? I am not going to tackle this question of anthropomorphism and anthropocentrism today, as many awesome people are already on top of this, but I am going to address why theories of communication, as traditionally applied to human-human relationships, should be on the forefront of our minds when we interact (in any sense of the word) with our horses. 

Horses are Sentient Beings

It is important to point out that I wholeheartedly believe that horses are sentient beings with thoughts, feelings and emotions and are capable of forming relationships with other beings. They are individuals with different personalities, preferences and abilities. If you do not believe this, try to, at least for the remainder of this blog post, you may surprise yourself. If you do, read on 🙂 

Imagine this:

You walk out into the field at 3:45pm to grab your horse for your 4pm lesson. It is about 90 degrees outside, but it’s North Carolina so if you want a temperature cooler than that you have to ride at 6am or 9pm… so here you are. The horses are all the way on the other side of the large pasture, seeking shelter in the woods. Sweating, you hurriedly march your way across the field, wrap the lead rope around your horse’s neck, pull up to get him to stop eating, quickly halter him and lead him back to the barn to tack up for your lesson which now starts in 8 minutes. You put him in the cross ties and he will not stop dancing around. He is pawing, moving away from you and you just keep on brushing, your trainer is about to come around the corner and you have not even gotten your tack from the tack room. Uh oh. You run in the tack room, grab your tack, put the saddle on your horse and are speed-walking to the arena when your trainer finishes her last lesson, you made it! You hop on your horse and begin to warm him up thinking about all you need to work on and accomplish during your lesson, but before you make it halfway around the ring, your trainer asks you to get off. Your horse is lame. Next question, was he lame in the field? Was he acting funny in the cross ties? Did you even pick his feet? Did you feel that he was off the first 2 minutes you were on him? You can not answer, because you didn’t know. You were so worried about being late for your lesson and about thinking about everything that needed to get done that you did not pay attention. 

Now, I do not share this story to shun anyone who has been in this position. If you have been riding horses in the modern world for any amount of time, you have 100% been here. Me too. I am also not assuming that all lameness issues are visible prior to riding… though most are. I share it to bring attention to a larger issue. The lack of awareness about the communication happening within the human horse interaction. I can guarantee that without knowing you or your horse, that there were some missed messages that happened throughout this example interaction. For instance, do you always need to wrap the lead rope around your horse’s neck in order for him to pick up his head for his halter? Or will he willingly walk (or even trot or canter) across the field to meet you? Do you always show up to see him rushed, thinking about other things and with a mission to be accomplished? Or do you see what he wants to do some days? Again, there is no wrong answer to any of these questions, but if you do not like your answer, it may need to change for YOU.

Communication Theory

So why talk about communication theory? When you show up to the barn, you start communicating when you pull in the driveway. Horses are very aware of their environment and I would even go as far to say that they recognize your car. They are extremely in tune with their environment and pick up on ALL of your communication, whether conscious to you or not. The question however is; do you know what you are communicating? Are you communicating what you want to be? Are you aware of how your horse is communicating with you? What are they saying when they will not come to you in the pasture? What are they communicating if they are dancing around on the cross ties? Are you open to understanding this communication?

For the next few weeks, ponder these questions. Future posts will break down the marriage of  Communication Theory and Horsemanship. Stay tuned! 

PS- Leanne has been doing human-horse communication research at NC State University with her mentor, Dr. Elizabeth Craig since 2015. In May 2019, she graduated with her Masters in Communication after defending her thesis which was focused on the nonverbal turning points that occur in human horse interaction. If you have any interest in human-horse academic research, she would love to chat!

Special thanks to Chelsea Allegra Photography for the photo above!

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