Have you ever watched horses graze and wonder what the herd members could be saying to each other? That’s exactly what myself and other attendees learned to interpret during a recent weekend retreat at Heidi Potter’s New England Center for Horsemanship in Vermont.
(Canadian Horse, Riley, with Lise Krieger & Heidi Potter. Photo: Liz Piacentini)
Heidi is a Centered Riding instructor and author of Open Heart, Open Mind: A Pathway to Rediscovering Horsemanship. I’ve audited Heidi’s clinic on Obstacles Training and read about Riley, her Canadian horse, in her book. Learning how to decode equine body language caught my interest. As a fellow Canadian owner, the opportunity to practice these conversations with a Canadian horse added to the appeal.
Sharon Wilsie, author of Horse Speak: The Equine-Human Translation Guide, co-taught this un-mounted program with Heidi. Sharon has trained and rehabilitated horses, coached intercollegiate teams, and created programs for horse rescues and therapeutic riding centers.
Last year, I was able to attend one of Sharon’s presentations on Horse Speak at Equine Affaire in Massachusetts. Her 1-hour session was filled with information and provided a fascinating introduction to conversations with horses. I could only image how much I’d learn in two days!
Developing Awareness of Our Core, Strength and Balance
Horses can tune in to very subtle changes in body language. Before meeting the herd, we started each day with fitness and body awareness exercises for ourselves.
On Saturday, out came the yoga mats for a workout specifically designed for riders! An area instructor conducted an amazing session that had us all engaging our core, stretching our muscles and opening our shoulders.
On Sunday, a Tai Chi instructor led us through a variety of slow, centering movements that brought awareness to our balance and breath. The heightened focus of our core, balance and movement came in handy when we interacted with the individual horses.
Observing the Herd
Horses have a lot to say! Really. Once the herd of five geldings was brought into the ring, Sharon began interpreting one little movement after another. Ears, eyes, head, breath, feet, body, and tail spoke volumes. We soon realized that what appeared to be horses at liberty munching individual hay flakes, was actually a slow stream of continuous conversation.
Sharon reminded us that horses in a herd are always in conversation. They need to maintain a state of constant awareness in case of a predator. In fact, we observed how they stood at 45-degree angles to each other – ready for a clean, untangled get away, if they needed to flee.
The horses greeted each other by sniffing noses with three quick breaths. Some showed affection with a sniff on the neck. Others negotiated for personal space with the placement of a foot. Occasionally, one would trigger a ripple effect, making a big movement that caused the whole herd to rearrange positions before settling back down.
Being an alert prey animal in constant conversation seemed exhausting!
Sharon pointed out the various roles within the herd. For example, the “Sentry” kept an eye out for danger, while the older “Mentor” patiently kept the young instigator in check. The “Leader” was the one who displayed a combination of the calmest nerves mixed with attuned senses.
A healthy herd thrives on having a peaceful state and a Leader with an inner calm. Sharon referred to this inner calm as “Zero”. This state of being calm, yet aware, is what horses look for from all leaders – including us.
Humm, that was a great personal take-away.
When we have the goal of attaining Zero in our own inner state, the horses can more easily find theirs. The advantage? A calm horse is able to pay attention, be receptive to learning (instead of survival), and become a more willing partner.
“Listening” and “Talking”
As our small group of participants entered the ring, we were reminded that horses have a bubble of personal space around them and like to know where our spatial boundaries are. Heidi and Sharon helped us find each horse’s “bubble” as we slowly moved around the horses with open palms that clarified our boundaries. If we were too close, they’d move away, letting us know we’d just crossed into their space.
(Sharon Wilsie & Liz Piacentini clarify spacial boundaries. Photo: Chelsea Potter Dore)
After learning the 13 communication points or “buttons” on a horse’s body, we had fun practicing conversations with the horses on lead ropes. We worked on conveying: Hello, hold still, come towards me, back up, turn this way and even a simple pattern that conveyed, don’t worry, I’ve got your back.
The weekend wasn’t about teaching something to the horses. They already knew how to speak Horse! It was about learning Horse Speak for ourselves. We learned to adjust our energy levels, clarify our intentions and set boundaries. Most importantly, it helped us find our inner Zero and become the calm and trustworthy person our horses need us to be.
By the end of the retreat, I felt incredibly calm, centered and confident! I packed up my yoga mat and a copy of Sharon’s newest book, Horses in Translation: Essential Lessons in Horse Speak and headed home to practice “listening” and “talking” with my Canadian horse, Lyrical.
Continuing the Conversation
Heidi Potter & Sharon Wilsie will be clinicians at the Canadian Horse Expo coming to the Harwinton Fair Grounds in Connecticut on October 13, 2018. (Rain date 10/14). Learn more about Horse Speak and Stress-free Obstacles Training during this educational event featuring seminars, demos, and vendors. The expo welcomes all equestrians and is dedicated to promoting awareness of the critically endangered Canadian Horse, le Cheval Canadien – the National Horse of Canada.
Enjoy the Journey!
(Header Photo Credit: Fotosearch.com)