I am learning the language of horses, much like I have learned the language of dogs in the past ten years. For those of you who don't know, I made a dog breeding mistake and ended up with four boxers in a 1000 sq foot condo. Before that time, I didn't realize the multitude of methods dogs have for communicating with their humans and how subtle they can be. And I never really realized how much of our language and behavior they understand, in combination with how we smell.
My dogs sneeze to mean yes. They shake to show overall agreement. They can prick their ears, lay them flat, cock their heads and tip up their chins. And because they are boxers, they woo-woo when they want to argue with you. I have become very good at reading their language. And they have become very good at reading me, including sniffing the air to see if I really am mad, or if I'm just playing.
It brings up the question of intelligence and sentience. How much do our animals really understand and how close are they, evolutionarily speaking, to sentience? I think it's an important question to ask and answer. Although western society as a whole has not been great at recognizing commonalities amonst humans (think slavery, genocide, manifest destiny), once recognized, I believe we have a moral obligation to treat our animals the way we would want to be treated. I think this recognition, for me at least, cuts to the heart of the relationship I want to pursue with Ashke. I don't want him to be an object I use to gain a particular outcome, not even if that outcome were the Tevis Cup. I want to grow our connection in a way that he enjoys as much as I do. My only interest in endurance is to challenge both of us and to enjoy spending hours together on the trail. It is not my goal. My goal is to develop the us.
So that goes back to his method of communicating with me. We have spoken about his licking in past posts. He licks when he is stressed or uncomfortable, whether that is manifest emotionally or physically. Sometimes he bites, although his biting is half-hearted at best, and seems to migrate around him not feeling good and in some cases stress. If you don't let him bite, he immediately reverts to the licking. He communicates with his ears a lot. I used to think he didn't want to go, because he would put them back, but after working with him the past three months, I think this is more a response of listening to me, than of protest. He swishes his tail. He mouths the bit. He shakes and snorts. All of those mean different things depending on when they happen. J says he raises his tail when he is comfortable and enjoying what we are doing. He responds to verbal commands. I've never had that before with a horse. He understands that "easy" means to slow down and relax. "Good boy" means he is doing what I want him to do. When we crossed the creek at Bear Creek, when he took the first step forward and I said "Good boy" I felt him react to that.
So, what does this all mean? It means that I acknowledge that he has ideas and feelings and issues of his own. It means that I acknowledge that he isn't going to understand me everytime I ask him to do something, but he will try and figure it out. I means that I need to be patient and ask the question differently, if he is lost or confused. It means that I can never react in anger, for just like a child doesn't understand why I am suddenly angry, neither will my horse. It means that I need to give him time to adjust and figure things out, to make it fun and non-stressful, to be consistent in my ask, and to praise his try.
It also means that I have to acknowledge and approach our relationship with the understanding that there isn't a mean bone in his body, that he wants to do a good job, and that for horses sometimes trying is the most important part of any exercise.