Talking to horses might be possible.
The round pen is a wonderful place to try your hand at talking to horses. It is a place where we can hold a sort of body language dialog that the horse understands, and gives the horse the ability to try to reach us as well. From our human standpoint, the dialog begins with two simple ideas: move… and stop. As simple as these two ideas are, our ability to communicate with freely moving horses around these two ideas is magical.
Most horses like to move. Getting them to move requires only a little encouragement. We can get horses to move outside the round ring as well, but on the outside, a loose horse can gallop off, leaving us in their dust, thereby ending “the conversation”. A round pen is shaped in a circle, so that the horse can run but never leave. Eventually, even the most athletic or scared horse trotting around the circle is ready to try to communicate with us, so that they can stop. Talking to horses works best when horses want to listen, but from the horse’s point of view we have to be listening too – with our eyes. If I can get a horse to start trotting around a round pen, and then wait, eventually the horse will use its body to try to communicate with me that it wants to stop. The horse might do something very subtle, like turn an ear toward me. It might do something more obvious – lick its lips. It might even try something dramatic, dropping its head to the ground while it is still trotting around, as if it is sniffing the earth. None of these body cues are words, and yet I believe that all of them are the horse’s attempts to talk with me. Can I communicate back to the horse? As crazy as it sounds, if I take several big steps backward from a trotting horse that has dropped its head to the ground and licked its lips, it will usually stop in its tracks. It is magical! Why does this work? I don’t know – my mental model is of a force-field. When I am close to the horse, my body’s force-field pushes on the horse. Squaring my shoulders, or waving my arms or yelling all increase the strength of the force-field. When I back up, the pressure goes away, allowing the horse to relax. I wonder if this would work with a dog or a cat?
Pressure on to move. Licking lips to understand. Pressure off to stop. We will together have developed the beginnings of a way to communicate. Talking to horses might not be impossible after all.