Monday, February 10, 2014

Putting words in their mouths

Language separates humans from animals, and yet there are so many experts out there that claim to “read” animal language.  I suppose that puts animal trainers and handlers in a certain class with translators and interpreters.  We decipher a “foreign” communication, and give a voice to those who cannot be understood.

I volunteered for many years in an equestrian center, drawn by the natural beauty of horses, and perhaps riding a horse was the fulfillment of a dream passed down from my Polish grandfather. His portrait in my home shows him brandishing a sabre as he sits astride a horse that I would guess to be an Arabian, with its small stature, dished face and dancing feet.  Someone once told me that it is particularly tiring to sit an Arabian horse, because they never stand still.  My grandfather’s horse looks as if it wants to fly off the wall.

Early on in my exposure to horses, I found it interesting that human handlers routinely “spoke” (in first person) for the horses in their care.  “Where’s my hay?”  “I don’t really want to go for a ride today.”   I suppose all humans put words in the mouths of their beloved four-legged companions.  My dog communicates fairly clearly to me:  licking his nose while standing next to the fridge where his bag of kibble sits means “hey, I’m hungry.”  Standing by the front door means “I need to go out.”  Putting his toy at my feet means “can we play fetch now?”

Horses, on the other hand, are infinitely more discreet than a dog, and almost entirely non vocal.  They don’t bark or wag their tail to let you know they are happy to see you.  Their communication is so subtle:  the direction their ears are pointing, the position of their head, the amount of white showing around their eyes.  Unlike the happy hind end message of a dog, a swish of the tail on a horse (if not to chase a fly) might be a warning signal that a hoof is going to come off the ground in your general direction pretty soon, especially if his ears are flattened against his head.

As an interpreter, I would listen in quiet amusement while humans in the barn would “interpret” for horses.  Horses do communicate, but their very nature makes the communication complex.  They are both powerful flight animals and submissive servants  and we humans have had to figure out which side of their nature is operational at any given moment, without too much of a sign from the horse.  Human history would have never progressed to where it has if there had not been generous equines to assist us.  What if all we had to work with were goats or kangaroos?  Horses, with all their muscle and size and speed, stand for us and let us climb aboard, allow us to attach all manner of leather and metal to their bodies and in their mouths.  I am always deeply touched by the generosity of this animal towards humans.  It is their very generosity that makes them inscrutable.  Saints are not complainers.

As an interpreter, I am limited to my experience and exposure to situations in my foreign language.  I have actually toured a nuclear power plant with French speakers.  While this allowed me to learn some specific technical vocabulary, that one encounter does not make me an expert in nuclear power.  Likewise, spending years and years with horses might give me some vocabulary, but would I actually “speak horse”?

There are horse “whisperers” and trainers who, through extensive exposure, interpret what the horse is thinking and feeling.  Unlike language interpreters, however, who are trained to remain neutral, and who are interpreting within their own species and maybe even under a common modern cultural “umbrella” of understanding, the horse whisperer or trainer is making a bigger leap of faith.  Seriously, no one really knows what a horse is thinking. 

I have watched the conflicts that have arisen between horse handlers, each interpreting equine messages differently and subsequently providing different responses and reactions.  There are those who will beat the horse and intimidate it (the caveman approach), shout, whisper, massage, clicker train and reward. 

The trainer I respected the most was the very first one I encountered in a barn.  He didn't speak so much to the horse as LISTEN.  And, as any interpreter knows, effective LISTENING is crucial.  Horse communication is full of tacit messages, and can go misinterpreted for a very long time until the horse has a “freak out” moment, or lies down in pain on the ground.   

There are as many different styles of training and managing horses as there are barns across the countryside, and horse handlers are often immovable in defense of their preferred method.  They fervently cling to their method like a religion.

That is why I so appreciated my first instructor, Matt Trynoski.  His reflective approach to any horse problem would begin with:  “Hmm, that all depends….”  tempered with years of experience and a lot of listening.

Through my contact with horses, I have found them to be wonderful teachers.  They have much to teach human beings on the subjects of fear and confidence, dominance and submission, persuasion and force, strength and gentleness, generosity and collaboration.

If we only know how to listen…