Horses are sensitive. They are cognitive, meaning they are capable of acquiring knowledge and understanding through thought, experience, and the senses (Oxford dictionary definition). They are sentient. They are conscious. (There is an interesting philosophical history of these terms on Wikipedia should you be interested. )
On July 7, 2012 a group of neuroscientists met at Cambridge to discuss the overwhelming amount of research that has been done that proves that non-human animals are conscious in a way very similar to humans. Witnessed by Stephen Hawking, these prominent scientists signed a document entitled The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness, stating:
“Convergent evidence indicates that non-human animals have the neuroanatomical, neurochemical, and neurophysiological substrates of conscious states along with the capacity to exhibit intentional behaviors. Consequently, the weight of evidence indicates that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness. Non-human animals, including all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses, also possess these neurological substrates.” (nice article on the subject by Marc Bekoff)
What does all this mean? Why does it matter? And why am I writing about it in the context of Tango with Horses?
For three weeks I have been taking notes on what we’ve been experiencing here in our early experimentation with this notion that horses will willingly follow an acceptable leader. I have an entire blog post composed with all these great photos of what we’ve been doing but it’s not enough. Somehow it’s just not enough to encompass the magnitude of what I feel happening here.
What matters to me in this moment is that Susan and I have witnessed this indisputable fact of animal consciousness in our encounters with the herd. And once experienced it changes absolutely everything.
I had no idea how much the horses had to say, how much they had to contribute to the dialogue until we STOPPED
Until we STOPPED.
Until we stopped….
I wrote about this incredible place of stillness the horses have invited us into and it’s in that still place where we stopped trying make something happen – stopped exercising them or grooming them or doing body work on them or riding them or rehabbing them – we just stopped and connected and listened. And I have not one shred of doubt about their level of consciousness, their intelligence and that it is indeed very similar to our own.
While they may not have verbal language they do have an unbelievable array of ways to communicate with us. When Gin makes direct eye contact with me and moves in a certain way she communicates volumes about her intention, what she needs from me and how she wants to help. She directs and guides and supports all of us in the most incredible ways.
Kastani orchestrated an entire session one day when he decided to work on Rio’s desire to stick his head in a corner and not relate to anyone. He poked and prodded me and poked and prodded Rio, until Rio finally launched out of the corner, ears pinned flat while Kastani purposefully placed himself near Susan and Jack. He continued to place me and my hands in the places he felt were important. Indicating his satisfaction by becoming deeply quiet until he felt the need to intervene again. Rio ended up responding to hands on time together in a way he never has before. He’s been far more open and inclined to interaction with the other horses since that day.
Sundance placed himself between Susan and I so that his butt was directly in front of me. Placing a hand on either side of his tail I immediately felt all these odd sensations under my left hand. He showed me in no uncertain terms where the suspected hind end issue centers. He shifted me again when he felt he had my attention so that I had both hands on his left hip, and Susan one hand on his neck and one hand on Huey. Suddenly I felt a huge wave of nausea and felt/saw in my mind’s eye that he had a major wreck that injured his left hind in a way that was seriously painful. I said to Susan what I was feeling and she informed me that in that same moment she felt deep sadness and all of a sudden wanted to cry with no explanation. As we talked about what we were experiencing Sundance licked, chewed and did an enormous stretch that included stretching his left hind leg straight out behind him.
As he walked off to process quietly on his own, Gin came over and asked for some attention. As I moved my hand along her spine on her right side I had a brief thought of the brands on her hindquarters and wondered if she had resolved her trauma from being roped and branded as a weanling. I felt compelled to let my fingers touch the brand on her right hamstring and as they passed across the brand she dropped her head and closed her eyes. As I lingered there she did the same giant stretch as Sunny with right hind fully extended. Since that day Gin has stopped being skeptical of me, she looks me right in the eye when I approach and happily accepts the halter. In the 25 years she’s been a part of my life she has ALWAYS walked away and had to be negotiated with to catch her.
My rehab horse this month has lameness issues that have been a complete mystery. When I approached him with this work he was able to very clearly show me that it’s his right hind leg that bothers him. On the second day he even went so far as to pick up his right hind and flex and extend the joints dramatically every time I approached that leg so that I could hear the crunching noises his stifle was making. He seems completely relieved to know that he was heard.
As each of the horses sees that we are listening, sees that we understand their language and probably most importantly that we want them to share how they feel, they are blossoming. They are much more interested in spending time with us and much more willing to communicate. Not a single one of them has taken advantage and become rude or intentionally uncooperative.
Today I had it in mind that Kastani wanted attention so maybe he’d want to go move around. I took him out to the arena thinking we would play with some movement. He made it very clear he didn’t want that so I thought maybe he wanted some hands on attention like the others had been getting. Through a series of clear communications he made me very aware that his left eye was seriously bothering him from fly irritation. I put his fly mask back on and put him up. When I came back with eye ointment he whinnied with gratitude.
When I think about our training methods and the expectations we have of horses in light of what I’ve experienced in the last few weeks I am rather horrified. Horrified by how much we miss by focusing so intently on ‘teaching’ them how to ‘behave’ according to our rules and expectations. It’s shocking how little time we spend learning their language – their genuine language – the subtle, tiny signals that communicate volumes if we could only observe them.
How much we miss.
It’s not that I ever doubted that horses are sentient. I’ve always known that they think and feel and experience pain and suffering and joy and enthusiasm much the same way we do. For different reasons and with motivations that are specific to their species but the feelings are still the same. Knowing that on the level that we now know it we will never be able to approach working with them in a way that does not take that into account.
I can’t wait to see what they have to contribute when we take this dance into motion! How joyful it will be for all of us with such a foundation of trust and listening in place.
What they have collectively contributed to me in the last few weeks has been completely transformational. I am forever grateful and forever changed.
And the journey continues!