I am in the throes (the last ones, please the Elder Gods) of what my contractor-herder calls a “Whole-House Restoration,” which is now in its fourth month, and therefore have no brain cells available for anything else. Have a Horseblog Classic, therefore, and also an anniversary. The puppy mentioned below is now a grown dog, and he’s very much a part of every day on the farm and around the horses. It has, like the home renovation, been a long process, but ultimately and totally worth it.
And now, from August of 2013, some thoughts on, well, thoughts. And modes of thinking.
While the Horseblog wends its way onward, my fellow BVC member Dave Trowbridge has been posting his own Puppyblog on Saturdays. This past week, he addressed the question of interspecies communication. Among the many good points made, one of the most important, for me, is that humans probably fail to understand the vast majority of the messages sent to them by their animals, and probably are not even aware that they’re missing anything.
Tell me about it.
It’s not just that I have perforce to struggle with my innate body-deafness and mind-blindness; it’s that if I don’t catch the signals when I’m around the horses, I can get in serious and perhaps fatal trouble. With dogs and cats, the dangers are by no means trivial, but clueless humans blundering around in herds of large herbivores can get trampled with terrible ease. Horses are far more aware of said humans than the humans are of them, but if instinct triggers–fight, flight, defend weaker member of herd–the horse may forget or cease to care that the human is effectively disabled, and boom. Flattened human.
During our monthly Herd Yoga sessions, we often entertain newcomers. Many are unfamiliar with horses, and don’t recognize the signals, or understand what the horses are saying with their bodies, their movement, and their general attitude. Even guests with some understanding of horses can go into the Monkey Zone, tune out the world around them and start chattering to one another, completely oblivious to the large and powerful animals around them.
Writers are especially prone to this. I can’t count the number of times I’ve barked some version of MOVE! NOW! into the midst of a happy colloquy about matters authorial. The horses will be swirling around each other in ways that to them are eminently clear and, in body-language terms, extremely loud, with neon flashers, but the monkeys babble on without a clue. They’re all up in their heads with the words and the ideas.
Words can be useful. They define concepts and set boundaries. They let humans convey complex ideas in a few stylized shapes of sound, and when written down, they allow these sounds to be conveyed remotely, through time as well as space.
Domestic animals are nowhere near as prone to inventing words as humans are. We are aware of a few spoken animal languages (and probably unaware of many more), such as dolphin and prairie dog, but when it comes to animals that communicate far less by vocalizations than by subtle shifts in body language or movement, we’re mostly just plowing on through without realizing we’re being spoken to. Or at. Or about.
What humans lack is a power of observation–a level of mindfulness. The focus on words obscures the far wider variety of communications that are happening around them. The animal sitting there apparently doing nothing is in fact sending clear and focused messages–if only the human were aware of them.
As I said earlier, I’ve had to learn a pretty fair amount of Horse, and a good amount of Cat as well. I’m a great deal less of a dog person; my dogs have been loved and valued, but they came to me as adults or near-adults, already trained, and mostly we’ve stuck to the basics: Feed Me, Pet Me, Let Me Outside. In meeting strange dogs, I’ve felt a great deal less confident than I would be with horses or cats. I’m much less fluent in their language.
So now I’ve been taken over by a rescue puppy–dumped in the desert, and of those who did that to him, the less said the better–and suddenly I’m having to learn a much more sophisticated vocabulary of Dog. I’m reading Dave’s blogs with interest and close attention; my Ro-Pup is a much softer animal than Mr. Darcy, but there’s much to be gained from the experiences Dave discusses.
It’s a great help that the horses and the cats have taught me to pay attention. To get out of my head. To get away from the reliance on words. Dog training traditionally uses words, as a convenience, but in and around them is a whole world of body language that somewhat resembles Horse or Cat…except when it doesn’t. Sometimes it’s diametrically opposed; other times, it sort of slides by on a tangent.
There are things I’d do with a horse that make the dog just stare (though I find that the hands I’ve developed from the management of leadline and longeline and rein do translate in interesting ways to managing collar and leash), and there is a distinct difference between the psychology of the predator and that of the prey animal. The pack is not quite the same as the herd, though they have elements in common (notably social structures and sharing or appropriating of food or other resources).
Still. They all need me to pay attention–to set human chatter aside and focus on what they’re saying above and beyond words.
Sometimes it gets eerie. Not just between the human and the animal, either, but between the species of animals.
We had a test drive with the puppy–his foster human brought him over for a day to see how he got along with the resident dog and the rest of the animals. Since the foster human is also my horse trainer, we met in the barn, with my stallion saddled and ready for a lesson. Stallion has had a long experience of dogs both good and bad–including one attack that left him with scars–and while we knew already that this pup respected horses (and he’s a Shepherd mix, so the genes tend more toward guarding or managing the herd than regarding its members as dinner on the hoof), we couldn’t be sure exactly how the meeting would go.
It went…weird. Puppy sat and looked into horse’s face. Horse lowered his head to get the scent–and went into an almost Zen-like state. Breath deep and slow. Eyes half-closed, blinking slowly. I’ve never seen him react that way to anything outside of an acupuncture session.
Dog was perfectly calm. When the horse lifted his head and went back to normal, dog backed up one respectful step. And that was it. They were good.
As far as the humans can tell, they recognized each other somehow. They definitely approved of each other. The horse let us know this dog didn’t alarm or annoy him. The dog let us know that he respected the horse. What else was going on–who knows? Not these humans. But something was.
It certainly put us in our place. We may like to think that we’re the most advanced of the animals, and technologically there’s no question that we are. But when it comes to subtle gradations of body language and movement, not to mention whatever else may actually be going on that we lack either the senses or the equipment to identify, we’re well down the scale from the animals who’ve chosen, or been chosen, to be our partners and companions.