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The Horse-Human Connection

10 Powerful Tips For Effective Communication

by Jane Sanders

Horses, like humans, are a blend of masculine and feminine behavioral and communication styles. One significant difference separates us, however. Humans struggle daily with misperceptions, misunderstandings, and rampant confusion as to how to communicate effectively with the style opposite from their own. Horses also struggle when trying to understand us, but in their world, naturally and easily adopt a masculine or feminine style as the need arises.

So, horses demonstrate ideal style flexibility. Both men and women would be well served to use each other’s communication style – in moderation - when the situation calls for it.

By no means should women use a masculine style exclusively, or vice versa. One of the most damaging behaviors many women adopt is trying to become “one of the guys” to fit into the traditionally man’s world of business. Doing so suppresses their authenticity and in the long run, does much more harm than good and will backfire personally or professionally, or both.

A horse never tries to be something it is not. Learn how to communicate with it in a way it understands or you won’t get what you want from it. As famed horse clinician Pat Parelli said, "If your horse says no, you either asked the wrong question, or you asked the question wrong."

The following are communication and behavioral tips for both men and women that will help improve productivity, working relationships, and chances for advancement. As I explain each style tip, I have interpreted it through the eyes of a horse for your interest and entertainment. Please note I am not implying that men or women are like horses – just that our communication styles have some similarities and therefore opportunities for interesting learning. (Personally I would love to be compared to a graceful, spirited, authentic, beautiful, intuitive, spiritual, big-hearted creature, but that’s just me.)

I think you’ll find it fascinating how horses respond to either a masculine or feminine style, depending on the situation. Just like us humans! No better teachers exist than our equine friends. Charles de Kunffy, Hungarian dressage expert, noted, “For horses can educate through first hand, subjective, personal experiences, more than human tutors, teachers, and professors can ever do. Horses can build character, not merely urge one to improve on it. Horses forge the mind, the character, the emotions and inner lives of humans. People can talk to one another about all these things and remain distanced and lonesome. In partnership with a horse, one is seldom lacking for thought, emotion and inspiration. One is always attended by a great companion.”

Be succinct, to the point, but not abrupt

(No one has time for loads of detail or tolerance for rudeness!)

Horses will lose trust and respond negatively to anger and rudeness. Unlike dogs and more like people, they do not love unconditionally.

Hold details for back-up purposes. Horses get bored and mentally tired easily. Give them only exactly what they need at any particular moment during a training session or ride.

To be successful with horses, its more important for them to respect and trust you first. They want to know you are the leader. Liking can come later and will if the respect and trust remain consistent. Liking can come first, but without the respect and trust they will still run over you and challenge you at every turn.

Avoid tag questions, apologies, disclaimers

("This is a good report, don’t you think?" Better would be:,"Good report.” "Well, this is just my opinion, but…" Better would be "I think we should")

Horses need clear, direct, yet gentle communication to be effective. They do not respond to indirect or weak communication. (Unless they have worked with you enough and love you enough to read between the lines…sound familiar?) If gentle doesn’t work, dial it up a bit. If that doesn’t work, a bit more still. (Voice, then tap, then squeeze with your calves, then kick but only if necessary) But be sure you’re asking clearly, in language they understand!

Take credit for your accomplishments

(Or someone else might! You are not bragging! If you don’t communicate your successes to the powersat- be, no one else will do it for you and your skills may be overlooked or underestimated.)

A horse flashes its pride with panache, tossing its head and mane, arching its neck, prancing about with ears pricked forward and eyes bright. There is no mistaking a happy, proud horse!

Being an ex-performance champion with resulting arthritis, my horse doesn’t prance but certainly holds his head high and struts when he’s happy and knows he’s done well. Beau always lets me know when the farrier has been out, every six weeks or so, to trim, re-shoe, and polish his feet. When I arrive at the barn he trots a circle in his big stall as if to say, “Look mom, my feet are all purty again!”

And just when I think he is getting too old to run up the steep hill, he launches into a gallop from a standstill, flying up the canyon and tossing in a buck or two to show me how much energy he can still muster when he wants to show off.

Handle conflict directly, politely, with empathy

(Be clear, to the point, but not rude or abrupt. If you are nervous about an upcoming confrontation, write out your thoughts to clarify and focus them.)

As mentioned, horses do not respond well to anger, rudeness, or indirect communication. Just tell them like it is, with clarity, clear intention, gentle firmness, and love in your heart.

When interrupted, be direct and courteous, not sharp, but take back the floor

(“Hang on a second please, thanks.” Put your hand up to signal “stop” if you have to, while speaking in a friendly yet firm voice.)

Horses, like children and some people, will constantly test your leadership skills. Use this skill to bring them back into focus for success. Wiggle the lead rope, tap their side, cluck your tongue.

Don’t assume a softer style means less competent

(It’s just different than your style!)

Just because a horse communicates differently than you do doesn’t mean she’s not trying to understand or communicate back. It doesn’t mean she is not extraordinarily intelligent in her own way, or that she is not a spectacular performer when it counts.

Maintain direct but not constant eye contact

(Women often perceive lack of eye contact as intentional avoidance and disinterest in listening.)

Horses are all about eye contact and body language — that is the foundation for all “horse-whispering.” They can tell if your eye is soft or hard from many yards away. In a roundpen, a horse whisperer can control the speed and direction of a horse merely with eye contact and subtle body language — it can be that powerful.

Horses are connection-based, herd-oriented, nurturing, prey animals. Their job is to live to the next day. They are vulnerable but strong and wise. As Charles de Kunffy also said, “Courage, wisdom born of insight and humility, empathy born of compassion and love, all can be bequeathed by a horse to his rider.”

Avoid strong displays of emotion

(No one likes to be on the receiving end of heavy emotion – lots of tears, yelling, slamming doors.)

As you can imagine, horses are the same way. Sudden movements or loud exclamations can spook them. Remember they are prey animals and are expecting a mountain lion to jump out at any moment.

Don’t prove them right! Not only because you don’t want to scare them and lose their trust and respect, but because they are big powerful animals and can accidentally hurt you. More people get hurt on the ground, before or after they are actually on the horse, than when riding.

Use active listening skills

(Demonstrate with body language that you are indeed hearing what she is saying.)

If the horse isn’t responding as you wish, pay attention. He is trying to tell you what’s wrong, with his ears, his tail, his back, his feet. Watch for warnings (when you get that luxury!) of an upcoming spook (head up, ears pricked forward, body tense) and don’t underestimate the speed an otherwise seemingly lazy horse can find when extremely frightened.

Many riders have found themselves on the ground in a flash when a horse has whirled and bolted (called a spin-an’-bolt) so fast they suddenly found themselves in mid-air with no horse under them. Yes, just like in cartoons!

Be flexible and keep a positive attitude about differences

(Different is not right, wrong, bad, or good – just different!)

Horses, contrary to some human opinions of stubbornness (okay, like some people, some horses are more stubborn than others!), are the epitome of flexibility. They glide quickly back and forth from a masculine to feminine style depending on the situation. One minute grooming their best friend, the next biting an annoying pasture-mate to keep him in line, then back to grooming as if nothing else happened. And the bite was not executed with anger, only direct firmness. Five minutes later he’ll be lovingly grooming the horse he bit or kicked. One of my favorite horse sayings is, “No good horse is a bad color.”

As with training and riding horses, effective communication with humans requires clarity, consistency and practice. By adding respect and flexibility to the mix, along with a little heart, we can all enjoy success! In the words of Frederico Tesio, arguably the most successful Thoroughbred breeder in the history of racing, “A horse gallops with his lungs, perseveres with his heart, and wins with his character.”

© 2009 Copyright by Jane Sanders. All rights reserved.

Jane Sanders, president of GenderSmart Solutions, is an expert in gender issues and communication and helps companies retain and advance women. She is a consultant, coach, and speaker in the areas of gender communication, recruiting & retention of women, strategic life planning, authentic leadership confidence, and communicating with difficult people. She is author of GenderSmart: Solving The Communication Puzzle Between Men and Women. An avid horsewoman, Jane is often seen galloping up mountain trails in Malibu, CA on her big chestnut horse named Beau. She can be reached toll-free at 877-343-2150, or at jane@janesanders.com.







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