What do we see happening in this picture? I would venture to say “more than meets the eye.” How is this tiny young girl controlling the 1,275 lbs. body of our 17 hand American Warmblood? How are they connected in such a way that the girl is able to influence the huge horse and direct him where she wants to go? She is clearly physically powerless over the horse. Somehow she is communicating without any words with this animal in a way that is clear and meaningful to both of them. Let’s see if we can figure this out.
First of all it is important to know that horses communicate with one another through a complex and very nuanced body language and gesture system. Horses in a herd are continually communicating with each other through posture, body angles, ear and head positions, facial expressions, energy level, tail positions and even respiration rates. Each gesture has a meaning which all other horses recognize and understand. Horses depend on this system to reinforce their social bonds and maintain the safety of the herd. The beauty of this communication is that it is 100% truthful 100% of the time. Horses never try to pretend they feel something they don’t, or to trick another horse into thinking something is real that is not. Instead, horses reliably express their experience of each moment with complete honesty. They are incapable of anything else. Whatever they experience is exactly what they communicate, unequivocally, without regret or apology. This type of communication is what we call congruent.
When a person is congruent it means that their thoughts, their feelings and their bodies are all aligned and expressing the same thing at the same moment. It can be hard for people to communicate congruently because so often we say things which are only partly true (We often verbalize thoughts which are not actually lined up with what we are feeling.) When this happens, the misalignment is always expressed somehow through our body language. Horses, who are born with the ability to detect tiny changes in posture, muscle tone, energy level and direction of attention, easily notice when a human is communicating incongruently. An incongruent person is not interesting to a horse. The horse naturally drifts away from a person who does not have their thoughts, feelings and body in alignment because the horse experiences the misalignment as a lack of intentional and truthful communication. However, when people communicate congruently around a horse, they become like a magnet to the horse. Sensing intention, attention and alignment of thoughts and feelings, the horse perceives the person as a trustworthy leader and partner, causing the horse to actually crave relationship with that individual.
So now lets go back to the picture of the little girl and the big horse. Notice how the horse’s eye is gazing directly onto the girl. He sees that her eyes are looking forward toward where they are going, her shoulders and hips are squarely facing the same way her eyes are looking. Her posture is erect and energized, her bent arms show tone and confidence. This is a picture of a girl in alignment; she has decided where she wants to go and she is congruently communicating her intention. The horse easily comprehends and willingly responds with body language of his own; head down, eyes soft and body relaxed, following with trust and attention. They are in partnership. It does not matter that he is big and she is small. They are together; mindfully, congruently and purposefully in the moment. How often do we communicate with others in this way? Might it be worthwhile to do it more?