A Silent Language: Speaking Equine

UPDATE: Blog has been honored as a Heels Down Magazine U25 Equestrian Creativity Awards Finalist


Somehow I’ve always been able to speak it, even though there are no words.

I have always been able to hear it, better and better as the years have gone by, even though each year my ears are capable of hearing less and less.

It is a mostly silent language, though there are some sounds. It is one that you cannot learn in school and and language not everyone can master.

It is one that since I was 13, I have been able to understand and speak better than that of the English I was born and raised with.

I speak it less than 10 hours a week and yet it is what I am most proficient in.

Horses communicate in a way most humans do not, using body language to indicate fear, happiness, courage and trust. There are the obvious nickers and whinnies associated with joy and excitement, and there are the more frightening snorts and squeals produced when scared or threatened. But for the equine world, silence is the norm.

I began to lose my hearing around the same time I began riding and working with horses. There strange movements disconcerted me at first, for they were new, big and frightening. As I worked with them more, riding three times a week and volunteering as a working student, I watched them carefully, observing their language in silence. I watched for years until one day, while a junior in college, I realized, I not only understand it but could communicate fluently.

Horses perhaps are the best example of the phrase “Actions speak louder than words,” with an entire communication system built around physicality. The slightest degree shift in the positioning of an ear can mean the difference between happy and scared, and the speed of a swishing tail can mean the difference between peace and anger. It is a complicated language, equine, full of tiny nuances often unnoticed to the common eye. It is full of intricate details, complex variances, and words or feelings that can only be seen or felt.

It’s physicality is perhaps the reason I speak equine best. I do not need my ears to speak or hear horses, I simply need my eyes and my body. I need my experience, the years of silent observance and sometimes gusty experimentation. I’m 23 now and with the ability to hear only 27 to 32% of sounds anymore, the equine language has become not only second nature, but a respite from that of the harsh English word.

We don’t always realize when this happens, our preference for a new tongue, but for me it was last Sunday afternoon. I’d watched a young girl ride her horse many times before, often dangerously allowing him to rear or back up into jumps and other riders. He’d walked all over her on the ground, pawed impatiently in turnout, and at times, had almost destroyed his stall while screaming for food. I had always viewed him with disdain, thinking him ill-tempered, untrained and a nuisance. I had thought him a danger and waste of time, but on Sunday, I didn’t anymore.

It was the late afternoon, when sitting on a green plastic mounting block, I stopped thinking, stopped talking and just watched.

I watched his rider lean forward and pull her reins side-to-side as he shook his head and backed up quickly for twenty feet. She then attempted to push him forward, kicking with her legs and shoving the reins forward again and again. He simply shook his head more and continued his backward shuffle, nearly missing a rider passing by. I watched them continue this dance, watched her fight and get frustrated while he silently laughed and won. He had her number, knew her weak spots and was exploiting them like a pro. I could hear him laughing in my head, and I couldn’t help but smirk not only at his cleverness but also at my complete lack of realization.

I’d watched him before, but I hadn’t watched him.34877_1391118147601_8137613_n

There was something about him that brought up a horse from my past, a Dutch Warmblood hunter named AJ. He’d also attempted to use bad behavior to get out of work, childish antics that to the untrained eye were dangerous but in truth were hollow. I recalled what I had done with AJ, recalled what had worked and what had not. Fighting did not work, no in fact, it never worked. Fighting only fueled the problem and forfeited my attempts at victory.

This horse was the same. He wasn’t dangerous or stupid, he was just too clever for his own good.

I asked the girl if she wanted my help and proceeded to mount the gelding. He stood quietly while I mounted, keeping his right eye fixed on me attentively. He didn’t move while I shortened my stirrups, but he did shake his head too and fro and stomp his front feet up and down. I ignored him.

I asked him to walk on, and he brought his head up high, hollowed out his back and lifted his tail. Marching off, his ears were pricked forward stiffly and his eyes flashed side to side as he looked this way and that. I let him and ignored him further. He tried to trot, but I simply sat up taller and gently gripped the reins. I could feel the wave of confusion run through his body as he slowed back to a walk, and when I swiveled his head around to glance back at me, I smiled.

“I’ve got you,” my smile said. “I know your game you clever boy.”

He swung his head back forward and relaxed his back, dropped his head and softened his pressure on the bit. “Damnit,” his body told me. “She knows it’s all a game.”

We went on like this for about ten minutes, him trying new tricks and seeing if his clever fakes would throw me off my game and insight a fight. I continued to tell him he was a good boy, alternating between rubbing his neck and lengthening my reins. I pushed him forward by closing my leg and ignored his pointless antics. By the end of ten minutes, he was going around at a nice trot on a loose rein, in a picturesque rectangle and have given up trying to spook at the gate.

I had him. I had him and hadn’t said a single word. I had spent 10 minutes communicating and listening, hearing and responding, and I had done it without my ears. 

He’d reminded that afternoon of an ability I had forgotten, or at least had not truly had cause to use in a while. He reminded me that there was a language I could hear and speak without my hearing loss affected anything. He reminded me that sometimes we don’t need words, don’t need ears, and just need to  connect.

It was nice, Sunday afternoon, to be reminded, that at least in one part of my life, my hearing loss is inconsequential. 

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