Understanding and Writing Horses: Interspecies Communication

As I navigate the days here on the farm between the house critters and the horses in the barn, I often have occasion to recall a True Fact. Humans probably fail to understand the vast majority of the messages sent to them by their animals. What’s more, we’re probably not even aware that we’re missing anything.

It’s not just that I have perforce to struggle with my shortcomings both physical and psychological—not just my duller human senses, but also my tendency to stop paying attention to what’s going on around me. 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 humans 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 much smaller, weaker, and slower, and boom. Flattened human.

Before the pandemic locked us all down, we often entertained visitors to the farm. Many were unfamiliar with horses, and didn’t recognize the signals, or understand what the horses were saying with their bodies, their movement, and their general attitude. Even guests with some understanding of horses could 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 am a writer. I am most certainly guilty.) 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 visitors are oblivious. 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 (possibly) spoken animal languages, 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.

I’ve had to learn a pretty fair amount of Horse, and a good amount of Cat as well. I used to be much less of a dog person; my dogs were loved and valued, but they came to me as adults or near-adults, already trained, and mostly we stuck to the basics: Feed Me, Pet Me, Let Me Outside. In meeting strange dogs, I felt a great deal less confident than I would with horses or cats. I was much less fluent in their language.

And then, some years ago, I was adopted by a rescue puppy. Suddenly I had to learn a much more sophisticated vocabulary of Dog. He was a true tabula rasa. At four months, give or take, he appeared to have no training at all, not even to wearing a collar; he loved people, but was wildly reactive around dogs (except my older dog, whom he adored), and cats and horses were alien, if fascinating, species. He had so little socialization of any kind that he flunked out of puppy school. We both needed private tutoring to find our way to acceptable behavior.

It was a great help that the horses and the cats had 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 slides by on a tangent.

There were things I’d do with a horse that made the dog just stare (though I found that the hands I’d developed from the management of leadline and longeline and rein translated in interesting ways to managing collar and leash), and I was made aware early and often of the distinct difference between the psychology of the predator and that of the prey aimal. The pack is not the same as the herd, though they have elements in common (notably social structures and sharing or appropriating of food or other resources).

One thing they both have in common. They need me to pay attention. To set human chatter aside and focus on what they’re saying above and beyond words.

Sometimes, in those early days, it got eerie. Not just between human and animal, either, but between the species of animals.

Before I adopted the puppy, we had a test drive. 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 was also my horse trainer, we met in the barn, with my stallion saddled and ready for a lesson. Stallion had 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, 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’d 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 could 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.

Judith Tarr’s first novel, The Isle of Glass, appeared in 1985. Since then she’s written novels and shorter works of historical fiction and historical fantasy and epic fantasy and space opera and contemporary fantasy, many of which have been reborn as ebooks. She has even written a primer for writers: Writing Horses: The Fine Art of Getting It Right. She has won the Crawford Award, and been a finalist for the World Fantasy Award and the Locus Award. She lives in Arizona with an assortment of cats, a blue-eyed dog, and a herd of Lipizzan horses.

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