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[IMAGE DESCRIPTION: A black and white photo of two horses nuzzling.]
Beth Killough's picture

The ranch is my office where my horse, dog and other animal herds are my teachers and co-facilitators. They help me see myself as a human animal and shift how I take care of myself and how I show up in my relationships and work. 

As mammals of the human variety, we’ve been profoundly socialized out of our animal tendencies and flooded with stimulation to our nervous systems. This has resulted in a survival-based numbing of those animal sensitivities that long ago guided our daily lives. With practice, space, quiet, and the unintentional guidance from others in the animal kingdom, we can reclaim some of our precious instincts. Among the most of important of those is the art of human whispering.

Consider one of my mares, Riva, who we sometimes we refer to as “the street mare” because she was actually picked up as a stray. With Riva, and other animals, we don’t have words to exchange our life stories. Instead, we have walked through all kinds of experiences together and how she responded with her body told a whole lot about her history and who she is.

Even with the gentlest touch, when I first started leading her with a halter (think of it as a collar), she would shake her head violently like her face was under attack. That’s part of her story. I don’t know what happened, but she showed me she has a sensitivity. Each time I led her and with each point of contact, she showed me who she was as an individual through her sensitivity to touch and pressure. I listened and responded by lightening my hand as much as I could, letting her know, “I hear you. I see you.” With each activity, she would show me another layer of herself. By my quietly waiting, paying attention, and listening, she revealed another chapter to her story. 

My experience with Riva reminded me of Parker Palmer’s work and this passage of his writing, “If we want to support each other’s inner lives, we must remember a simple truth: the human soul does not want to be fixed, it wants simply to be seen and heard. If we want to see and hear a person’s soul, there is another truth we must remember: the soul is like a wild animal – tough, resilient, and yet shy. When we go crashing through the woods shouting for it to come out so we can help it, the soul will stay in hiding, but if we are willing to sit quietly and wait for a while, the soul may show itself.”

While Riva wasn’t a wild animal when we first met her, the essence of her wildness was something she learned to guard. But in the past, too many approached horse training from the old paradigm of “breaking” animals through intimidation, pain, and control. Relationships were based in fear, not in trusting partnership. Thankfully, that’s changing, and more people have found horses have something to teach humans. Some refer to it as horse whispering, which is pretty accurate. We have to be willing to close our mouths, set aside our stubbornness, listen, and learn. We have to speak their language. They have so much to say!

Too often we lead and show up in our relationships with complete ignorance. We plow through each other’s sensitivities like heavy machinery. We have been “breaking” each other.  With a slight pivot, we can become human whisperers, changing our approach to relating in some simple but profoundly effective ways. The art of mindful relating, with horses or humans, involves some essential capacities to expand or skills to practice:

1. Assume there is a story. Everyone has a story, good or bad. Be prepared to look for it so you can get to know what others have walked through and who they are.

2. Lighten your touch. Horses love the soft feel of our hands. It turns out people don’t like it if you knock down the door of their spirit and come crashing in. We really need to respect, honor, and learn how to soften and slow down our approach in relationship.

3. Keep a curious mindset. Listening carefully and observing goes a long way. But when we take personally what we see or take too much responsibility for other people’s stories, we can no longer see them accurately. It’s called projection and it’s a huge problem for humans. Allowing others to have a separate but relevant experience in the world without inserting ourselves is one of the kindest relational moves we can make.

4. Be patient. People may need to show you or tell you their story many times. Making meaning of our experiences is unique to our human mind and it’s how we process who we are. It’s how we learn and how we heal. Listening without judgment and without trying to fix allows others to feel seen without feeling broken.

5. Slow down and be quiet. It’s simply impossible to increase our awareness of ourselves or our relationships if we are too busy, allowing too much noise or stimulation into our lives, or moving too quickly. Horses are great role models for setting a wise pace. They graze for 20 hours per day. It’s a slow and steady and peaceful progression through the world. Most people are shocked when they are finally able to slow down. Our worlds are full of amazing moments all day long. And, when we change our pace, we’re able to experience those moments, have a deeper connection to ourselves, and we can be much more available to relate more intentionally with the world of living things around us.


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