Horses have been a part of human civilisation for thousands of years. Once our most efficient mode of transport, the humble horse has since been bred in domestic environments around the world, serving humans’ needs with their physical strength, intelligence, and beauty.
Now, horses are used primarily for sports, remaining the incredible athletes they have always been – just with a little hoof shine painted on top.
Having spent much of my childhood on a farm, I have cared for horses since I was a child, and worked for two years as a stable hand before attending university. Over the years, I’ve met horses of all shapes, sizes, and backgrounds; from thin, traumatised rescue cases to pampered show horses and everything in between.
I’ve learned incredible life lessons from these ethereal beasts, and today, I’m going to share a few of them with you.
Here are three valuable lessons a horse could teach you about effective communication.
1. Your “fake it ‘til you make it” mentality will only get you so far
If there’s one thing I have learned from working with horses all my life, it’s that they’re more emotionally intelligent than many people.
As a herd animal programmed to see danger coming from a mile off, a horse will instantly pick up on tension. If you’re stressed or unsure, usually, this results in them becoming worried too: “why is this person so nervous? What danger lingers around the corner?”
So, to successfully interact with a horse, you have to find a way to shed those feelings. You can’t pretend to be calm; you need to actually be calm. No matter how boldly you present yourself – shoulders back, authoritative stride, wide stance – if you’re faking it, a horse can tell.
When it comes to interpersonal communication, “fake it ‘til you make it” is a phrase that’s been touted as the best way to throw yourself into a professional or social situation.
However, pretending to be confident in your interactions with others is not as effective as simply taking steps to improve your confidence.
Let’s use a job interview as an example. You could spend hours reading countless blogs about how to project confidence in a job interview using carefully calculated body language, the right buzzwords, and plenty of eye contact.
What if, instead, you spent those hours preparing your knowledge, and working on your social skills in real time? Not only will developing your confidence help you in that moment, but it will provide you with tools you can use in other areas of your life, too.
So, next time you want to communicate effectively, pretend your interviewer, date, or boss is a horse, and assume they can see through your facade. Don’t try to feed them a Polo mint to get them on side – instead, take the time to master the emotion you’re trying to project.
2. Clear communication is necessary for survival
As you may already know, horses are hardwired to live in big groups to protect themselves from predators.
In fact, most will panic if left totally alone. Even the most docile horse might run along the fence to find an escape route, whinny in search of a response from the rest of the herd, and even jump gates to be reunited with those who make them feel safe.
Even when together in a herd, it’s not always plain sailing. They might fight over food, and attempt to dominate each other to assert their position in the pecking order.
Horses’ communication signals are abundantly clear: placing their ears flat back on their head, or turning their hindquarters on each other, means “back off”. Conversely, angling their ears forward and nickering to each other suggests affection; using their teeth to scratch an itch on each other’s shoulders is also a common display of kinship.
The point is: horses naturally know how to communicate. Be it a stressed-out cry of “please don’t leave me by myself” or an ears-back warning of “please give me some space”, there isn’t a horse on earth that doesn’t know how to communicate its needs.
The reason for this is simple: horses spend their lives in herds, and aren’t ashamed to tell each other what’s going on.
So, what about humans? Since the prolonged isolation period brought on by Covid-19, you might feel nervous about spending time in big groups, be it at work or in your social life. You could harbour the desire to be clear about what you want or need, but feel you don’t have the toolkit to communicate effectively, either physically or verbally.
In the workplace, you might even feel overwhelmed by the pressure to perform. It can be difficult to communicate those feelings, especially when your professional life is at stake.
If you feel you have lost touch with your ability to voice your needs, it’s time to reboot your instincts.
Do you feel you’re rubbish at communicating with people? Practise. Want to get better at making friends and connections? Go to a networking event. Attend that work social that’s been lingering in your calendar. Join a sports club. Be among the herd long enough, and your instincts will kick back in.
Next time you have needs you are afraid to communicate – be it a need for space, for company, for a break, or for a challenge – remember, your instincts are rarely wrong, and clear communication is necessary for survival.
3. Ignoring communicative red flags can land you in deep water
You might be surprised to learn that, despite their physical power, horses are flighty animals. Many are referred to as “spooky” – meaning they are easily frightened by unfamiliar sights and sounds, like a plastic bag blowing in the wind, or a car revving its engine.
This flightiness can land riders in tricky situations, but it exists for a reason: in order to detect dangerous predators in the wild, horses listen to their fear. As a rider, ignoring a horse’s communication of fear – or worse, punishing it as a behavioural problem – can result in an even more dramatic reaction that both terrifies the horse and potentially injures the person, too.
When it comes to the humans in your life, ignoring communicative red flags can be just as damaging. If a person is communicating (either actively or subconsciously) that they are unhappy, worried, or even fearful, brushing those signs off as rudeness or unpleasantness can land you in deep water.
For example, if you run a business, it’s likely you pay close attention to the wellbeing of your employees. If an employee who is usually jovial and hardworking begins showing up late and acting sullen towards others, it might be easy to dismiss this behaviour as them simply losing interest in the job. You might even resent the behaviour and begin to feel tense when they are around.
Instead of assuming that the problem has nothing to do with you, communicate. Do as a horse might do: pay attention to the red flags, and take the time to identify the problem before it festers. By employing this strategy, you may find you can help resolve the issue, or at least be sensitive to its cause.
While you might not take all your communication cues from horses – kicking and biting are no longer socially acceptable, unfortunately – these three lessons could help you get your thoughts and feelings across in a more effective way.