Thursday, August 28, 2014


REAL FREEDOM                                                                                                                 Originally published in Horse Directory, September, 2014

By Tom Gumbrecht

Bella is affectionate, but on her terms.
She taught us about boundaries to keep our
space safe to be ourselves.
Horses represent freedom to many of us, myself included.  But what my perception of what that freedom actually was has changed significantly over the years.  At first I confused freedom with the exhilaration of a long gallop. After some years, I find that it is quite different now, and it has to do more with communication than anything else. 

 I was once asked a question which had me describe some characteristics of a type of communication that yielded the fewest misunderstandings with a person.  I can’t really remember if I answered it honestly, but I remember thinking “does it have to be a person?” With no disrespect to my fellows humans, that thought came to mind because the communication I have with my horses is remarkably free of many of the pitfalls of verbal communication that we humans frequently rely on.

Lola creates a space where we can feel safe,
loved, and trusted.
Of course it hasn’t always been so. It took many hours, days and years in the saddle and around the stable to learn the language of the horse, and I am definitely still a student.  There were many misunderstandings along the way, some of which ended up damaging ego or bones.  My horses were never at fault; they didn’t have to learn about communicating with me, but if I were to thrive in their world I would have to make the effort to learn their language. It is not a complicated language, yet nothing can substitute for the time and patience required to learn it.  It is a language learned by doing rather than studying. It is the language of truth; the language of what is; the language of intention, not the language of coercion, manipulation, agendas or flattery so common in verbal languages.

As I learned through guidance, trial and error of such things as balance and pressures and
Our horses work to keep their spaces safe for
each other as well as for us. Bella comforts Lola after a
minor injury.
perceptions and feel, a point came where I was to become less concerned about becoming unseated and so was then able to focus more on how my actions were effectively communicating my desires and acknowledging and rewarding compliance.  At its best, it is a language so incredibly pure that a thought becomes a request by an almost unconscious change in pressure of hand, arm, leg or seat, and expressing gratitude for effort and compliance becomes similarly automatic.  At this level, words can sometimes only get in the way of communication, with the natural exception of a “good girl/ boy” which serves to reinforce communication by its inflection, intonation and intention. Horses are pretty good about figuring out what our intentions are.

Our history has seen many great and notorious orators who used words to bridge a gap between what was, and what was perceived. In some cases, the speakers’ goal was to have the listener believe something other than what actually was.  Are great orators great communicators?  Perhaps not always. Not as good as horses, surely. They are surely not automatically great riders!  In the words on Ben Jonson, “They say princes learn no art truly but the art of horsemanship.  The reason for this is because the noble beast is no flatterer.  He will throw a prince as soon as his groom.”

DannyBoy, a physical giant if not a spiritual one,
provides needed comic relief lest things get too serious.
When people use words to manipulate facts about the past and perceptions about the future, it can exhaust us and make us very skeptical of navigating society.  Our horses exist only in the “now” and communicate only in truth.  They know no other way.  That’s why so many of us see them as a reprieve from the sometimes confusing, sometimes harsh world.  When we become free of the need to act in constant defense of being manipulated, we can begin to be free to be ourselves.

And that’s the real freedom we get from horses, and why I do things that people sometimes don’t understand in order to preserve my relationship with them.

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