Law 7 – Seek first to understand…
This law is the first of two intrinsically connected laws, yet they need discussion separately. Originally it came from Stephen Covey’s book “The Seven Habits Of Highly Effective People,” but I modified this for one reason. These two laws are at the root of all horsemanship, and to become a good horseman, they need to be understood and used every moment you are with horses.
Most people come to a horse or, for that matter, all human communication with one thing in mind – their agenda. We call, text, email, and direct message someone because we want something, even if it is to talk with someone else. First and foremost, we want someone to hear us. Remember the first time you called someone you thought you loved? Besides being nervous, the feeling you had when they answered and were willing to listen to what you were saying was a great thrill. We all want something when we speak, from “Please pass the salt.” to “Will you marry me?”
Yet most of our conversations with friends or strangers start with, “How are you doing?” In New York City, it’s “How ya doing?” A cowboy might say, “Howdy.” Others might say, “S’up?” Almost every culture starts any in-person conversation with a request to find out how the other’s life is going. Why not with our horses? They are also experiencing their own lives though probably not as exciting as driving a new car to work, raising children, problems at work, etc. Horses are in a stall in a barn of 20 horses or maybe alone but fenced in a field with birds and flowers. Whatever their situation, few are looking forward to the human entering the stall unless they have food. Unless wild and living free, captivity is all they have known and not every experience has started with a person asking permission to enter their lives.
Seeking first to understand is as simple as saying, “Excuse me, may I come into your stall?” The words don’t need to be said. However, when a person barges into the stall disrupting everything with the capture plan, many horses have another thought, and things start to go wrong. Horses are living beings with thoughts and feelings. People need to connect with these thoughts and feelings at a deep level yet keep their leadership position. It takes only a moment, but this is the first time, and sometimes the only time, you get a chance to connect with the horse and earn trust and mutual respect.
Remember, the horse will reflect what you are thinking and feeling. If you are fearful, then the horse will be fearful. If you are mean-spirited, then the horse will be too or will be frightening. Either of these is not mutual respect. In every connection, there is a mirroring of who you are. But then there is profiling.
There is a book by Malcolm Gladwell called “Talking To Strangers” about how we have expectations of how a person should react. This bias works when it occurs but can go wrong with missed expectations. It is about why we distrust strangers when they don’t behave as we think they should. It is also about why we trust some strangers when we really shouldn’t. This bias is built into our operating system (our DNA) to protect us, and the horses have this too. Many horses see a male veterinarian (me!) and believe their day is taking a turn for the worse.
How I counter this bias is a two-step process. Step one is to LISTEN or seek first to understand. You need to be aware of the horse voicing a concern. Well-trained horses will stand to have their halter put on and led out of their stall, but they are on high alert, prepared to bolt away. Listening has two parts. The first is to hear. This step almost every person without headphones accomplishes well. The next critical step is to acknowledge what is said.
Acknowledge what is said!
Are you listening? In all relationships, human, horse or anyone, if the person is saying something but feels they are not understood, they will escalate with their voice or actions (fight or flight), or they will shut down and capitulate (do their job unhappily). The outcome is NOT a willing partnership and is NOT leadership. Law 7 of seeking to understand is incomplete breaking communication. You will not be effective with every horse you meet, and the connection is the goal of horsemanship.
Now for step two. Robin Williams, the great comedian, taught me this in his movie “RV” as he rapped with two strangers at a basketball court in a park. In the middle of the rap, he held up his one hand, palm facing the two strangers, and said, “Talk to the hand!” Everyone has a story they are trying to tell you, and you aren’t interested. The horse may be telling me their story of how a man and a vet have come to them in the past doing something they didn’t like. But here is where Williams next rotated his hand so his palm faced himself and said, “Call waiting!” There is another new way of looking at this relationship, not based on the past but in the present. I am saying I hear you, but I am NOT that man and NOT that vet from your history. I want to replace your thought with a new view.
“Talk to the hand… call waiting” is something I use when contacting a new horse. It represents that I am listening, adapting to the horse’s experience and personality, and building mutual respect from the beginning without prejudice. I am taking the first step. Continuing this throughout your time with the horse is essential, and you always need to be respectful every moment in the future. Over time this tenuous trust will become solid but must be earned every time you halter the horse. Horses must always feel safe; some horses need a lot of time to get over the past.
I want to create a fictional story to help you understand the horse-human relationship based on things I have witnessed commonly. Imagine you are a barn owner with boarders that come and go throughout the day. You are in the house when you see someone we will call Sue drive in and head to the barn. You cringe knowing that Sue is not nice to you, is demanding, always pays you late, and never says thank you for the extra things you do for her horse. We all know Sue.
One day Sue comes to your house, knocks on the door and says, “I know you’re in there.” You answer the door. How would you respond if Sue shouts and complains about something wrong with the horse or stall, calls you names and threatens you? You would mirror Sue with your thoughts which would not end well. This story represents what happens a lot in communication – no one is listening, and no one is making the first move of constructive dialog. There is no respect for accomplishing anything.
On the other hand, what if Sue instead says, “I know I’ve been a jerk, and there is no excuse. From this point on, I will become your most ideal boarder. We don’t need to become friends, but you can trust me to be fair whenever I am here.” How would you respond? Most likely, you would doubt Sue and say you appreciate the opportunity, but only over time will you believe it. If Sue does change, then there is nothing to hate Sue for and over the next year or two, you finally trust her to be a nice person.
Many horses are like the barn owner in this story, and they see their “Sue” (their owner, caretaker, vet, or shoer) come into the barn and then into their stall. The horse immediately reacts as the barn owner did by hiding in their house or bracing for the inevitable fight. If that person even looks like “Sue” (a person from the past), similar bad behavior will occur.
This time the owner comes in and says that they read something (this) and now realize 1) the horse is NOT the problem and 2) they ARE the problem. They add that they want to change how they act towards the horse by improving themselves rather than trying to train them. Believe it or not, the horse usually wants to believe the “new” person before them. It will take time, but if you are consistent with this new message, the “call waiting” part, then over time, the horse will change. This reflective effort is the basis of communication, relationships, leadership and horsemanship. If the horse is a reflection of your thought and you don’t like what you see, don’t change the mirror. Change yourself.
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