Monday, June 06, 2011

The Mute Button

  Bet your first thought was, "Damn!  I wish I had one of those!  I could shut up that bi-atch in the next cubicle without resorting to duct tape and maybe have some peace for a few minutes.  Bwaaaahahahaha!"

Maybe you didn't think all of that, but you can't not react to the cessation of unwanted sound.  Nor can you avoid feeling irritated when the mute goes off and you can once again hear all the noise.  All animals, humans included, are pre-programmed to enjoy silence.  We hunter-gatherers need to be able to hear the prey in the woods and sniff out the best watering holes based on where other thirsty critters are gathering to dish and sip.  We don't really need the endless stream of sound that we have learned to live with.  Noise pollution is an acknowledged stressor in our modern society.  People kill each other over noise. 
I know I heard a cookie....

How much noise did you make?  Do you keep a radio on in the barn?  Do your ears sprout buds the instant you step out of the car?  Do you feel lost in your living room without the TV muttering?  When you talk, are you loud?  How about on your cell phone?  Ha!  Gotcha there.  Even though most cells have decent built-in noise canceling, most users can't help yelling over the background noise that the listener on the other end can't generally hear. 

Now, think about horses in the pasture.  Go there if you have to.  Listen.  How much noise do they make?  Except for the occasional whinny of a mare calling to her foal or a gelding announcing his state of mind (boys are like that) to every other male in the county, they're pretty quiet.  They have to be.  They're prey.  It's not in their best interests to let the predators track them by the trail of noise from their iPods, and they need to hear the sneak of paws in the shrubbery to avoid becoming dinner for a horse-eating squirrel. 

Are you beeping something bad about me?
Put this all together, and your horse probably wishes even more sincerely that he had a mute button to shut you up.  Oh, they do learn to recognize our voices, and some seem to like it when we sing to them or hum a little happy tune or read aloud from the latest training handbook, but I posit here that it's not that they like the sound but that our presence and our vibrations can have a calming effect on them.  If we're happy, then there must not be anything to fear.  If we're singing and laughing and vibing all over the place, then it's party time and everyone can relax.  Some animals are better than others at letting human noise wash over them without causing them to get all flinchy in their hope that it will stop soon.  So why not try a little quiet with your animals?  If you haven't done it before, you might be surprised to find that you saying, "Goooooood booooooooy" over and over (and over and over) while you go through your jump course may not be having the positive effect you thought it was.  What could it hurt to try toning it down a notch? 

My old Quarter Horse, Leo, is immune to pretty much anything.  Know what irritates him?  My cell phone.  Not the sound of it, but my talking into it.  He doesn't buck or fuss or attack me; he just glares at me.  He stops what he's doing, snorts, and glares.  If I'm on him, he quits and heads for the gate if we're in the ring, and drops his head to graze if we're on the grass.  It changes the dynamic between us.  Those things don't happen if I'm not distracted and talking.  If I answer the phone while I'm grooming Zip (I'd never be stoopid enough to let the cell ring in my pocket when I'm on his back as I'm fond of my current body-part arrangement), his ears flick around like radar antennae, and he follows me with his eyes, probably (since he can't hear the other end of the convo) because he can't figure out what I'm saying to him.  It's always about him, you know. 

According to several books I've read about horse behavior, the less said, the better.  I know my chatter doesn't improve anyone's performance, and I'm doing my best to control it.  Sometimes in certain circumstances, a word to the wise can distract the horse long enough to let me regain control of his mind before he loses it to the deadly fawn sleeping next to the riding ring or to the patch of light that he honestly thinks is a disintegrator ray waiting to shred him where he stands if he touches it, but the rest of the time he's focused on every small move my body makes.  What am I focused on?  Well, if I'm on the phone, it sure isn't the fine movements of my feet or subtle pressure from my inner thigh muscles. 

Years ago when I was teaching high school, I taught a first-day lesson on the difference between hearing and listening.  Try it.  For a moment, be thoughtful and notice every sound you can hear and write them all down.  You will probably be startled at what you didn't "hear" two seconds earlier.  In reality, we all--horses included--hear all the time, 24/7.  It's a neurological response and we can't control it.  There's no "off" switch on our ears.  But listening....ah, that's different!  That's attentional and intentional.  If you want your horse to listen when you have something important to say, maybe you should stop flooding his hearing with unwarranted stimulation that makes him numb when you actually want him to pay attention.  

Try shutting up and being present in the moment with your animal.  It might be the beginning of a beautiful friendship. 

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