By as published in The New York Times
How do prey animals stay safe in a world out to get them? And how would I?
Horses talk, but not like Mr. Ed. A horse may be trained to respond to “whoa” and “giddy up,” but if you speak to a horse, you’re not speaking in horse. They converse mostly through body language, and their most visible correspondence is a sign language of ears.
Horses can flip and flick their ears 180 degrees. Ears pricked forward is a horse’s smile. Tipped back can mean boredom or displeasure. Pinned to the skull, that’s fury. Ears akimbo, and a horse is daydreaming, thinking nothing much at all or maybe everything.
In the herd, horses turn and wheel across a field like larks, guiding each other with shoulder and flank, ear and eye. Observe the dynamics — the solicitousness of the studs, the defiance of the mares, the submission of the spindly foals. They are communicating nonverbally in a clear system of gestures.
Monty Roberts, the legendary trainer and best-selling author known as the “man who listens to horses,” calls this system “Equus.”
“I’ve tried to stop calling it a language,” he said to me. “We think way too much about words and alphabets and stuff like that,” he added. “That’s not horses.”
Mr. Roberts, who is in his 80s, spoke to me from Flag Is Up Farms, his ranch in Solvang, Calif., which he’s run since 1966. He trains problem horses around the world using a technique he calls Join Up, which, essentially, asks the horse to work with the rider as a member of its herd, rather than as its master.
I had reached out to Mr. Roberts to learn how horses communicate, how prey animals stay safe in a world out to get them. But as our conversation unspooled, I realized I was asking the questions not to understand horses, my singular obsession since I was 2 years old, but to understand myself.
Mr. Roberts told me he had a little shadow at his side. It was a West Coast mule deer he found still wet with amniotic fluid in a stand of grass, a runt with little chance of surviving.
Raising the fawn deepened Mr. Roberts’s understanding of how horses communicate. He views deer as an equine exemplar; to him, they are the raw, wild prey creatures hyperattuned to their world for sheer survival that horses once were — before domestication bred the edge off. The Cervidae are Equus at their most elemental.
The deer’s name was Benediction.
“I worked with a lady in England named Elizabeth; she’s the best namer of horses I’ve ever met,” Mr. Roberts said. “So I emailed her and asked what I would name him. She emailed right back. She didn’t say ‘I suggest,’ or ‘I think.’” She said, “His name is Benediction.”
I wondered where the segue about naming this little slip of a mule deer was going. Then he landed the punchline: “Queen Elizabeth can sure name a horse.”
He added: “And a deer.”
“What a horse does under compulsion he does blindly,” wrote Xenophon, an ancient Greek cavalry master. “And his performance is no more beautiful than would be that of a ballet dancer taught by whip and goad.” Far better, he wrote, “that the horse should of his own accord exhibit his finest airs and paces.”
A pupil of Socrates, Xenophon survived the battles of Sparta and died in 354 B.C.E. His treatise “On Horsemanship” is one of the earliest surviving works on the art of the equine. “The majesty of men themselves is best discovered in the graceful handling of such animals,” Xenophon wrote. (I’d like to add, “of women” too.)
Taming a horse, gentling it, or, crudely, breaking it, involves messaging more than anything. A horse may be 1,200 pounds — so huge that no amount of force a human could use can truly push it around. Horses are ridable at all, in a way that, say, lions and tigers are not, in large part, I believe, because equines are prey animals, bound to the herd. Horses are genetically inclined to accept a boss.
The phrase “broke to ride” used to mean the animal’s spirit was broken so the shell left behind would submit to human will. In modern equitation, the process is something more like recalibration, convincing a horse that you run the show. Done well, submission is rebranded as alliance; the mount and rider, a herd of two.
Mr. Roberts has had a lot to do with that shift. When his first book came out in the 1990s, the radical departure from the prevailing discipline earned him enemies. There were even death threats, according to Mr. Roberts, leading to the arrest of at least one person.
“You’re telling them that everything that they’ve done in their life is wrong,” Mr. Roberts said, trying to make sense of why he was so hated for saying simply, be gentle.
Through Benediction the fawn, Roberts honed further his understanding of how horses communicate. “The ears, the eye, the neck, the lowering of the head, the licking and chewing the tongue, all of the appendages or parts of the anatomy of Equus and Cervidae are put to work to let the others know what the reading of the situation is,” he said. The point is to answer one question: “Is there danger?”
For a year of my life, Equus was my language. Because on Thanksgiving Day 2010, I became prey…(CONTINUED)