“Horse” is a Universal Language

Indoor arena at Let's Run Park in Seoul, South Korea

If you have been following the HF&FF Facebook or Instagram page during August 2018, you most likely saw that I traveled to South Korea for two weeks to work with the Let’s Run Healing Center, a Therapeutic Riding Center at Let’s Run Park in Seoul, South Korea.

Aside from the fact that I’m still in awe that I was able to travel another country to teach something I love, I also wanted to spend some time reflecting on a few important moments and share a few interesting things with everyone who follows HF&FF.

What was one of the main takeaway points from this experience? The language of ‘Horse’ is universal.

Participants of the August 2018 workshop covering equine activities for firefighters

An opportunity outside my home country and my comfort zone

I don’t travel much outside the US (or outside Arizona for that matter!…finding a house sitter for horses, chickens, ducks, and a dogs is quite an undertaking that I try to avoid) so communicating and working with with horses beyond my home turf is something I have not really thought much about. 

In all honesty I was incredibly nervous to travel outside of the US to teach others currently working in the EAAT industry. I had so many thoughts and unknowns swirling through my head….How will things translate? How much will cultural differences impact the subjects I’m teaching?  Will the way they handle the horses impact the hands on demonstrations? Am I ready for this big of an event? Do I really know my stuff well enough to be hired to travel half way across the world? 

Even though I have been in the EAAT industry for a decade now and the horse industry in general my entire life I still experience self-doubt. Even though I have taught these subjects countless times I was still uncertain what would happen when my safety net of my native language was taken away. This language not only impacts general verbal communication but also expands into how I interpret and present body language, analogies, figures of speech, etc. 

Butterflies dispersed by a breath of a horse

There were swarms of butterflies in my stomach in the days leading up to my arrival and a few days after I landed. A swarm appeared when I arrived in South Korea and was picked up by the staff. A new swarm when we met to talk about programming and research with several well respected equine and mental health professionals. A new swarm started the first day of workshop. (for those of you that don’t personally know me I am a naturally introverted, observant person. I turn on the extrovert for work but it has taken years of practice and I still internally feel awkward in new situations)

Another swarm came about again when we went out and did the first hand’s on activity…I mean after all, could I really communicate with and read Korean Horse? I know that probably sounds silly but I really had no clue how much culture and language difference would impact interactions on the ground with a horse. Riding a horse would be no problem…but groundwork relies so much on body language that I was wondering what the horse would see in me or if there would be a body language barrier of sorts.

But…all the butterflies went away when the horse talked in his native language through a breath and his reaction…a language I speak fluently as well…”Horse”.

Explaining how to hold the lunge line to the mock student

One breath revealed a safety net of a different language, that of “Horse”, that I have had all along. The concept of ‘Horse’ being a universal language never really occurred to me before this moment.

So about ‘the breath’: We were out in the arena doing a mock lesson. I was role playing the instructor, one of the workshop participants was the ‘student’, and one of the therapeutic riding program horses was my four-footed coworker. The mock lesson was a demo of the first time teaching a student how to lunge line a horse so they could put into practice all of the prior knowledge of body language, tone of voice, reading the horse, etc. 

The mock lesson starts….I explain where to stand to get the horse to slow, stop, and go, we review verbal commands, tone of voice, and remembering to breathe (remember that there is a pause every couple of sentences to allow for translation). My mock student sends the horse out on a small circle at the walk and we practice some walk-halt-walk transitions with an emphasis first on body placement in relation to the horse and moving in front or behind the ‘driving line’ to slow or speed up the horse….and even though my mock student is doing his best to pretend this is the first time he has lunged a horse…it is very clear that he has done this countless times. The swarm of butterflies come back….trying to teach in the moment is challenging when there is a translation delay and I’m not sure if the activity will work because my ‘student’ is doing so well with the horse and there is a time delay due to translation.

We continue on with the lesson and I push down the butterflies. My mock student has successfully walk, halted, and trotted both directions using verbal and non-verbal commands. There were some teachable moments but not any that really applied to the beginner student population we were talking about in the workshop (again…the person handling the horse could not disguise he was fluent in “Horse” despite his best effort). This mock student had just blown through two or three class worth of information…now what? After a moment of thinking I decided to challenged the mock student to do one final whoa…under certain conditions… he was not allowed to use his voice or drastically step in front of the horse. He could only use body language and his breath. 

The ‘challenge’ is translated, the mock student says he understands, and he is told to attempt the silent whoa after one more round of walking. The horse finishes up his lap, the mock student stops moving and confidently shifts his shoulders from open (facing direction of movement) to closed (facing opposite the direction of movement)….the horse slows, flicks his ears to the mock student, but keeps walking. The mock student forgot one key thing that would release the slight tension he was holding to silently communicate that whoa- he forgot to breathe (even us experienced horse people can’t fake the impact breathing has on our bodies!). 

I give a verbal instruction to the mock student to remember to breath and let any tension melt down into the ground (it’s translated) and the mock student nods then takes a big breath, lets out the breath along with the tension…and the horse stops, breaths out, chews, and drops his head.  

Like a wise friend and mentor stated after I recounted the story…“Trust in the process.”…I trusted in the process back home but learned, in that moment, to do so even in another country and even outside my comfort zone.

This guy absolutely loved back scratches and made it a point to show how much he enjoyed them.

One breath can have tremendous impact

The moment the student breathed out and the horse stopped I could tell the 

other participants observing from the stands saw it based on their facial expressions and quiet verbal reactions. Even though it was not a super ‘big’ reaction, it was big enough for everyone watching to see and feel.

That one moment right there, that one shared breath and non-verbal communication between the mock student and horse, solidified everything we had been talking about leading up to that mock lesson and also was something we kept referring back to for the remainder of the workshop. 

I was so excited that the language of horse had translated to the other side of the world and had such a visual result that could be shared with all the observers. Like I said before, there were small teachable moments and observations the whole lesson but sometimes those are hard to point out quick enough, or sometimes they are not seen, in a workshop setting. 

Even though my mock student was an experienced horse person I would venture to say that one breath had an impact on him and also what he would be carrying on from the workshop to the equine program he would be doing with the firefighters in his area. 

That one breath had an impact on me even though it is something I have done and taught countless times in the US and a technique I know works…but I doubted the process because of all the external factors I thought would impact the situation.

Sometimes an aha moment has to smack you in the face to make something obvious

There are several things in life that should be obvious, but sometimes are not because we have just not taken the time to consciously think about them or process an experience we have had.

We all ‘know’ we should cherish every day of life because we are not guaranteed another breath. But actually being aware of that knowledge and acting on it is a different thing. Sometimes it takes an aha moment like a major life event, an injury, an illness, or even death to make that known fact impact how we live our lives.

I think if I actually thought about ‘horse’ being a universal language I would have ‘known’ that it would roughly translate in another country…but actually experiencing communicating with a horse in another country and having an aha moment (honestly several moments during this trip) really solidified that fact. 

The breath shared between the mock student and the horse was the smack in the face I needed to see what has been in front of me my whole life- “Horse” is a universal language.

The takeaways from learning that “Horse” is a universal language:

William (Gypsy Vanner) and me sharing a mustache moment

Now that I’m back at home and speaking my native (verbal) language…and continuing to speak the universal language of horse there are a few key points I learned from this specific aha moment:

  • The language of ‘horse’ is universal…which means that what we do in the EAAT industry can apply globally
  • The language of ‘horse’ is universal…which means that even if you are doing something with people that is outside your comfort zone, your safety net of the horse and their language is always there
  • One breath can have just as big of an impact on a beginner student as a seasoned horse person
  • Stepping outside your comfort zone is the best way to grow
  • We will never, ever stop learning new things about life, horses, people, etc.

For those of you that know me personally, you may be thinking that this is an awfully touchey-feely post. It does hinge on the edge of that more emotional side of working with a horse….but it is because working with horses requires people to be in touch with how their verbal and non-verbal communication impacts the horse they are working with. It is a fact that our emotions impact our nonverbal communication which in turn impacts our communication with horses. Despite how touchey-feely this post comes off I do want to state that I personally don’t believe in “horse whispering” or that there is a magical element to interacting with horses. I think communicating with horses takes practice and a willingness to listen….and a lot of practice learning how to speak in “Horse” in return. I still firmly believe that horses are horses…they are not humans. But we can sure learn a lot from these four footed animals that God has graced the world with (He made them to perform such a special job here!)…if we just listen and learn to speak “Horse”.


Written by Saebra Pipoly. Learn more about the author by clicking here.

Send Saebra an email at saebra.p@hooffallsandfootfalls.comsubscribe to the Hoof Falls & Footfalls newsletter, follow on instagram, and subscribe to the YouTube channel!

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