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On Serenading Horses on a Saturday

December 13, 2011

Could singing be a way to get horses to cooperate with humans?

I hadn't heard of "Equine Guided Education" until I met Wendy Millet.

Wendy spends half her life heading up the Woods Institute for the Environment at Stanford and the other half running Gallop Ventures, a business dedicated to helping people figure out interpersonal dynamics and leadership skills through interacting with horses.

Wendy and her partners run workshops for executive groups and other teams and every now and again, they do a free demo class. I'd been clamoring to to see what this Equine Guided Education thing was all about, so I joined a group on Saturday.

It turns out that horses are extremely sensitive creatures. The subtlest changes in their body movements indicate whether they're feeling in sync with their environment. When they're feeling comfortable, they behave like they're "one of the team," actively coming up to and sticking around the humans that are near them. When they're feeling disgruntled by the interactions going on around them, they put their ears back, rear their heads haughtily and even walk off in the other direction in apparent disgust.

Our small group of participants at the demo took part in a number of exercises to test our ability to lead a situation and work as a team. The picture above shows me and a couple of fellow workshop attendees attempting to get a bridle on Master, the steed who had been selected to work with us, with our arms interlocked and restrictions placed on our ability to communicate with words. We made a hash of the task. Master's ears were pinned back. Otherwise he treated us with indifference. By the time we had got the bridle on him, we realized we had put it on upside down.

The most challenging task of the morning, however, was trying to get Master to walk around the paddock with us, without using the bridle to pull him. Try as we might, he wouldn't budge. At some point, for no particular reason, I suggested that we try singing a song. We stood in a semi-circle and tried a couple of verses of "Home on the Range." Master walked towards us. He didn't make it all the way over and we never got him to follow us around, but he seemed at least to relax and want to be part of our circle when we were singing.

Wendy thought we were on the right track with this activity. "He wasn't responding to the song itself," she said, "But rather to the collective energy you all had together when you were singing. He was responding to the fact that you were all in sync."

I want to do more singing experiments with horses.


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