In her series of articles about developing successful human-equine partnerships with the insights provided by Neurolinguistic Programming, Wendy Jago, an NLP Master Practitioner and coach, considers Presupposition 2. This is ‘the meaning of a message is what the receiver understands — not necessarily what the sender intends’. It’s equally applicable to successful trainer-rider relationships, too

BD List 3 judge Wendy Jago with her and judge’s writer, husband Leo, at Hickstead

WE CAN easily find evidence of confused messages in both our human and horsey relationships. I remember as a teenager arranging to meet my father after school/work at a certain tube station — presumably because we were intending to go on somewhere together. However, both of us waited some considerable time — he in the upstairs lobby and I on the platform. I don’t now remember which of us set up that meeting, but they can’t have checked that the other person understood “at the station” the same way as they did!

The important issue that NLP uncovers here is that there is no intrinsic “right” or “wrong” meaning to the message itself. Both meanings can be taken as “wrong” in the sense that the message doesn’t “land” as intended, or as “right” in the minds of the individuals concerned. It is all too easy to get into questions of judgement and even blame from either perspective. “How could you possibly have thought I meant X?” or “Why on earth didn’t you make it clear that…,?”

Once we get into the blame-game we lose sight of the real issue of effective communication and how it was that the communication wasn’t effective.

Only by asking ourselves the core NLP question, “how did this come to happen?” can we start to unravel the confusion, find ways to rectify the misunderstanding and, hopefully, improve our communication next time. In my first NLP article I showed how an individual’s map of the world is critical in influencing how they interpret what goes on around them. Their mind-set colours their expectations and their reactions. And, of course, this affects their understanding of any deliberate messages they either send or receive. What may seem obvious to the sender, may seem equally obviously something quite different, or even contradictory, to the receiver.

In a business context recently, I was coaching someone highly-placed in a company who was feeling very frustrated by a colleague’s reaction to what seemed like a quite low-level misunderstanding. He had pointed out what he saw as her failure to understand him, and she had taken this in a defensive and huffy way. In talking this through, he began to realise two things:

♦ that she had reacted to the emotional impact of the message (being told off) not to its factual content, and that,
 ♦ it might have helped if he had taken trouble earlier on to check what she had understood him to mean in the first place.

How does understanding the mechanism of communication help us with our horses? If we build on the assumption that horses’ reactions to our messages make sense according to their map of the world, then any apparent failure to understand our requests/instructions/commands makes sense from their perspective. An honest horse is not deliberately being naughty or stupid, but he may well be confused, anxious about something new, tired, uncomfortable — or reacting in a way that’s been coloured by past experience.

Let’s take an example. You acquire a new horse, not exactly a baby but pretty green. His stable manners don’t exist. He has no sense of personal space (his or yours), so when he wants something he grabs, when he is frustrated he nips and standing still isn’t part of his vocabulary. Your messages about any of these “failures”, not surprisingly, tend to lack finesse. He is apparently unaware of your needs, feelings or even presence. You might find yourself shouting, slapping and moving fast out of the way.

You know this doesn’t help, but what else can you do? Is he nasty by nature? Untrainable? Should you get rid of him immediately because he could do some real damage? Or have you perhaps the understanding, skill and patience (and possibly expert advice) to take this as a case of helping him to learn a new language — the language of dialogue, compromise and mutual respect? There is of course no one “right” answer to these hypothetical questions, but they are based on the issue of communication rather than right and wrong.

Before we bought our horse Mouse (seen left with Wendy and Leo’s daughter Charlotte) he had been an eventer and as such had been asked to “do” dressage. He is tall, long in the back and although he learnt to go in a “nice” outline when framed with the reins, he didn’t step under with his pelvis tucked, or use his core muscles to help him raise his back and soften through his topline. So he offered what he understood by his rider’s message, which was an obedient shape, while not understanding the more complex task of how to carry himself. Probably as a result, he reacted to rein-contact with some form of resistance, hollowing his back, lifting his head like a camel, leaning on one side of the bit and so on.

What message might he have been taking from his riders? I think it was one of confinement. This is not a judgement on his earlier riding and training, since I know nothing about it, though when I judged him as a novice before we even knew he was for sale, I did comment that he needed to soften through the back. Since he is essentially a nice honest horse, his answer to riders was something like, “I wish you wouldn’t do that. When you pick up the reins I feel claustrophobic. Your legs ask me to go forward but your hands don’t give me any space. You ask me to bring my nose down but the only way I know to do that is by bending at the poll and that gives me a sore neck and a stiff back.”

When we try to improve communication with a human being we can at least check what they have understood. My first boss at Sussex University used to send a short letter to anyone he’d just had a meeting with summarising the content of that meeting and any decisions made. That was useful and certainly better than nothing, but it was still only his half of the exchange! A more comprehensive approach to making the communication effective could be for the manager (or riding trainer) to say something like, “So what’s your take-away from this?” Or to ask the employer/pupil to summarise what in their view has been discussed and agreed.

When our communication is with an animal, we have first to ask ourselves: “what is he telling me through his behaviour?” and “what has he understood my message to mean?”

This may be specific to today’s message or be a more generalised response. In the time that we have been working with Mouse to help him step under, tuck his pelvis and lift his ribcage and thus his back, I have realised that two things help him understand the message more easily. The first of these is for me to tuck my own pelvis under more, and the second is for me to be more “playful” with my hands and fingers.

What got me to understand this was hearing two messages more clearly myself. Ali Cookson at the Training the Teachers of Tomorrow Trust (TTT) was recently giving a friend of mine a lesson and asked her to “sit on your tailbone”. And she also asked her to be more playful, less rigid, with her fingers and hands. This made a massive difference to my friend’s horse, Now I know about pelvic tuck and soft hands, but the words “tailbone” and “playful” both landed with me in a way the information somehow hadn’t landed before, enabling me to develop a more refined way of sending my messages to Mouse, who in turn understood them more clearly and was able to respond more willingly and effectively.

There’s another important point about messages, of course: if at first your message doesn’t seem to be getting across, change the way you deliver it!

When I was a postgraduate student I took one highly technical topic for a term. I noticed that the tutor who taught it made sure everyone had a chance to understand by giving the message three times in three different ways. If you got it the first time, the second and third time reinforced what you’d learnt; if you hadn’t, then you had been given more chances.

Good riding teachers spot when a pupil hasn’t understood, either by what they do/don’t do, or through what the pupil says about what they are experiencing. Good riders give their horses more than one chance to understand what’s wanted by taking their first response as information and then refining how they give the message next time — and the next time — until the response shows that the message is landing.

© Out and About Dressage Ltd, December 2017

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