Do we know how to really listen?

Published 8:00 am Thursday, July 13, 2023

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As human beings, we think we are listening when others talk. We are listening to words, we are reading words, we are speaking words and common expressions—everything is based upon language. Yes, communication can be rather difficult when we travel to other countries and cannot understand what is being said, so we often resort to sign language and gestures that can be universally understood. But do we REALLY listen, or are we usually listening enough to simply hear what we want to hear?

I have a story to tell you about how I learned to really listen, and I learned it from a horse. 

I had a horse named Sailors Don’t Dance, whose sire was Northern Dancer. Any of you horsey folks will know that Northern Dancer’s offspring were usually hot-blooded thoroughbreds, bred to run fast and win. My Sailor could certainly run fast, which was not always what I had in mind. My challenge was to stay on top, and I did not always do that very well. He was also an excellent bucker and I learned to land on my feet when he bucked—most of the time. 

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When I was the leader of the local Pony Club the young riders loved watching me get bucked off and land standing up. It made them feel pretty good that they were at least staying on top of their mount while their leader was not doing the same.

My question was, though, “Why did Sailor buck?” 

For years I took lessons from respected professional trainers, thinking and hoping that I could fix the problem. The diagnosis from all of those trainers was that I needed to be more strict with my discipline, that I needed to use my crop, and my legs and hands, and that basically, I needed to ‘take charge’. But it did not work. Sailor still bucked. 

I tried three or four different bits to no avail. Then I rode him in a halter and he responded better than he had with a bit in his mouth. Deep down I knew that Sailor was willing to do anything that I asked of him, but something was wrong. So then I started trying different saddles. After three different saddles, the bucking continued. Then Joy Baker suggested that I try an orthopedic saddle, one that does not have the traditional wooden tree that sits upon the horse’s withers and backbone, but rather has semi-flexible panels that sit on the horse’s back muscles. So I tried it. 

There is a steep hill behind our house, where Sailor bucked EVERY time. Sailor and I took our usual ride on the trail around the house, and I got ready for the buck as we started down that steep hill. But it never happened! What I heard from Sailor was a simple and heartfelt thank you. I felt it. His body relaxed and I felt his gratitude all through my body. 

Sailor never bucked again, ever. He had been trying to tell me all those years that his back hurt when I was riding him, but I wasn’t listening. I was listening to the words of the trainers. 

Sailor taught me to listen, yet he never spoke a word. He had fused vertebrae in his back and was bucking to adjust his back when those vertebrae were pinched as we were going down a hill or over a jump. For more than 10 years I had been inflicting pain, and his only resort was to buck to ease that pain. I was not listening with my whole body, yet he only said “thank you” when I finally stopped hurting him.

Think about our senses– touch, smell, sound, taste and sight. How much do we use these senses to actually hear, to feel, to listen with our whole selves? And how much worse has it gotten in this digital age, where there are no feelings or senses, just words? It is even harder for us to really listen to each other, and to all of life around us, but we must try. 

We must try!