Walk amidst any herd and, if you look closely, you will notice that the horses are watching you. All of them. Their heads may be up and alert, or down munching grass. They may be facing you or turned to the side. They may even have their bums toward you. But they see you. Their wide angle view with eyes strategically placed on the sides of their heads allows them to see nearly full circle, with the exception of right under their noses and directly behind them.
As you walk, you will notice that they are tracking your movement and, at once, tracking the eyes of the other herd members, too. Their survival historically depends on noticing how the other horses are reacting to any given situation. The first signals are noted in the eye.
Do you see the signals, too? Where is the focus of the herd? Of any particular horse? Is it on you? Is it on the other horses? Or is it on both at the same time? As you draw near, can you notice the exact moment when the horse switches focus from a wide angle view or something else…to you?
That is the moment I look for before stepping into a space of communication with horses. I notice the subtle shift of the eye to meet my own, the softening of the gaze, then the blink, the sigh. That's when I know they are saying, “Yes, I am listening. What is it that you have come to say?”
The slight shift in gaze might come while I am still at a distance, or I might be only a few feet away. As soon as I notice this moment…I stop, I pause. Then I wait for the horse to ask what comes next. Does the horse welcome me deeper into the space with soft eyes and lips, or does he show worry about my approach with not so subtle tail flicks or ear pins. If nothing moves but the eyes, then I notice the quality of the horse’s gaze. Is it wide and wary, suggesting the horse is ready to walk off? Or is it warm and inviting, open to making a connection?
Whether I am on the ground or in the saddle, making eye contact with my horse is key to establishing a connection. When I connect with a horse eye to eye, I also connect to my breath, to the ground through my feet, and I make my intention clear: “I come in peace. I come with love. You can trust me.”
I have often heard natural horsemanship trainers say not to look at a horse straight on when you are approaching. They say the positioning of our eyes marks us as a predator and can be threatening to the horse. But I believe horses are smarter than that and can read beyond our physical features. When dealing with my own horses, of course, they know very well I am not about to eat them for lunch.
Horses notice the quality of our gaze, they sense the intention with which we approach, and they feel the emotion behind it. Are my eyes soft, glowing, full of wonder, and seeking to connect? Or are they hard and determined, seeing the horse as a subject to train or overpower? Do my eyes show that I am not fully present, that I have somewhere else to be? Is my gaze warm and welcoming, or cold and predatory? A horse notices this and reacts accordingly.
So go ahead, meet your horses eye to eye. Show up in your truth and let them know that you see them. Track where the attention goes by following the eye as you work with your horse. When the eye's focus is on you, and you are also ready to be fully present with your horse, that is the time to make a suggestion: "Would you like to walk with me?"
When you get ready to leave your horse, take the time to disconnect: make eye contact and silently say “Goodbye, thank you. I’ll see you soon.” And wait for the horse to respond in his or her own time before you leave - a blink, an outbreath, or just going back to grazing.
Making eye contact is the least we can do for our horses. This small, humble gesture is pregnant with meaning. It says: “I am listening, I am present. I see you.”And it begs the question, “Do you see me, too?”
If you do this consistently, the horse will begin to realize that you are seeking his or her opinion, watching for subtle changes beginning with the eyes. You are open to having meaningful conversations and ensuring neither side of the dialogue is ignored.
Once you get in the habit of doing it with your horses, lo and behold, you’ll find yourself doing it with your people, too.