I’ve been thinking lately about horses and ventriloquy.
I want to write something about the talking horses of literature, from Houyhnhnms to Dick, the Little Poney, Tolstoy’s Kholstomer and Black Beauty. Why do so many authors want to give a voice to horses? What do we use them to say about horses, humans and the world at large? How has this changed over time and in different cultures?
In recent decades horsemen and -women have moved from ventriloquy to claiming that they are directly interpreting the horse’s true tongue: its body language. Many schools of thought offer interpretations of tail swishing, ear flicking and herd hierarchy, often promising training methods that are “natural” and will allow you to “communicate in your horse’s own language”. “Understanding your horse” is the key to harmony in these systems, and you are promised that you will be able to “talk” directly back to your horse and get him to do what you want without confusion.
Lately I’ve wondered if these new interpreters aren’t just the latest generation of ventriloquists, however well meaning. We can, after all, only guess at the real language of horses, as, like a dog’s sense of smell, it probably contains subtleties far beyond our ken. What if we are just projecting human interpretations onto horses all over again? That’s why I’m fascinated by this piece offering a scientific interpretation of Horse Whispering by Dr Antonia J Z Henderson (Horse-Canada.com). It will read as blasphemy to some, but it’s thought-provoking in the best sense. It never hurts to question orthodoxy, even when that orthodoxy has benevolent intentions.