Friday, January 8, 2016

Learning a New Language

My daughter started talking a little later than the average child.  At first, we were a little concerned, because that's how parents are.  Any milestone that is not met or exceeded automatically sends us into a tailspin of anxiety.  But, it turned out that Gemma was probably really just focused on developing her climbing and counting and mathematical skills, which are well ahead of schedule, so her brain just couldn't handle the verbal component too.  Now, she is talking and even uses complete sentences.  (That is a both a good and a bad thing...)

But, as is typical with learning a new language, she sometimes has trouble pronouncing things or knowing the best word to describe something.  A couple of days ago, she really wanted me to put her lunch into a big bowl.  I assumed that she wanted a little bowl, because she has always, without exception, wanted her food in a little bowl.  And she constantly reminded me of that.  For whatever reason, at that moment, it was her most sincere desire that lunch be served in a big bowl.  She knows the words for big and for bowl, but maybe because she wanted the big bowl so much, her desire short-circuited her brain, and all she could do was cry with dismay because I was attempting to put her lunch into the little bowl.

I'm pretty sure that in her head, she was thinking that she had told Mommy to put lunch in a big bowl, but Mommy screwed up or didn't listen and it was SO IMPORTANT that lunch be in a big bowl.  So, she was beside herself that lunch was going into THE WRONG BOWL.  (If you've never raised a toddler, this situation might seem to defy reality, but I assure you toddlers get very committed to things that seem very strange to adults on a regular basis.)

Meanwhile, I was getting really frustrated because all I wanted was to make Gemma happy so she would stop crying and eat her lunch.  I've been living with this child for over 3 years, so I have some insight into what she wants and likes.  And still, I COULD NOT FIGURE IT OUT.  We must have spent 5 minutes trying to communicate with each other and getting nowhere before I finally figured it out.  (Note to self:  Saying words louder does not help.  Saying words more slowly does not help.  Saying the same word or phrase over and over again does not help.  Banging one's head into the wall does not help...)  (Note to Gemma:  Crying hysterically and saying no to everything does not help.)

And that's when I had a bit of insight into what it must be like to be a horse learning something new.  I can't tell you how frustrating it was to desperately want to make my child happy and yet I could not find a word that she would acknowledge or an action that made her happy until finally I was at the end of my rope and offered up the big bowl as what I thought would be the very last thing that she could possibly want.  Then at last joy prevailed in the household and I was ready for a nap.

I imagine that horses might experience the very same thing when working with humans.  As Mark Rashid often points out, horses want to follow the path of least resistance.  But if they don't know what the path of least resistance is because they are confused about what we're asking, I expect it is as frustrating for them as it was for me to figure out what my daughter wanted.  In fact, I was so frustrated that if I had been dealing with an inanimate object instead of my daughter, I might have taken my frustration out physically.  Just like a horse who might kick or bite or rear or buck or walk away.

The situation with Gemma brought into stark relief the complications that can arise when we work with horses.  At least Gemma has the ability to speak my language.  Nimo doesn't.  His ability to communicate is on a much different level, and it is truly amazing that we can ever move in the same direction at all.  And yet, somehow, I manage to learn enough to communicate with him and he manages to learn enough to communicate with me. 

But sometimes, we have moments that are a lot like what Gemma and I experienced with the bowl, except I am Gemma and he is me.  So I'm standing there screaming at him and all he wants is to make me happy, except he has no clue what I want and I'm still learning how to talk to him, so I have few options to improve my communication.

I guess what it all boils down to is that the next time Nimo starts acting like he is frustrated, I am going to remember this situation, and if nothing else, I will give him a break so we can both start over again later.  Also, I will always have the ability to serve lunch with two different-sized bowls:)


  1. Very true! I often think horses are just trying to communicate something with their unpleasant behaviours (ie, bucking = my saddle is hurting me) and we just think they're being naughty. :)

  2. What a wonderful insight! Perfect explanation of that frustration :) Have you heard of total immersion technique as a way of learning a second language? My mum has been learning another language this way and it's been interesting to hear her experiences. Basically, you learn a language by only using that language in class, so there is no translation, you have to learn everything from scratch. Great post, wonderful way to develop empathy and patience! :)

    1. Thanks, OneHindResting:) I have heard of the total immersion method of learning language. I imagine that it would be terribly frustrating to start with, but that it would probably give quicker results. And it's probably a little like what some trainers do with wild horses when they "immerse" them in training for things like the Extreme Mustang Makeover.

  3. I can relate! I have a 3 year old, and almost daily a similar experience. I also ride and you make a great analogy! Something to think about.