I always used to think that understanding something meant simply gaining knowledge about the topic. But over time I've come to realize that at least with horses, understanding is a delicate balance between adding knowledge and subtracting the self.
What does that even mean? Subtracting the self means stripping away all preconceived notions that we generally carry around with us as human beings. It means taking everything we think we know, and tossing it in a mental wastebasket for a little while so we can see what's in front of us without anything clouding it.
I only started being able to understand horses' actions and communication with me once I set aside a bunch of learned beliefs that interfered with my ability to do so. And in turn, I became more empathetic, more in tune, and more fair as a horsewoman.
Here's a list of just some ideas I had to ditch:
1. I must dominate this horse in order to be respected. (There's a meaningful difference between being a strong and respected leader, and simply dominating. Leaders also learn to bring up the rear... more on that topic in a separate post).
2. Humans and horses are completely separate species and think very differently about the world. (Separate species, yes. Many thought processes do differ, such as horses' inability to reason. However, we do better to consider humans as no different from animals in our basic needs of food, water, home turf, and family or herd).
3. Horses should want to do what we want them to do. (But like, why? And have you ever met a 3-year old human child? Case closed. That's not to say you can't find ways to encourage them or make it worth their while - positive reinforcement works wonders).
4. I have to do things the classic equestrian way that I was taught. (If you care about peoples' opinions, then yes. But if you care more about the well-being of the horse, you learn to break out of the box and figure out your own solutions, conventional or not.)
5. Being too "nice" and not harsh enough is just spoiling the horse. (Horses are sentient beings. They were not put on this planet to serve us - we just happened to notice they were useful, and domesticated them. Being nice, or kind, is actually the least we can do. That's not to suggest being a pushover - it's important to set personal space boundaries, etc. but that can be done with respect fitting of another autonomous being).
Over the years I've found that this stripping-away process has helped me in nearly every area of life, from figuring out who I am as a person and deciding what I want out of life, to discovering greater empathy for other people or animals. Its effect on my horsemanship has been a major bonus. It's remarkable what can transform when we try to see the essence of something without the layers of other peoples' or society's ideas that we carry around.