Building a trusting relationship with your horse is really all about communicating: the horse’s communication with you and yours with him. Too often, people get frustrated and angry at a horse that doesn’t seem to be listening or isn’t doing what we want. Most of the problem lies with us -- we’re ascribing human characteristics to our horses, thinking they’ll eventually “get” what we’re saying.
Horses are not human. In many ways, they may be far more advanced than we are. Through evolution, they’ve learned to trust their instincts -- including a sixth sense -- for survival and have developed a highly effective form of communicating with each other and for interpreting their environment. Horses are driven by their survival instincts, and there isn’t anything we should want to do to change that because, in so doing, you will break your horse’s spirit and debase such a magnificent creature.
Rather, we can learn the language of our horses. We can teach ourselves (with their help) to read their signals and subtle messages. This is how we can make clear our “herd leadership role,” enabling our horses to understand and trust what we’re saying and act accordingly.
So how do you learn the language of horses? You can do it in an up-close-and-personal way by simply observing how your horse reacts to your words and behavior and how he interacts with other horses. You can sense what bothers your horse and what makes him happy. You can watch how he reacts to other people and situations. For example, does he rear or shy when he hears a branch break? He’s saying, “What’s that? I’m afraid.” And your reaction can be calm, reassuring and not fearful. Hearing your soothing voice will tell him that the herd leader (you) says there’s nothing to fear.
Over eons, horses have evolved to sense things that may or may not be obvious to us. For instance, they can perceive when a storm is coming. They can intuit whether a person is aggressive or kind. They can feel our agitation or depression. You might not be verbalizing these things, but a horse can pick them up anyway, and will react to them. So one of the first things to learn is to make perfectly clear to your horse just what your intentions are for him. The key word here is “clear.” If you visualize clearly in your head what you what you want your horse to do, chances are he’ll pick up on that with his sixth sense -- a phenomenon that has been well-documented. You might want him, for example, to cross a small ditch that he’s “told” you through body language that he’s afraid to cross. Don’t force him to do it. Simply sit calmly in the saddle and don’t let him go left, right or back. Just sit there and visualize him easily walking over that ditch. It might take several minutes or even longer, but eventually, your horse will sense what you want him to do and will know he can do it without coming to harm.
Henry Blake, an English horseman and writer, created a “dictionary of horse language” in his well-known book, “Talking with Horses.” A few of the dictionary entries follow:
- Who are you? The horse sniffs or blows air at another horse. How threatened he feels is evidenced by how harsh the sniff or blow.
- I am a friend. A gentle blowing or sniffing in combination with other non-aggressive movements.
- Look. Raising the head and tail and snorting or whinnying. Used to get the attention of other horses in the herd; can be a warning.
- Come here. A welcoming whicker followed by shaking the head backwards and forwards if his message elicits no response.
- Go away! A defensive sign meant to protect. It can be fairly mild, usually made with the teeth or one or both hind legs, or a more hostile movement that says, “If you don’t go away, you’re in for it!
- That’s nice. The horse will increase physical pressure on another horse if standing close together. Demonstrates appreciation for whatever is going on.
- I love you. Gently blowing through the nostrils or rubbing with the nose and head, although doing so can also draw a response that means “go away.”
If you take the time to study your horse and the language signs he presents in different situations, you’ll have an easier time of communicating with him. Combine this with making your intentions perfectly clear in ways he can understand, and your relationship will reach highly rewarding levels -- for both of you.
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