Talking to Horses

Forging relationships with horses can be difficult. The primary difficulty is obvious: horses and people are totally different animals. People by nature are EXTREMELY verbal. We communicate constantly with our mouths, our voices and written language. Expressed words are a REALLY HUGE part of how we use our gigantic brains to connect with each other. Humans are omnivores living in group units. We have the capacity to use tools to hunt and build. Our offspring grow slowly and we use our words to teach and pass on information as well as to thrive in climates across the globe. Words and actions have kept us alive all this time.

Horses by comparison have relatively less complex brains and far fewer verbal forms of communication. Certainly you hear horses make noise. They whinny, nicker, grunt, and squeal however most all of those noises are used in communication with other horses, and as a person who inhabits a barn, I’ll tell you for the most part, they’re not making a lot of verbal communications with each other throughout the day. Now, if you were a horse, a herd animal, a prey animal you’d learn pretty quick that you really don’t want to talk out loud that much either. If everyone in the herd is standing around whinnying their heads off…well it’s pretty easy for a pack of wolves to find you and eat your family. So yes, horses do “talk” out loud but so much of the way they communicate is done with their bodies.

You can learn a lot about horses, and how they communicate simply by watching them. If for example you watch horses in turn out over the course of a few hours you’ll find out that they spend the first bit of turn out saying “hello” to their neighbors. They whinny, squeal and kick and buck. It’s like everyone is saying “HEY GUYS IT’S A BEAUTIFUL DAY!” They also posture at each other, either sidling up to one another for a scratch or perhaps backing up to a pushy neighbor and giving a kick with a squeal as to say “this is my personal space bubble pal!!” After awhile they settle in and everyone goes back to silent playing and companionship….until the garbage truck comes by or something startles the group, then they get chatty again. Just as they do when we bring them in…they begin to neigh and call for their friends, especially the ones who are waiting to come in “DON’T FORGET ME OUT HERE!!!”

But when you are riding your horse he really shouldn’t make that much noise. A horse whinnying during a ride is usually a nervous horse or buddy sour calling to a friend. A horse whinnying while you ride isn’t telling you “great job up there I understand what you want loud and clear.” Actually, the whinnying-under-saddle horse in that moment is treating you like an afterthought.

So, as you grow in horsemanship and become a true horseman you need to learn your horse’s body language. Learn to listen to him with your body. Slow down those verbal parts of your brain and begin to fire up the “feel” sections of your brain. The same receptors in your mind that can “feel” that your air conditioner has kicked on making the room colder are the ones that will help you “feel” your horse’s mood. You need to learn to feel in your own body what your horse is telling you. This is easily accomplished while grooming, which is a natural behavior for happy well-adjusted horses. As you brush feel his body, are his muscles tensed or relaxed? is he paying attention to you and quietly following your movements or is he cocked to the side watching something else happen in the barn or looking for his pasture buddy? Does he jump to the side when you brush or does he lean in to the curry?

It follows then, that if you must listen with your body you also need to learn to talk with your body. As a child I remember some fundamental moments of my education in horsemanship. One is that people told me over and over horses “knew” when you were afraid. I always kind of thought this meant the horse was reading my mind, but in reality as 7 years old I was unaware that my emotional/mental nerves created physical reactions in my body. Tightness in legs, hands, tilting forward, breathing quickly. I was ACTING nervous and my body communication to the horse was telling her there was a HUGE ALLIGATOR in the arena and we needed to run. Of course knowing that the horse “knows” I’m nervous only served to make little Margo MORE nervous…that was until I learned more about riding and became more confident.

Famously, in my first dressage test ever I verbally communicated with my horse Dolly the whole time. “Now Dolly, we’re gonna go across the diagonal here….okay now at B we have to trot a circle.” At -2 points a shot per voice command the opening act to my competitive dressage career earned a generous 43% (that’s terrible). Dolly the horse wasn’t voice trained, and she didn’t know what a circle was, she only knew what I physically told her to do, which ultimately was to trot, slowly a weird polygon shape in the middle of the dressage arena.

It took me a while to figure out how to communicate with my body ONLY to my horse. Yes, I do still talk out loud to my horses but there is also a HUGE amount of information being shared with my body, my own emotional control and how I use those things to communicate with them. After 35 years of being around horses I feel very fluent in body communication with the horses. If you were to watch me with the horses I work with you’d see me touching them and speaking my language with them the entire time I work with them. And when I meet new horses, I certainly do introduce myself to them politely and try to begin our dialogue. Every horse, like every person is similar but different and the more horses you meet the better equine communicator you become. You learn that speed, level of intensity and repetition mean more than words.

Horses certainly can pick out an experienced horse person from someone who is just starting out. Horses make a humongous array of facial expressions mostly because they’ve been domesticated for thousands of years and they are really really good at reading human beings. They have learned, by watching us and feeling our bodies when we are in a good place emotionally or a bad place. They are very sharp animals and they 100% know you’ve had a bad day at work just by the stiffness of your eyebrow. Imagine for a moment that you could slow down enough and be so observant of your horse that you could tell just by the stiffness of his nostril what kind of mood he was in….and then have the physical and emotional acuity to make it better.

If you don’t believe me that your horse understands what your facial expressions mean take a minute out of your barn time to yawn obnoxiously at your horse and you’ll discover that yawns are contagious across species.

I urge everyone: slow down. Look, feel, listen…absorb and immerse yourself in the life of your equine partner not by projecting your emotions onto him but by allowing yourself to be more equine. They (the horses) really are trying their level best to do what you want, if you find that your horse is naughty or is not listening it might be time to examine your communication skills with your horse.Its worth doing because as you learn to communicate more like a horse your confidence and security will grow. Good communication skills are after all the bedrock of any good relationship.

How was your day hairball?

How was your day hairball?

HOrsemanship: A Beginners Guide

Strictly speaking “horsemanship” is a term that simply means: the art and practice of riding horses.  However, many (including myself) would argue that horsemanship is a broader term, extending beyond simply riding. In my mind horsemanship is a skill set which encompasses the competent handling, management and riding of horses. 

Horsemanship in my mind covers: knowledge of breeds, colorations, markings, standard brands and anatomy of horses. Knowledge of all pieces of tack, how and why they are used. A functional ability to manage a horse through an endless array of situations: loading in a horse trailer, riding, leading down a barn aisle, familiarization with new places, hand grazing. A horseman should also know equine first aid, the equine digestive system, giving a horse a bath and basic biomechanics…

This is a short list. Because identifying suitable hay, changing tires, mucking stalls, providing and maintaining proper housing, riding correctly, training horses, communicating with vets and farriers, and the entire giant subcategory of "horse showing"  also appear on this list.

When you own a horse you need to know A LOT of things relating to the animal you own and ride, apart from simply how to pilot your steed.  Horsemanship is a broad ranging topic. Becoming a competent horse person is quite the undertaking.

There are many styles of horsemanship.  Traditional, natural and all things in between. Between disciplines and styles of riding and driving good horsemanship means something different. Truly, there is a broad spectrum of expectations.  All of them are hoping to achieve the same thing: happy healthy horses, and good safe riding.

There are a few things a person needs in order to become a true and competent horse person:

1: Time.  Spending time in your riding stable around horses and horse people is important. Becoming aware of the rhythms and patterns of horses and how things are done. Becoming part of the local culture and of course time enough to become fully comfortable around horses, and the situations that present themselves as part of horse life.

2: Observation. A lot of time the best way to learn about horsemanship is through simply watching. Observe horses and observe horse people. Watch what other riders and trainers do, then see if you are capable of emulating what they do. Posture, timing of corrections and asks. What do horse people wear (gloves are a good example)? Observe horses moving and how they act when they are in turn out, when they are in their stall. Watch other people ride, both in clinics, lessons and just for fun. What does posting look like or asking for a lope off? Head set, over-stride. Observe your horse’s reactions to things and the environment and the interactions you share with them.  If a horse is scared or nervous, what makes them better? What makes them worse?  Watch and see. 

Observation includes listening as well. The equestrian world is filled with its own special vocabulary. Listen to how seasoned horse people communicate, pick up the lingo, the special terms and when they are used. 

3: Mentors. If you’re new to the sport or looking to increase your skill, after spending your time in the barn, and observing things, also find the person or people whose horse skills you most admire and refer to them, if possible for help and advice. “If this was your horse what would you do”  Watch how they wrap legs, or handle a spook. Watch how they get a stubborn horse into a trailer or how they lead and handle their horses. Horsemanship is a skill which has been handed down for millennia. Don’t be afraid to ask for help and advice from people who know more than   you. All horse people get a large portion of their information by asking for help. 

4: Education. Where possible seek out reputable educational materials and experiences. Take riding lessons and askyour instructor or mentor to help you learn how to do things you are unsure of. Read books and magazine articles from reputable sources. Be wary of self-published books, miracle cures for problem horses and guarantees of expertise within short periods of time. Be mindful that ANYONE can post videos on YouTube and the technique you may be watching on YouTube is perhaps dangerous, improperly done or just simply ineffective. 

Good books and magazines have the information you are looking for. “What does the bit do?” “Why do I need to change my posting diagonal?” Becoming a good horseman is primarily an experiential endeavor but a wealth of knowledge can be had from publications. Reading and watching videos can communicate the same concepts you are learning but in a different or more in-depth way. 

Reputable Sources include: (magazines) Equus, Practical Horsemanship, Chronicle of the Horse. (Books) Pony Club Manual of Horsemanship, Complete Equine Emergency Bible, International Encyclopedia of Horse Breeds.

5: Find your own Style. You don’t have to be a horseman like Buck Brannaman. You can be and should be your own horse person. It’s okay to meld natural horsemanship techniques with more traditional methods. So long as it’s safe, and effective develop the style that works for you and be confident in how you do it. The shared language between on rider and one horse may not necessarily work exactly the same for another rider and a different horse. 

Becoming a knowledgable horseman takes time and effort, but it’s worth it! In horses there is no end to the opportunity for expanding your knowledge base. Just when you think you have seen everything and done most everything something brand new crops up to challenge what you know. Horsemanship is something you can take pride in, and that pride will carry over into the rest of your life. Giving you more confidence than before you started your great journey.