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.