Uncommon Horse Sense







The smaller the steps in the learning process, the easier it is for the horse to learn.






The Third Priority In The Horse/Human Relationship

<Fourth of four articles>


     “You don’t have to shout, I’m not deaf, I just don’t speak English, French, German, etc.”

                                                                                                Equus Caballus

                         Communication:  A process by which information is exchanged through a common system of symbols, signs or behavior.

      Dependent upon the interaction of other herd members for protection from predators, eons of natural selection have instilled in the horse an incredibly rich and diverse language.  This language is used to communicate a wide range of information that has allowed the horse to adapt to a considerable variety of environments (including our own artificial ones).  It is used within the herd to warn of danger, establish hierarchy, define family groups, guide the herd to food and water sources, establish breeding rights and communicate fear and emotion to name a few.

      Obviously, a comprehensive discussion of equine communication could take several chapters, if not an entire book.  So for purposes here, we will limit ourselves to the major principles as they relate to horse/human interaction, and let you conduct your own in depth study.

      The horse’s language is a physical one of position and gestures, reinforced with verbal expression … just the opposite of ours.  When we stand at the center of a round pen and ask the horse to move, we are communicating hierarchy to the horse in two ways.  First by position: By driving the horse away we are in effect banishing him from the herd, which for a prey animal is a death sentence.  After he takes a submissive posture and asks to be let back into the herd we allow him to return, just as the lead mare would.  This is the first step in establishing us as herd leader in the horse’s mind.  Second by movement:  Horses yield only to members higher in the herd.  This can easily be observed at feeding time, or when a new member is introduced into the herd.  By first establishing position, then movement, then controlling the direction, then speed, etc., we are communicating the concept of herd hierarchy in a manner the horse easily recognizes.

      Because it is the horse’s primary form of communication, it is easier to teach the horse using physical gestures than verbal language.  When teaching a verbal command, it is necessary to first get the horse to respond to a physical command, then use that to teach the verbal command.  We should also recognize the horse has a limited capacity for verbal language, and this is best kept as simple as possible.  Use single syllable words, clucks, kisses, etc. (e.g., “Walk” not Walk on,” “Whoa” not “Whoa, Whoa! WHOA!!! You stupid horse, I’m not ready to go yet.”)

      It’s the release of pressure that teaches the horse, not the application.  The horse does not actually learn to move away from pressure, he learns to seek a release.  Therefore, releasing the rein teaches the horse to give to the bit, not pulling on the rein.  If the horse does not yield when pressure is applied, you don’t have to pull harder (“You don’t have to shout, I’m deaf, …”) simply wait for the horse to move the direction you wanted, and release him when he does.  By recognizing the slightest try (or even a thought) and releasing the instant it occurs, we can get the horse to respond to lighter and lighter aids willingly, because he has learned how to get himself released.  This is where Feel, Timing and Balance become critical.  Feel allows us to recognize when the horse is responding (or thinking of responding).  Timing the release tells the horse when he has responded correctly.  Balance keeps us in position to feel the horse respond, and time the release.

      The horse has an incredible capacity to learn and retain information, but little ability to reason.  Unless taught, he can not understand that the plastic bag he’s learned to accept on his neck, won’t hurt him when it touches his flank.  Therefore, everything you want the horse to know must be taught, and the smaller the steps in the learning process, the more quickly he will learn.  Also, because he has bi-lateral vision (sees the world in two halves), whatever is taught on the left, must also be taught on the right.

      Using pain or fear as a motivator interferes with the learning process.  First, because they destroy the “trust” and “respect” necessary before communication can occur, and second, because they distract the horse from focusing on the problem.  While he’s worrying about what’s going to happen to him next, he’s not thinking about what you are asking him to do.

      Allow the horse to make choices, tell him when he made the right one.  This is the beginning of the “exchange” of information in the communication process.  You ask, the horse tries different things until he does what you wanted, and then you release him.  Punishment isn’t necessary, but patience is, if you want a trusting, willing partner.

      Any change you want in the horse, first occurs in you.  There’s an old saying, “If you always do what you always did, you’ll always get what you always got.” (Pardon the grammar.)  It is incumbent upon you to learn the horse’s language, and not expect him to learn yours.  (“… I just don’t speak English, French, German, etc.”You decide what kind of relationship you want with your horse, then you act to effect the change, then the horse responds to the request, and finally, the horse understands what is expected of him.  A thought becomes as action, elicits a response, and develops into an understanding.

      Whether interacting with humans or horses, the principles of a relationship remain the same, all that changes are the values of the individuals and the methods of communication.  Treat your horse as you would your best friend, and he’ll treat you as his herd leader.

      For both partners in the horse/human relationship, TRUST gives them the freedom to act, RESPECT motivates them to act, COMMUNICATION tells them how to act.

 Earn TRUST…

                                    Instill RESPECT…

                                                                                    Develop COMMUNICATION.