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Horse Communication: The Big Secret

By Jeffrey Rolo

Horse owners are much like people of any other stripe or occupation: they often seek the magic bullet that will solve all their horse-oriented problems or questions in one fell swoop. The problem is, when faced with a scenario such as…

"My horse, who I've owned one week, fights the bit when I attempt to ride him. Can you help me?"

… there is no single answer. There is no magic bullet.

I try to help folks out as often as possible, but when presented with a vague hypothetical such as the above one, what magic bullet could you provide? What quick tidbit of advice could you impart that would instantly solve the horse owner's problem? If you know of such a magic bullet, you're a better man than me.

Here are just a few of the questions that pop into mind when faced with the above question:

How old is your horse? How many years has your horse worked under saddle? What breed is your horse? How experienced are you as a rider or handler? What cues do you use while riding? Does the horse consistently fight the bit? If not, can a pattern be detected as to when and where the horse fights the bit? Where do you ride – inside an arena, or out on the trail? How do you react when he starts fighting the bit? Before purchasing the horse, did you get a vet to check his mouth and physique that would rule out potential physical reasons for the horse's resistance? What corrective actions have you attempted when confronting the negative behavior?

I'll stop there, but there are many other questions one would ask before being able to give a more specific diagnosis to the above problem, and even then such advice would be lacking without personal observation of the horse in question. But answering the above inquiry isn't the point of this article, so I won't attempt to answer it here.

Instead, the above was to illustrate that there are no magic bullets when working with horses. It's not rocket science, or even particularly complex, but it does require observation, thought and knowledge.

But since so many horse owners, particularly newer ones, seek the big secret to natural horsemanship, I'll share it with you. It's not knowledge, as important as knowledge is. It's communication.

Imagine that you were a third-grade teacher attempting to impart some mathematical skills to your young students. Training young children in mathematics can be a bit challenging, but it's certainly doable even without being specifically trained to do so.

Now imagine that you had very poor communication skills – when it comes to children, you're really not sure how to relate to them. Hmmm, that would make it more difficult, wouldn't it?

Let's take this a step further. We know you're trying to teach young children a technical skill, and we know that you're not an expert when it comes to communicating with youngsters, but now let's imagine that you don't speak the same verbal language as your students. You speak Russian, and they speak French. Hmmm… this is getting pretty ugly, isn't it? It may still be possible, but it would be a much slower road since students couldn't pose questions, and you couldn't understand them – you only have the advantages of body language and numerical illustrations at your disposal.

Are you starting to get the picture? You can be the most knowledgeable mathematician in the world, but if you don't speak French and don't know how to relate to young children, you're going to have a very difficult time teaching those Russian children math. Lack of knowledge isn't your problem; communication is!

Now let's look at horse training. Your horse is the French child, and you're the Russian teacher. You cannot speak to each other verbally – you don't speak the same language. Your initial attempts to communicate will be a learning experience for you both, since neither of you are quite sure how to relate to one another. But on top of those already significant challenges you're faced with another: since the horse isn't the same species, you don't even have the advantages of universal human body language! You can't detect looks of puzzlement, smiles, frowns, or any other human emotions that are expressed visually rather than verbally. Your last ace in the hole – body language – was stripped from you.

Do you still think knowledge in and of itself will be enough?

No. The big secret to natural horsemanship is communication. Sure, professional trainers are a wealth of knowledge when it comes to training techniques and horse handling, but first and foremost they have bridged the horse-human divide and learned how to communicate.

Do not become focused on the technical minutia of horse training when first starting out with horses, because that is akin to not seeing the forest for the trees. All that knowledge, while helpful, will mean nothing until you learn how to communicate with horses.

In the past, the rugged style of horse training basically consisted of slapping a saddle on a raw horse's back, jumping on it and having a showdown until the horse relented. Such "trainers," and I use the term loosely, believed it was the horse's responsibility to learn our language. They didn't care a whit if they failed to understand the horse's language.

Natural horsemanship takes a different approach. Although a natural horseman does hope to teach a horse how to better understand humans, they are first and foremost experienced communicators that understand the horse's language. Since they can understand how a horse behaves, they can better express their desires and impart their knowledge. They have learned, over time, how to speak the student's language.

Before you attempt to build upon your knowledge of riding techniques and other technical details, first take the time to better learn horse communication. Learn their body language. Learn their natural tendencies, and how they react to common scenarios. And once you have gained a basic understanding of horse communication, observe your horse and learn his personal quirks. Horses, like people, are individuals, and as such any attempts to communicate should be personalized in order to gain the greatest effect.

Communication fosters a greater understanding between you and your horse, and with understanding comes success. There may not be a magic bullet when it comes to horse training, but good horse communication skills are as close to one as you'll find.

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