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Must I Learn The Horse's Language?

By Jeffrey Rolo

Is it really necessary for you to learn your horse's language before you interact with or train him? The answer is yes, less so for normal interaction, but absolutely mandatory for actual training.

Although horse training has taken great strides with the adoption of natural horsemanship techniques, there are still some who believe training is done through domination rather than mutual understanding. Domination is a harsh term, and even some of those that ascribe to this theory of training may recoil at the notion, confident they are training rather than dominating.

But ask yourself this: is your training regimen one of a give-and-take nature, or are you constantly barking orders at your horse until he obeys?

Domination is a one-way philosophy. No matter how gentle your methods, if you are unconcerned about a horse's feelings or state of mind, focused purely on obtaining the end goal (following your orders), you are dominating him.

In order to create a healthy mutual relationship it is essential that you take the time to learn the horse's language, both individually and as a species. While it is true that your ultimate goal is to "humanize" the horse somewhat and make him learn your language and ways, it will be far easier for you to achieve this goal if you take the time to learn his ways first.

I liken horse training to learning a foreign language without the benefit of a translator. If you only know English, and a Spaniard only knows Spanish, you both will be out of luck if you're stranded together on a desert island. You can speak English all you want, and he can go on and on in his native tongue… but ultimately no matter how passionately you two try, you'll never understand each other through verbal language alone.

With some time and effort it's possible you two would be able to develop some common words based on a combination of verbal and body language, but that would require a concerted effort to do so by both sides. For example, you could point at a tree and slowly pronounce "tree" such that after a few attempts the Spaniard would realize what he knows to be an "arbol" is your version of a tree.

By demonstrating to the Spaniard what you mean when you say "tree" you make it possible for him to learn your language, and in return you can eventually learn his language as he reciprocates. On the other hand if you adamantly refused to meet him halfway, choosing instead to shout "TREE" at the top of your voice over and over without ever patiently showing him what the tree was, the only thing you'll succeed in doing is convincing the Spaniard you might have a screw loose.

Training a horse is a similar process. Without any prior knowledge of a horse's language, you will be forced to try and communicate by doing the equivalent of pointing at trees. Unfortunately because you two don't even share the same species or anatomy, it's going to be extremely difficult for you to behave in a manner comprehendible to the horse. Many actions or instincts that we take for granted are predatory in nature to a horse, so whereas a foreign human might understand our body motions a horse could easily become put off or frightened instead.

On the other hand, with some time and dedication it's very easy for humans to learn the basics of horse language. You can pretty much take a horse at face value since unlike humans they rarely behave as a wolf in sheep's clothing. Their language is basic and pure; when a horse is happy with you, you'll know it. When a horse is fearful of you, he'll make that known in no uncertain terms too. Horses don't lie.

Even better, when learning the horse's language you don't even need to go it alone since there are many fine horsemen (translators) that have already pieced together the puzzle of horse behavior. By reading articles and books on horse training and/or care, as well as possibly watching some horse training videos from the likes of John Lyons or Larry Trocha, you can begin to unwrap the secrets of horse behavior from the comfort of your own home. In fact I strongly recommend training videos as the verbal cues and behavior of accomplished trainers can be invaluable for your education.

Jumping on a horse's back and riding him until submission is akin to shouting "tree" at the top of your voice without ever taking the time to demonstrate what the tree is. It's unproductive and will make your horse resent you and your time together, whereas if you took the time to first communicate properly first via body language and familiarity the horse would be much more accepting of your request to ride.

When you take the time to learn the horse's language first you will face far less chance of committing significant communication errors that may set your training back. Once you understand exactly how the horse's mind works and how they react to specific approaches or movements, you'll be able to cross the language barrier and look forward to many productive and happy training sessions ahead.

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