Horse Talk

I was judging the state 4-H team public speaking on equines this morning, and some thoughts popped into my mind. The kids really did a good job--for the most part they had practiced, had done their research, and worked well together. That brings to mind our cover story for this month--Communication.

You know, we as humans have a hard enough time communicating with one another that you would think trying to "talk horse" or understand what horses are communicating to us would be beyond us. What we often find, however, is that their language can be superior to ours. It's clean, it's straightforward, and it's honest. No double talk. No lies.

That doesn't mean we communicate well with our horses. That takes what the 4-H teams did to perfect their talks--practice.

How many times have you heard an owner say his or her horse "just wasn't acting right" before the horse became ill or exhibited clinical signs of injury? While that person might not be Monty Roberts or John Lyons, he or she was noticing the horse communicating.

How do you know when your horse is acting up because he is feeling good, or acting up because he is scared or hurting? You know the difference without second thought, but it might look like the same "signals" to a non-horse person.

Maybe as a parent I have a leg up on equine communication. A friend of mine is a pediatrician who taught riding at the University of Kentucky before attending medical school. She compared working with horses to working with young children because neither can vocalize what they feel, where it hurts, or if there is more than one problem. You really have to be paying attention.

If you are a parent, you know you can get upset with a kid who is acting up because it's fun, and sympathize with one who is acting up because she is overtired, stressed out, or beyond her ability to deal with any more sensory stimuli. There is a difference in the cause, and there is a difference in our reaction.

Trust is a big factor. I don't trust all horses. Some are just plain "ornery," and others are like teenage boys who want to see who is in control.

The one thing I have found in my years of working with horses is that they are very comfortable knowing you are boss, as long as you are. They don't mind their place in the pecking order in the field, or in the barn, as long as they aren't given the opportunity to challenge your dominance and to win.

I don't mean you should beat your horse into submission. Les Sellnow talks about this in his article, and most of the "horse whisperers" or equine communication teachers will tell you that Horse Talk 101 is all about having the horse accept you as the leader in the herd. Once established, you must keep that entrenched in his mind with consistency, not violence.

The next step is awareness. Someone once noted that you have to set a rigid training schedule, then be flexible. If your horse is in a feisty mood, that might be the day to work on faster, more energetic training. If he is having one of those moods where you say, "I feel like I'm going to squeeze my legs together and still am not getting anything," then perhaps it is a better day for transitions and slower work. That is not to say he can dictate your training schedule, but if it works to benefit both horse and rider, why not?

When I was grooming yearlings for a large Thoroughbred nursery in Lexington, Ky., there was a filly who basically was a basket case. I called her Boloney.

I love Thoroughbreds. I love riding them. I love working around them. They don't know how not to give you their all, if not their best. But they also can be some of the most neurotic, unpredictable animals you've ever seen.

This filly was timid to start with, and the groom before me got tired of trying to catch her in the field and started throwing things at her. Needless to say, she became scared, and he was fired.

My job was to get this filly ready for the public sales. Fine, but my first job was to catch her! Fortunately, the farm manager let me work her my way, as long as she was going in the right direction.

So, we went very s-l-o-w-l-y. She was the last one in every day for weeks, although she grew easier to catch every day. I would groom all the other yearlings and work with them, then go sit in this filly's stall until she became curious enough to overcome her fear. After all, I had not offered to hurt or scare her (and I brought the food!).

The day she was the first one at the gate to come in was a major victory. She decided all humans were not monsters, and that I was alright to lead her herd.

I've never seen a more skin-sensitive horse in all my life. It got to be a big joke between the two of us. I would get to the most ticklish spot on her belly, and I'd tell her to hold her breath. She'd take a big breath and hold it while I rubbed over the spot, then would blow it out after I was finished.

Unfortunately, she still had no trust of men. She was not mean, but a man could not catch her in the stall. Round and round she would go--butt to the middle and head to the wall. I could walk in, speak to her, and she would stop. Amazing that she developed that much trust.

No wonder I felt like I'd betrayed her when she went to the sales grounds. She was scared to death, but was a lady. We didn't know what she would do in the actual pavilion. The boss sent another groom along just in case she freaked out. All she did was move as close to me as possible and shake.

She ended up a winner in a few races, and she produced a few foals which didn't do much. I lost track of her after that. I still think about her and what she taught me about working with horses. And I'm still amazed that she learned to trust after being so traumatized.

No, she wasn't hit by a semi in the movies, just by someone who had little patience and less horse sense. I wonder how many horses are out there that have been labeled "mean" or "unruly" or "nuts" which just haven't been given the opportunity to communicate their fears and problems to someone who cares enough to understand.

Ask the right questions and listen to your horse's answers. We all can learn more. I'm glad that horses remember, and even happier they can forget. I hope we can remember that they want to live a simple life with us, not against us. It's not a fight for dominance; it's accepting the roles of leader and follower, and accepting the responsibilities that go along with those roles.

About the Author

Kimberly S. Brown

Kimberly S. Brown was the Publisher/Editor of The Horse: Your Guide To Equine Health Care from June 2008 to March 2010, and she served in various positions at Blood-Horse Publications since 1980.

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