Communication With Horses: Gaining Unity
Learning to communicate with equines can, and, should be, a lifelong endeavor on the part of the horse enthusiast. There is no quick fix in learning the art of communication because each horse is different. What works for one will not necessarily work for all, although there are general rules that apply.
The horse communicates to us with its eyes, ears, voice, mouth, and its own form of body language. As humans, we communicate with the horse through our voice, hands, legs, and our unique form of body language.
That immediately begs the question: Can we, as the childhood song declares, "talk to the animals?" The answer is yes, as long as we understand what form of "talking" the horse will understand. The horse cannot identify words and sentences, but the horse most assuredly can read messages into the manner in which words are uttered and the tone employed in uttering them.
Through the years, I have developed my own form of verbal communication with young horses I am training. I like my horses to respond to voice commands as well as tugs on the halter or bridle reins, pressure from the legs, or body language.
I begin with the basic commands while the young horse is traveling at a slow, quiet pace. Working with the youngster in a round pen and on a lunge line, I ask it to circle me at a walk. As the horse walks, I keep uttering the words, "Walk now," in a low, drawn out, soothing tone of voice. It becomes more of a "Waaaalllk nowww."
When I want the horse to stop, I say "easeEEE," with my voice rising at the end of "easy," and then, more sharply, "HUP!" The "hup" is accompanied by a firm tug on the lunge line. The word "easy" has prepared the horse for a new command, because it is uttered in a different tone of voice than that used for the walk. The sharp "hup," leaves no doubt in the horse's mind that this is a whole new sound, and when accompanied by a tug on the lunge line, communicates to it that a new response is being asked.
When the horse has learned to respond to the walk and halt commands, it is time to switch to a verbal communication that will become associated with the trot. With lunge line in left hand and lunge whip in right, I utter the command to "Trot!" It is a short, chopped off word, but the t's in trot give it an entirely different sound than the h and p in hup. A light touch to the hindquarters with the lunge whip in concert with the verbal command will send the horse forward at the trot.
Time for repetition. I will bring the horse down to a walk with the "walk now," command, then to a stop with the "easy, hup," instruction. Up the scale to the trot and back down the scale to the walk until we have progressed to the point where it is time to teach the horse to canter on voice command.
Incidentally, this usually takes several training sessions. I well remember a local political figure in a town where I was a newspaper reporter who urged his fellow city council members to shorten meetings. He advised them that, "The mind can only absorb what the bottom can endure." After hours of sitting, he declared, the council members were in danger of making decisions that did not have the benefit of clear thinking.
So it is with horses. Their attention span will vary, horse by horse, and they will communicate this to the trainer or handler. When a horse's eyes and ears become dull and sullen appearing, you have already gone over an edge.
Remember the Tom Dorrance admonition: know what a horse is going to do before he does it. Knowing when to quit before the horse becomes sullen or unwilling to learn fits into that category.
Back to verbal communication. When I ask for the canter or lope, it is time for a new sound. I break up the word canter into two parts, with my voice rising on the second syllable. The command is "can-TER!" Again, this command is accompanied by a light touch of the lunge whip to make certain the horse understands that a new signal is being communicated.
Time for more repetition. Down through the scale of trot, walk, and halt, then up again.
It will amaze you how quickly the horse will understand what you are asking and will respond. The specific words themselves do not matter. You can say "macaroni" instead of "walk now," if you so desire. The important thing is how the word is uttered and that it is always delivered in exactly the same manner. The horse can differentiate between sounds and tones.
By communicating in this manner, you are talking to the horse in much the same way that it communicates with other equines. Listen for the different tones when you are around horses. Note the difference between a mare's soft, gentle nicker to a newborn struggling to its feet for the first time, and the sharp little squeal that often will be accompanied by a nip on the butt when the youngster later gets too aggressive while nursing. Or, the change in tone when the foal wanders too far away and the mother's nicker is an urgent instruction to return.
It is the same among adult horses. Note the difference in sound between the long, drawn, lonely whinny when two close companions are separated, then listen for the nickers of joy, a totally different sound, when they are reunited.
There is still another sound to the nicker when you approach with feed bucket or hay bale. The horse is definitely exhibiting cupboard love toward you and expressing its happiness that food is arriving.
Note the sound of snorts and squeals of a stallion approaching a mare in estrus. Add to this the shrieking challenge of one stallion to another. This can be chilling when seeing stallions approach each other in the wild.
The point is that each tonal setting carries its individual significance. When we copy that approach, we truly can talk to horses.
Using our voices to communicate with horses can be valuable, but only if we use the sounds correctly and at the appropriate time. One of the keys to success in communicating with, and training, horses is to give them a signal when it is easy for them to respond in the way in which you desire.
If you are in the middle of a throng of horses and riders, racing pellmell across the countryside, a mere "waallk now" won't accomplish much. The horse's natural excitement as the result of racing in company will overwhelm its response to a simple verbal command. A firm pull on the reins also probably will be required. If, however, you are loping or trotting along quietly alone or in the company of a few others, a simple verbal command might well bring the desired response.
Knowing when to communicate what, and in what manner, is highly important.
While we recognize that horses aren't capable of cognitive thinking, there are cases where they seem to challenge that fact.
A case in point. At one stage of my life in Minnesota, I operated a riding school for in my indoor arena. There were sessions for both the beginner and the advanced competitor. I had five bomb-proof horses--all of which had been trained to verbal commands--for use by the beginning riders.
When the riders, sitting at the halt were told to "waallk now," the group of five always moved off in concert whether the youngster remembered to apply leg pressure or simply sat there as a passive passenger. It was the same with the other verbal commands of trot, canter, and halt.
When the class had progressed to a certain point where I wanted them to use proper cues to elicit a response, I merely changed my tone of voice when giving them instructions. The horses, listening for inflection rather than specific words, would then wait for the riders to cue them into a change of pace.
One of the school horses was an older Arabian mare of historic lineage which had become barren. I always maintained that she had a PhD in educating riders. She could sense the experience level of a rider through his or her body language and would react accordingly.
She also seemed to have the ability to tell time. My teaching, in the early sessions, took on a routine form. The beginners would go around the arena so many times; then they would be called into the center for a discussion of what they were learning.
I didn't realize that I had fallen into a locked-in pattern until one night, when I was keeping the riders on the rail beyond the normal time frame, the old mare quietly trotted to the center and halted. I had communicated to her over and over that after so many times around the arena, she should come to the center, even if she had not been directed to do so by the rider. She seemed to have decided that although I had lost count of laps and time, she hadn't, and it was time to halt.
The verbal command to halt also was an inbuilt safety factor. If I saw a rider getting into trouble or about to take a fall, I didn't have to run to her or his aid. I simply gave a sharp "Hup" and the school horses would come to a stop.
This command was put to severe test on one occasion. Five adults from the medical community in town decided they wanted riding lessons. Four of the five worked at the state hospital and one within the school system. Their lesson was at 7 p.m., but they finished their work-day duties at 5 p.m. On occasion, they would stop for a cocktail or two before coming to the stable. They were a fun group--four women and one man who was the husband of one of the other participants--who loved riding and enjoyed the companionship of the moment. All had a good sense of humor.
Unfortunately, the man couldn't quite get the hang of it. He had trouble with the basics, including mounting correctly. As the series of lessons moved on, I kept putting off asking for the group to canter. Finally, I felt I had to do it.
I had the man aboard one of the "bomb-proof" horses, a solid and steady Quarter Horse mare which we affectionately had named Ol' Sal. I asked them to space themselves on the rail so that no one was directly in front of them when the canter was called for.
"Okay, everybody," I said, "it's time to can-TER." The four women and their mounts performed flawlessly with an easy transition. The gentleman overcued Ol' Sal and in so doing, lurched to the right. He grabbed for the saddle horn and dug his left heel into her side to maintain balance as the mare lifted into a lope. That did it. Something snapped in Ol' Sal. She let out a squeal of rage, bogged her head, and sent the poor fellow flying through the air. She didn't stop with that. She came careening down the arena, still voicing her displeasure and bucking with authority. She was about to threaten the safety of the other four riders by careening into them.
I didn't have time to think, other than to have a vision of a multi-million-dollar lawsuit flash through my mind. I jumped into Ol' Sal's path, threw my arms in the air and yelled, "HUP!" with all of the authority I could muster. The mare, her eyes rolling wildly, skidded to a stop in front of me. The other four horses came to a halt as well.
With trepidation, I looked down the arena to see the rider fishing his glasses from the sand. He jumped to his feet. "Wow," he said, "that was exciting. I wish I could have seen it."
That was the end of Ol' Sal's career as a school horse. The rider insisted on finishing the course on another horse, and he actually did stay on at the canter in the final session.
Earlier, I discussed getting an appropriate response to a verbal communication by reinforcing it with a lunge whip. Lest that be misunderstood with the thought that the whip is used as a form of abuse, let me hasten to say that, if there is one succinct way to sum up horse training, it would be this: training is moving away from, or yielding to, pressure. The whip, used correctly, is just another way to apply pressure.
Pressure can take many forms. We apply pressure in ways that we take for granted as we gain in experience. When we lead a horse, for example, and give a tug on the halter, we are asking the horse to yield to pressure. When we ask it to back by pulling on the reins when riding, and the horse does so, it is yielding to pressure. The same is true when we ask it to go forward with a squeeze of our legs. It is moving away from pressure.
Just as important as learning to apply pressure is learning to release it. The horse's reward when it responds to pressure is a release of same. If we give a tug on the halter and the horse moves forward, we should immediately reward it by letting the lead shank go slack. The same is true with leg pressure. The moment the horse responds, pressure is released and the horse is rewarded.
The whip, if used properly, is nothing more than an extension of an arm in applying pressure. A light tap of the whip is met with no more fear or pain response from the horse than a squeezing of the legs. If, however, the whip is used as a weapon for abuse, it instantly becomes useless as a teaching aid. Then, we have communicated to the horse that the whip is an instrument of torture, and the horse quickly will seek ways to avoid its stinging wrath, from lunging away to spinning and running backwards.
This is not to say that a horse should never feel the sting of a whip. There are times when certain actions require a reprimand, especially if those actions put the rider's safety at risk.
To understand appropriate discipline in such circumstances, we need only to look at a group of horses and the way in which they interact. If a mare disciplines her foal for nursing too aggressively, it is only with one sharp nip, not a beating. If a dominant horse's space is invaded by one lower in the pecking order, the dominant animal doesn't beat the tar out of the intruder. There might be one nip, or perhaps the lashing out with a rear hoof, not a pounding.
Thus, we must learn that beating a horse does nothing but harm. If discipline is required, one sharp crack with the whip, or a single jolt with the spurs, should be enough, just as one horse might do to another.
Of course, it should also go without saying that we should know why the horse "misbehaved." The problem might have rested with the rider or handler and, if that were the case, communication channels would have been closed instead of opened when discipline measures were taken. We must always be ready to be totally honest with ourselves about our shortcomings in learning to communicate with horses.
"Misbehavior" often originates with us, not the horse.
As Old As Horse And Rider
Is ability to communicate with equines new, something that a few modern-day gurus have learned? Not at all. It is as old as the relationship between horses and humans. We are told by historians that the warriors of Attila the Hun rode into battle bareback with no bridle. They tied or braided a loop in the horse's mane to help maintain balance and guided the animal with leg pressure and body language, thus freeing up both hands for firing arrows or handling other weapons.
Such horsemanship and communication almost defies the imagination--horses racing pellmell into a melee, sans bit and saddle. Those warriors might have pushed their horses beyond normal bounds of endurance in traveling across the country, but they most certainly had learned to communicate with them.
The same can be said of the Plains Indians. They did not know what a horse was until the Spanish arrived in the 1500s. Once the tribes acquired these animals, however, they learned how to ride and how to train and communicate with them to the point where they could ride at full speed into battle or in a chase of buffalo, using only legs and body to guide and control.
We must also admit that certain individuals have a greater gift than others in learning the art of communicating with equines. This does not mean that there are those who can't learn to do it, it merely means that not everyone can be a Tom Dorrance.
This legendary trainer has carried communication with equines to a level that transcends what most of us can hope to achieve. He attended no clinics as a developing young horseman, and he had no instructors, other than his father, brothers, and other cattlemen who lived on nearby ranches and used horses in their workaday world. From early on, Tom's brother, Bill (himself a noted trainer), recalls, "Tom Dorrance had an eye for keen observation and a phenomenal memory." At one point, it was Tom's (he takes serious umbrage when called Mr. Dorrance) responsibility to keep tabs on a herd by 250 purebred cows. He not only did that, but also memorized each cow and her tattoo number.
He remained at home on the ranch in Oregon until he was in his 50s. Then, in the wake of the death of his parents, he began touring the country, training horses and helping riders along the way.
It wasn't long before stories about this extraordinary cowboy and his ability to communicate with horses began to circulate. There was the time, for example, on a ranch where he chose to ride a horse that 30 minutes before had bucked down its rider. It was the first time the horse had been saddled. Within 30 minutes, Tom Dorrance was loping the horse around the corral. A short time later, he was using it to rope cattle.
Then, there was the time he singled out an 8-year-old gelding in a remuda and said he would ride it. The horse had been caught only once in its eight years of life, and that was as a yearling when it was gelded and branded. Year after year, it had somehow slipped through the cracks when the remuda was brought in. Dorrance took the horse off by itself in a corner of the corral while the other cowboys went about their business.
Soon, they noticed that he had saddled the gelding. Next, they saw him sitting quietly on its back. The horse didn't move. Beware, he told the other hands, when the horse did move, it would do so at speed, but it wouldn't buck. He was right. The horse began running full bore around the corral, but it did not buck. Tom sat quietly in the saddle, never lifting a rein. He was using a quiet body to communicate to the horse that it had nothing to fear from him. The wild run soon settled into a lope and Tom asked the hands to open the corral gate. Out across the prairie they went, ready to ride circle and gather cattle.
As his fame spread, Tom was called on to put on clinics and share his knowledge. The legend continued to grow. At one clinic, a participant and her horse were out of control, careening around the arena, threatening the safety of others. Tom asked permission to ride the horse. Within minutes, he was loping figure eights with his arms folded, the reins draped over the saddlehorn.
How can this man communicate with horses in this extraordinary manner? "It's so simple that it is complicated," he will say with that kind twinkle in his eye.
His approach seems simple and straightforward enough--putting the horse in the proper position and frame of mind to do the right thing, while preventing it from doing wrong. That, of course, is easier said than done. By focusing and studying, we must learn what that proper position and frame of mind are.
Tom can be maddening to the people who phone him or seek him out to ask advice in their search for a quick fix to a problem. They want him to tell them what they should do, even though he has never seen the horse.
"That depends," he will answer more often than not.
He then will quiz the questioner in depth. He is seeking an insight into the horse and also into the rider, all of which can have a bearing on the problem. No quick fixes. No boiler-plate solutions. Each problem is unique to each horse and each rider.
One of the basic tenets in the Dorrance approach for all horses is that the rider must direct the horse as to where it should go. A case in point is the one that involved the rider with a runaway horse at an early clinic. The rider was attempting to stop the horse by pulling on the reins, something that both horse and rider knew wasn't working.
The Dorrance approach is that the horse should be directed where the rider wants it to go. Let the horse go forward if it so desires, but make certain that it travels, for example, in small circles or figure eights as directed by the rider. Before long, the horse gets the message that it is under the rider's control and begins to look to that person for direction and support. Soon, the horse is, in a sense, asking when it can stop instead of refusing to do so.
Tom Dorrance believes in true unity between horse and rider. To achieve true unity, the rider must be conscious of the smallest, most subtle details involved in the horse's behavior.
Obviously, this means communication.
"That horse can feel what's going through your body," he will say, "and you have to learn what is going through his."
There is no "one size fits all" approach to solving communication problems.
Earlier, we discussed discipline as part of the communication process with equines. Perhaps discipline is the wrong word--correcting behavior may be more appropriate.
Robert Miller, DVM, of California, who literally wrote the book on foal imprinting, often has demonstrated his technique of letting the horse correct itself.
In one demonstration, he begins with a horse which communicates its displeasure at being bridled by raising and tossing its head to such an extent that the mere approach of a hand toward the face sends the horse into a head tossing frenzy.
The first question to be considered is the reason for the behavior. Perhaps the rider abused mouth and teeth when bridling and unbridling.
At this point, however, it must be communicated to the horse that this is inappropriate behavior. Miller lets the horse teach itself. A chain at the end of a lead shank is run through halter rings and over the upper gums, then is attached on the opposite side. Miller holds the lead shank with a firm grip, but never jerks or pulls on it. As he reaches toward the horse's face with his free hand, the horse jerks its head upward. Miller merely holds the lead shank steady. Within a short time, the horse realizes that it is punishing itself and that if it stops that behavior, it will cease hurting itself. The handler is held blameless by the horse because he is merely standing quietly.
The logical followup, once the horse has learned that tossing its head is a thing of the past, is to bridle and unbridle very carefully, making certain that the experience is a pleasant instead of traumatic one .
We use much the same method in teaching problem loaders to enter a trailer readily . We must remember, first of all, that some horses are claustrophobic, just like people, and they need security and reassurance, rather than force in entering that enclosed area. We use an open stock trailer in teaching our young horses to load for the first time. If we can provide them with a sense of safety and security with this conveyance, it is an easy transition to a two-horse trailer with its more confining stalls.
For us, it is a two-person task. Remember that our young horses have been taught to move away from pressure in the form of gentle taps with a lunge whip. With them, loading is usually just a matter of their following me into the trailer with perhaps a tap of encouragement from behind by my wife, Linda, with the whip.
However, there are horses that, for one reason or another, have decided that entering a trailer is not for them. For these horses, we make use of a chain that goes through the halter and under the horse's chin. It is not used in a punishing way by the handler, but if the horse flies back, instead of walking forward, the shank of the chain is held firmly and the horse punishes itself.
Soft words of encouragement by the person on the end of the lead shank, augmented by pressure from the rear, usually result in a horse which eventually will enter the trailer after merely being pointed in that direction.
Another personal case concerning inappropriate behavior. I once was in possession of a fiery young gelding which would kick with savagery any time someone reached for a back foot. I tied the horse in such a manner that it had free range of movement with its body. Then standing at its shoulder, out of harm's way, I passed a light broomstick up and down the horse's rear legs. Each time the broomstick touched a rear leg, the youngster lashed out with fury. I did not beat the horse nor restrain it in any manner--merely let it continue to kick the broomstick.
Slowly, the youngster caught on. I wasn't harming it in any way. It was abusing itself by kicking the broomstick. After a time, the kicks lessened in intensity, then they stopped altogether. With the colt still unrestrained, other than to be tied, I began rubbing the rear legs gently with my hands. Before the session ended, I was able to pick up both hind feet. The youngster never offered to kick after that.
It had learned that I was not a threat and that to kick only induced discomfort. It had taught itself that kicking was inappropriate behavior.
Using various forms of pressure as a means of communication is a wonderful training aid when schooling a horse for riding and driving. While there are many trainers who take the position that you can start with a green horse one hour and be riding it the next, I prefer to think of training steps as communication blocks, with each set of "blocks" building a strong foundation for the next set.
Let's face it, there aren't many of us who could call out an 8-year-old gelding which had been touched by humans only once in its life--and that being a painful, traumatic experience--and be riding off on it an hour later.
For most of us, communicating and training should be an ongoing, building process. For me, it means starting a horse in a round pen on a lunge line where it learns to move away from pressure and to respond to voice commands.
From there, the transition is to bridling and saddling, with the horse becoming familiar and responsive to each new set of signals before moving on.
It is at this stage that the Tom Dorrance "flag" method is highly important. This approach was demonstrated last summer by Tom at a Stillwater, Minn., Thoroughbred farm owned by Jeff Hilger. In charge of getting Hilger's young Thoroughbreds ready for race training is Sharon Hanzlik, a believer in, and practitioner of, the true unity approach as espoused by Dorrance.
Dorrance traveled to the Hilger farm, but played the role of adviser to Hanzlik. The "project," as Tom Dorrance prefers to term problems, was a high-strung, nervous Thoroughbred colt whose personality traits were the same as its dam's and two siblings'. All had been difficult to handle, and the colt was more of the same.
First came the scratching and petting to establish rapport and build confidence. It took some time, but soon the colt relaxed.
Hanzlik perched on top of the fence in the final stages of the petting process--a move designed to get the colt used to dealing with a person looming above him as would soon happen when a rider climbed aboard.
Along the way came the leading of the colt at the end of a halter rope, its center drooping to the ground--another Tom Dorrance trademark. The colt learned to stop, stand, and back up with a mere flick of the rope.
Then came the "flag," another Tom Dorrance trademark. The flag is a whip with a piece of cloth or plastic tied at the end. It is passed over a horse's body softly and quietly as part of a desensitizing process. This was a bit traumatic in the beginning. The colt flinched, but did not shy away from the strange object. Carefully and gently, Hanzlik passed the cloth back and forth and up down the colt's body--over the head and neck, along the back, down and up the legs, under the belly, and along the throat.
The long petting session was paying off. The colt was showing trust in Hanzlik as it experienced the strange sensations from the "flag." Instead of running off in the beginning, he stood still with muscles tensed. As the session continued, the colt realized that the strange object in the hands of someone it trusted was not a threat. It relaxed. The colt was ready to be saddled.
However, even this session would not be a one-time quick fix. Hanzlik would repeat the process day after day until a firm bond of trust and communication had been established.
I mentioned earlier that horses use their mouths to communicate. Often they tell us with the mouth when they are relaxing. When a horse is tense and afraid, its mouth will be clamped shut. When it relaxes, it begins moving its jaws and even licking its lips. That, often combined with a relieved sigh, tells us that the horse is communicating trust and a relaxed state of mind.
Back to a communication approach that involves moving away from pressure. Once I have the horse readily accepting bridle and saddle after a few sessions with the flag, it is time to drive it in long lines. I prefer this approach to immediately getting on the horse. I believe I can teach response to bit and reins with less pressure and almost no trauma to the horse if I am not on its back at this stage.
Here again, the foundation of voice commands is so important. If the horse has been taught to "hup," it is very easy to accompany this command with a gentle tug on the long lines. Before long, a gentle tug will bring the horse to a stop with or without the "hup."
Soon we have the horse changing gaits, turning left and right and stopping with only light signals from the lines and bit. The ability to communicate is growing.
The transition to riding then is an easy one. We need only make certain that the horse realizes that our presence on its back is not to be feared. We do this by swinging up slowly and easily and settling gently into the saddle. This is followed by soothing words and a lot of petting and scratching.
Progress continues at a steady and natural pace, each new step based on a solid learning and communicating foundation that preceded it. In the beginning stages of riding the green horse, response to verbal commands can be very helpful. We now, however, add a squeeze of the legs with our command to "Trot!"
As we go along and we achieve unity, the commands become more and more soft and subtle. Soon, we are feeling where the animal is placing each foot and can change its direction by the slightest shift of the body. When in true unity as envisioned by Tom Dorrance, we can almost "think" the horse into an appropriate response.
When we arrive at a stream or muddy area, for example, the horse will communicate to us with its body language that this crossing is arousing its innate fear of being trapped. We use our body language by sitting calmly and our voice by speaking in a soothing manner to communicate back to the horse that we recognize its fear, but that it can, and must, continue to place its faith and confidence in the rider. This, coupled with leg pressure that communicates to the horse that it must move forward, usually will override the animal's anxiety.
In those early stages of training, it is also wise to use another horse to help in this communication process. When taking a young horse out on the trail for the first time, we always make certain that an older, veteran trail horse is along. If, for example, the young horse can't quite override its anxiety at the stream's edge, we don't whip or coerce it, we merely have the veteran horse lead the way, signaling to the youngster that there is nothing to fear.
Once the young horse accepts this message and follows the veteran across and back again a time or two, we then ask the youngster, now confident and emboldened, to lead the way.
It is the same with about any discipline that we want to discuss--from reining and cutting to jumping and eventing. To be successful in any discipline, there must be trust and confidence instilled in the horse on the part of the rider.
The unity and communication between horse and rider are an ongoing thing that improves with time, making for a most pleasant relationship between horse and rider or handler. The horse, though never reaching the devotional status of a dog, will seek to please the rider and will learn to respond to most subtle forms of communication.
I know that there are about as many individual methods of training horses as there are trainers, but there is one constant. There must be true unity between horse and rider, and there can't be unity without communication.
About the Author
Les Sellnow is a free-lance writer based near Riverton, Wyo. He specializes in articles on equine research, and operates a ranch where he raises horses and livestock. He has authored several fiction and non-fiction books, including Understanding Equine Lameness and Understanding The Young Horse, published by Eclipse Press and available at www.exclusivelyequine.com or by calling 800/582-5604.