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“Establishing a Proper Relationship with Equine”
Part III: Communication

by Rick Harper


Our ability to communicate verbally is both a blessing and a curse. Try as we will, we can not always be honest with our words. If you doubt this, try asking ten people that are not close to you how they are doing. The probability is that you will not receive many honest responses. People that are plagued with health, family, or financial problems will generally answer “great” or “fine, how are you?” If you were an equine, you would know the emotional state of another being without asking.

One theory about the ability of an equine to read moods describes this phenomenon as a “sixth sense.” Some even suggest that this is because animals have psychic abilities. The fact that equine usually know our emotional state as soon as we step into their world is more likely due to their ability to read our non-verbal communication. Our posture, movement, actions, and tone of voice project our inner thoughts and feelings. Due to our reliance on verbal communication, people generally ignore the non-verbal. Equine, on the other hand, must rely on non-verbal communication for survival and are more skilled at reading body language and tone of voice than we are. A person who is out of sorts can enter an area where equine and people are interacting, and the entire atmosphere can change, becoming more negative. Conversely, a person skilled at the art of horsemanship can be present and the interaction will become more positive. This is why a skilled clinician can seem almost mystical. The truth is that these skills can be taught to anyone who has the desire to learn. Unfortunately, too often skilled clinicians teach their techniques, ignoring the intangible skills that enable the techniques to be successful.

Years ago, a young protégé wanted to learn how I trained horses. This person could watch my movements and techniques and seemingly was able to imitate them to a tee. Interestingly, although it appeared to be a duplication of my methods, the horse’s response was quite different. After several weeks, the young man confessed that he didn’t even really like horses. The horses that he tried to work with knew this from his non-verbal communication during the training sessions. They did not give him respect or trust, even though to the human eye it appeared that there was no difference in our training technique. Also the young man was focusing on imitating my techniques, giving little attention to the horse’s communication. So what does this have to do with communicating with equine? Everything. We must first realize that communication is a two-way street. If we only communicate our expectations to an animal and ignore what the animal is trying to communicate to us we will have little success.

The first thing that we must communicate to our animal is that we have a genuine interest and desire to understand them. Then as we communicate our expectations to them we demonstrate confidence in ourselves and in the equine’s abilities. We must also communicate respect for them as a living being. We must believe in ourselves and in the equine we are working with, then visualize success. If you are thinking negative thoughts, you will communicate negativity. If you are out of sorts emotionally you should put your emotions aside before working with your animal. Take a deep breath and join your animal in the here and now so that you are not projecting your frustrations on to them. After all, the things that are bothering you are based on yesterday and tomorrow. You can deal with your problems later. Right now at this time you need to focus on your equine who is concerned only with today.

Now let’s look at the benefit of verbal communication when interacting with equine. Equine can learn words. For example, it is easy enough to teach a horse that the word “trot” means that it should trot. It is interesting to note that a confident horseman can take a trained horse and command “trot” one time, and the horse will trot. In comparison, another person can make the same request to the same horse over and over and be totally ignored. Should this be considered a training issue with the horse, or a matter of teaching horsemanship skills to the person? Obviously, the point is that words are only useful when the person using them has the proper mindset, tone, and projection. It is possible for a person to ask a horse to trot, yet at the same time project to the horse “PLEASE DO NOT TROT.”

We should learn to listen to equine by observing what they are communicating to us through their body language. Horses convey messages to us through head position, tail movement, ear position, muscle tension, and their eyes. A high head position is generally an indication of a nervous or excited animal. It is commonly seen in conjunction with tense neck muscles and an unwillingness to give over control of the head. We can often help such an animal to relax and settle down if we can persuade them to lower their head, flex their neck, and bend around to each side of their body. This exercise is useful both with the animal in hand and under saddle. Muscle tension in other parts of their body is also indicative of apprehension. If we ask an animal to lift its leg, and it either refuses or it jerks its leg up suddenly, check for tension in the leg muscles before asking it to give. Try massaging out the tension first, then asking for the leg. Allow the animal to lift and position the leg through suggestion, not force. This is an example of showing the animal your desire for understanding and open communication. This will eventually lead to success in accomplishing your goals as well as developing a proper relationship. It is also important as an example of leadership in place of dominance. Equine will rotate their ears towards whatever their attention is focused on. Do not mistake ear position that is turned and leaning back in a listening manner to ears that are pinned back in an aggressive position. Equine usually pin their ears flat preceding aggression. Rapid tail movement is often indicative of anxiety or anger, and a pinned tail accompanied by muscle tension in the hind quarters may precede bucking, kicking, or bolting. Wide eyes surrounded by white showing generally indicates a fearful animal, but a soft, relaxed eye indicates confidence.

Finally, if we communicate our expectation to the equine and do not receive a proper response, we should listen closely to determine what that animal is trying to tell us. We must then determine whether the animal lacks comprehension, is experiencing apprehension, or is displaying a stubborn will. We can then determine how to communicate to the equine to get the partnership working properly. Better communication can overcome problems with comprehension. Future articles in this series will focus on developing confidence to overcome apprehension, and respect to overcome a stubborn will.

Rick Harper



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