The horse language is quite simple. Not necessarily easy for us to learn, but simple nonetheless. No, it is not new. It has been there all along – in the animals. It is available for anyone to discover, alone or with guidance. The only thing you have to do, is pay absolute attention. I have been fortunate to have had indirect and direct guidance along the way. By indirect guidance I mean, I often didn’t learn what I wanted to learn about horses from these people or horses, but there were necessary personal life lessons to be learned along the way. These would open me up and make me more receptive to things that had passed me by before that. They were passing me by, simply because I wasn’t paying the right amount of attention to the right things due to being distracted by other things – what I now know to be the drama of the mind. By direct guidance I mean, teachers who taught me directly about how the horse thinks. These were very few. The true masters merely acted as translators here. They would help me read the horse and when my intentions weren’t clear, taught me how to use my mind, emotion, body and energy differently so that what I actually wanted to say ended up reaching the horse, not the twisted and unclear version I had made it into. I can only recommend the path of guidance, as it is much quicker than the path of self-discovery, but each to his own! There have been quite a few people that have done very well with the path of self-discovery.
At the end of the article is a chart for you to download. It is both a visual representation and a summary of this text. If you are a visual learner and/or sometimes get lost in text, have a look at it now and keep it handy while you read on. It will guide you like a map.
TWO DIMENSIONS OF COMMUNICATION
So, how can you break communication between horses down to a simplistic level? For the purpose of this article, let us define communication as two or more individuals sharing and understanding an idea. In that case, there are two dimensions to communication. One dimension is the act of communicating, using the language, and the second dimension is the context, what you are communicating about. That means, your job is firstly to learn the language, because horses are biologically incapable of reproducing our verbal language. Yes, you can condition them to connect certain words to certain actions like left, right, back up, woah, walk, trot, etc. Whilst very useful in certain situations, cutting wood and dragging it out of the forest, etc., it is also limited. Secondly, it is your job to figure out what you want to communicate with your horse. It goes a long way to be sensible and respectful here. You won’t have too much luck communicating to a Shetland pony that it should jump in a Grand Prix, obviously. That example is extreme to bring the point across, but remember this on a subtler level too. For example, your horse might have a body bred for a jumper, but character wise, he is naturally very stressed. A lot of stressed horses you see today, have learned to behave that way. I don’t mean that. I mean a horse that is innately stressful, even with the best Horseman by his side. For that horse, going to show jumping competitions, even though he is well able for it physically, is not the best thing. Competitions can be very stressful for certain horses. All that commotion everywhere, the travelling, all the other horses in the warm up ring, then you go in for your 90 seconds of full power to win the class and back into the horsebox. These are all things a horse can learn to deal with. If you’ve got an innately stressful horse, a professional career in show jumping will not bode well for a long and healthy life for him. There are other horses that don’t mind that commotion. Choose one of them. All horses have different aptitudes. That doesn’t mean you can’t do things with your horse that isn’t an aptitude for them, but you should manage this responsibly and with fairness to the horse. You are the herd leader, if you are doing things right by the horse, and that means the responsibility of what to do, falls under your belt. Treat that responsibility sensibly. “You are in charge of the goals, the horse is in charge of the principles and the timeline.” – Pat Parelli
SECOND DIMENSION: CONTEXT
I won’t write too much about the second dimension of context here, because that is up to every individual to decide. Is your horse’s job going to be being a kid’s pony, an amateur or professional Show Jumper, a cow cutting horse, etc. What ever the job is, that’s the discipline you need to go study and the world is most definitely not short of instructors teaching disciplines. That’s the funny thing about the horse world today. There are so many instructors teaching context (successfully and unsuccessfully), but very few teaching communication and how a horse thinks. I never understood how any instructor hopes to help his students if he/she can’t teach them how a horse thinks. How do you expect to get very far, when you speak English and you are talking to someone who speaks Korean. It will take many years to convey the context (if it is complex enough), even with the utmost attention and intensity put behind it. You will be much faster if you put the context on hold, one of you learns the others language and once there is a foundation of understanding, then you can reintroduce context. It will save you a lot of time. Remember, communication means two or more individuals sharing and understanding an idea. Hence, if you are jumping with your horse, yet you don’t know how a horse thinks or communicates, you can’t even say you’re communicating. Things might be working and you’re getting somewhere, but your horse isn’t truly understanding or sharing the idea. You have to work at it every single time, your horse doesn’t offer any ideas back to you. That’s usually the case when the humans are too busy talking and don’t take time to listen. There are so many people nowadays, too many people, who only live in a world of context with their horses, but there is no communication present. The horse simply is to do what the human thinks fit. Thus, my plea is, take the time it takes and don’t mix up the order of the dimensions of communication. Do your horse a favour. He will thank you in ways, you maybe can’t yet imagine
FIRST DIMENSION: THE ACT OF COMMUNICATING – AN OVERVIEW
Now the first dimension of communication, the act of communicating, i.e. using the language, that is what I wish to try and simplify here. There are a few aspects to look at: (1) the current situation of communication in both species, (2) prey vs. predator relationship, (3) levels of consciousness, (4) how the horse communicates and thinks, and (5) the human system and what the human must do to learn the horse’s language. The given order is purely to ease understanding. It is not really an order as such
(1) THE CURRENT SITUATION
The current situation is that horses primarily communicate with energy/intention and use body language to reinforce the idea, if the energy/intention is not acted upon by the other individual. Whether you call it energy or intention, doesn’t really matter, it amounts to the same thing. I like throwing intention in there, because a lot of people freak when they hear the word energy, either due to bad connotations associated to that word throughout their lifetime or simply because it is something they cannot grasp because they cannot see it. Intention is a more familiar word for most people. The human is just as capable as a horse to communicate with energy. This shouldn’t come as a surprise to you. I’m sure everyone can think back to at least one situation in their life where this has happened. A common example: You are walking along a city street at night and someone else comes your way. You’re not alone and neither are they – we won’t make this into a scary scenario. You can very quickly tell from quite far away whether you want to cross the road and get away from them, or whether you will walk past them and maybe even greet them in a friendly manner. What is the mode of transmission there? It is most certainly not verbal language, because you haven’t even spoken to them. Is it body language? In part maybe, but only limited, because you know what you want to do before you’ve seen their face or interacted with them. You just have a feeling and then you act upon it. Where does that come from? That is energy/intention. The only question is, have you kept your access to that dimension, or is the door closed? If it is closed, don’t worry. You can open it any time you wish to. Horses have full access to this, as much as they are capable of, so they use it. The human currently has reverted to primarily communicating with verbal language and uses thinking to reinforce ideas. That is the gap we need to cross to communicate effectively with horses.
(2) PREY VS. PREDATOR RELATIONSHIP
This relationship leads to a difference in needs, which is very important to understand. Your language skills are of little use, if you don’t know what the other individual needs or where they come from. Horses being prey/herd animals need safety, comfort, play/food – in that order! A horse will never relax (comfort), if it does not think and feel that it is safe. Just as it will never play, if it is not first relaxed. Since humans are a little more complex species due to their expanded consciousness, there are many models and theories out there about the human needs. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is only one and suggests human needs in the following order: basic needs (physiological, safety), psychological needs (belongingness and love, esteem) and self-fulfilment needs (self-actualisation). Please find the pyramid depicted below the article should you want to look at it in detail. I don’t want to get too caught up on either of these needs models. It doesn’t matter too much which models you use, the obvious thing is that a horse’s needs are different to a human’s needs and any overlapping needs are usually in a different order. Since horses are herd animals, you are going to have to be the benevolent leader if you want your relationship to go well for you. That means, the responsibility of fulfilling needs falls upon you. You are responsible for taking care of your own needs in life and not bringing your problems to your horse, as well as responsible for fulfilling your horses needs. In most situations, a horse has no way of fulfilling their own needs any more due to how we keep them. It would be smart to think about how you can arrange your livery in a way, that these needs are most naturally met, even when you are not communicating with your horse. This will make for a much happier horse!
(3) LEVELS OF CONSCIOUSNESS
I think it’s safe to say that the human species has the highest evolved mind and consciousness that there is. That doesn’t always mean it is the smartest. We can be incredibly self-destructive and much simpler beings than us know far better how to treat their environment respectfully. However, I do think we can honestly say that in terms of computing power, we are the most advanced. This also means we have an ego attached. Horses don’t. That is probably what gives humans the most trouble with horses. How much power and control you give your ego, depends on your level of consciousness and realisation. Generally, the human must first transcend the ego before he can detach from it and can meet a horse on their level. A horse has none to begin with. Higher consciousness comes with it’s challenges. How to detach from the ego, is a topic beyond the scope of this article. Not having an ego, means that horses do not plot against you, nor do they hold grudges. They do however learn responses and responses become habits after a while. The ego-attached human then makes this into ‘my horse is scared of the whip’, ‘my horse doesn’t like the bit’, or things as such. A whip and a bit are neither good nor bad. They are simply things. The hands they are connected to, however, can be fair and just or not.
(4) A HORSE’S COMMUNICATION
Remember, horses primarily communicate in energy/intention and reinforce with body language. Additionally, just as we have cultural etiquette, horses have what we humans can term as principles (written out below article). There is a certain code, a certain order to their communication and living. Excellent communication is of little benefit without principles. All that gets you, is a crabby horse that does everything you ask him to do half-hearted. Let’s go from abstract to something we can grasp a bit easier and look at what the horse’s language really looks like. After energy/intention comes body language. We already know we can’t necessarily see energy/intention, although we can most certainly feel it. Body language, however is quite visible when you know what to look for. It’s a very physical thing, from flexion, to shifting of weight and eventually to the physical movement of feet. The way horses communicate is very much based on their needs. Remember, the needs were safety, comfort, play/food in that order. With horses it is pressure that motivates and release that teaches. All this is, is the taking away of comfort and giving of comfort. That is how one horse knows the idea of the other horse. One horse puts on a certain pressure and only when the other horse yields from that pressure will horse one quit, i.e. release the pressure. That’s if all goes well. Of course, individual two always has the option of doubling back with more pressure and then it becomes a dominance game. In the end, however, someone will yield from the pressure and that is the follower, whilst the other is the leader. All this happens only if the intention/energy of e.g. ‘you go away, that’s my spot to eat’ was ignored.
There are two types of pressure, constant and rhythmic. In extreme cases, rhythmic pressure could come as a succession of kicks if one does not suffice to bring the idea across, whereas constant pressure could come as a bite that doesn’t let go unless the other individual yields away, out of the reach of the biting horse. Besides putting pressure on and taking pressure off, there is a third category of actions that include neither. These actions are simply friendly, such as grooming each other, sleeping near each other, etc. That is really all there is to the body language of a horse, if you want the most simplistic view possible. Everything else is a combination of those three, to make up more complex patterns of communication.
How horses think is equally as important to understand as how they use their language. Horses think in terms of space and lines. You can call it geometry if that helps you, although their geometry is a little more limited than ours. Horses know circles and straight lines. I haven’t met a horse yet that knows what a triangle or a trapeze is. It is important to remember that horses see space differently than us. Due to how their eyes are constructed and where they are placed in their head, they have a much larger field of vision than we do and two separate fields of vision. Everything on the left looks different to a horse than it does on the right. That’s why horses sometimes spook when you first walk the rail to the right, after having walked it to the left for the past five minutes. A good simulation to experience this as a human is to make a fist and place it between your eyes and look straight ahead. You can see two different looking sides now. If you focus on your left field of vision now, you won’t see much on the right and vice versa. What we can’t simulate, however, are their lenses. A high head means a far and wide view, a low head means a very limited view of things close by. That’s why when horses get tense or frightened, the head goes up in the air. Often you will see humans combating this with martingales and other gadgets, instead of working on the horses confidence and getting to the bottom of why it is tense and/or frightened in the first place. If a horse sees like this, how does a horse know what a straight line is and what a circle is? Put the fist between your eyes again and walk it. You’ll notice that on a straight line both fields of vision are moving and changing. On a circle, the centre of the inside field of vision is still and you can barely see anything in the outside field of vision if you are concentrating on the centre of the circle. If you are looking everywhere and anywhere while walking your circle, you’ll notice one field of vision is always moving a little more than the other, which will result in you walking a very wobbly line that can only be called a circle with the greatest of imaginations. You can use this simulation to test how aware you are of space and how well you can walk a circle. Remember, to a horse a circle means that the centre doesn’t move. Can you walk a line around a spot that doesn’t move? It’s harder than you think! A horse can do this and is very aware of this. Your horse will be checking to see if you know what he knows!
Since horses think in terms of space and lines, this is how you need to direct your pressure and release. The line first and foremost has to be sensible. If it is, you show the horse the line by setting it off on the line. If the horse deviates, which it will most likely do the first time, you put the least amount of pressure on that is required to get back to the line and then release. Repeat until the horse can keep the line on his own. It should be obvious that this requires you to be on the line as well if you are riding. It will be very hard for your horse to be balanced on a circle to the left if your body is positioned for a circle to the right or a straight line! That’s where the rider’s position becomes important. The better your position, the clearer it is to the horse what line he should be on and the easier it will be for him to keep the line, as you are not in his way. If your line is sensible to the horse, he will understand the exercise.
Understanding this, should enable you to set up exercises in a manner that your horse always knows what’s going on and there are no surprises. He knows what to expect and is set up for success. Setting an exercise up for success means, that you first establish the line in both directions and then introduce the ingredients/requirements necessary for the task on that line. Ingredients might be a certain gait or if you are doing a half-pass for example, your shoulder-in is an important ingredient, etc. When horse and human are ready, that is, all ingredients are there and working with rhythm and relaxation, they can be recombined to do the task in full. With this understanding, you should be able to take nearly any exercise in any discipline and isolate, separate and recombine. Which in turn should enable you to explain it to your horse in a sensible manner, so that he understands. This is also your way of measuring what you and your horse are ready for and what not.
Now, exactly how to physically direct pressure and release and what that looks like is what we call body language. Again, this is beyond the scope of this article. There are many instructors out there teaching this, or if you are a natural you will observe this in the horses and transfer the knowledge to your body. Personally, I can recommend the Parelli Program for teaching you body language and psychology. It offers the most comfortable (home-DVD-style) way of learning and the most complete view of the horse in my opinion. No, I haven’t looked at and been through every system. There are only a few I can compare knowledgably, but for me it offered the fastest way of learning, which I always appreciate. It is important for you to pick what suits you best! The same thing won’t work for everybody, but just remember the difference between the two dimensions of learning the language and learning the context. Make sure you are either just learning the language first and then the context or at least you are learning both at the same time. Learning just context doesn’t often go very well.
(5) THE HUMAN SYSTEM and WHAT THE HUMAN MUST DO TO LEARN THE HORSE’S LANGUAGE
The human system has four dimensions to itself: mind, emotion, body and energy – in that order! You cannot skip or change the order, no matter how much you may want to! First you must organise your mind, then emotions, and then the body, before you can organise your energy all in one direction. That is why when learning to communicate with horses you must learn body language first before you can communicate with them on an energy/intention level. Firstly, because that is the way your system is set up and secondly horses reinforce with body language. There’s not much use learning to communicate with energy/intention, if you cannot reinforce your ideas. Think of it as learning the gross motor skills first, before refining the communication. People often get frustrated with just how long it takes to learn this body language and are not content with losing all that time they could be investing into context. You should be able to understand why now. They think they are learning to organise just one dimension, their body, but in reality they are learning to organise three, mind, emotions and body. If you are under the illusion that you are learning just one thing, it is easy to become frustrated with the rate of progress. If your mind is in the way (I cannot do this, I don’t know this, This doesn’t make sense), your body will have a hard time executing a task. Likewise, if your emotions are in the way, even when your mind is organised: ‘I know what I have to do and how to do it, but I really don’t want to because I got yelled at earlier and I’m upset about it.’ It goes on like this. Only once all four dimensions are organised in the same direction will things happen with ease and grace. Have patience with yourself.
This is also why most people shy way from learning the body language all together and just stick to the context. It takes work and effort and a bit of time, which is something a lot of people don’t want to invest. What they unfortunately don’t always see is what this means for the horse and that they are limiting themselves and prolonging their highest goals with their horse indefinitely. Once your mind, emotions and body are organised the energy will naturally fall into place. No one has to teach you this. Your system has no choice but to align fully once the majority of dimensions are in place
All these aspects were about communication. Remember, however, that excellent communication is of little benefit without principles! Once you know the basic body language (your gross motor skills) and you are comfortable/fluent with it, you can concern yourself with practicing how to communicate with a horse in terms of space and how to introduce exercises. When you are at this point of competence, you will notice your body language has refined, but only to a certain point. You try to refine the body language even more, but now the horse no longer acts upon it and once again you are lost in translation, wondering why it isn’t working. If this happens, it is most likely due to a lack of principles. There’s only so far you can go with body language. This is what I meant earlier with, you will have a horse that does everything half-hearted. Your horse will always cause you to be rather loud with your gross motor skills. Loud, meaning, he will always cause you to move your feet or use tools. No principles, no refinement! No refinement, no energy/intention level communication. You know you are communicating on an energy/intention level, when the body language becomes next to invisible. This is what every horse is wanting you to learn, because that is how they communicate naturally amongst themselves.
Below is a chart of sorts to compress all that text onto an A4 sheet of paper. Explained once in depth, I’m hoping that by looking at that chart the puzzle pieces will fall together for you. Click on the link to download it as a PDF.
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs
The 8 Principles of Natural Horsemanship
- Horsemanship is natural.
- Don’t make or teach assumptions.
- Communication is two or more individuals understanding and sharing an idea.
- Horses and humans have mutual responsibilities.
a. Don’t act like a prey animal, act like a partner.
b. Maintain gait.
c. Maintain direction.
d. Look where you are going.
a. Don’t act like a predator, act like a partner.
b. Have an independent seat.
c. Think like a horse.
d. Have the natural power of focus.
- The attitude of justice is effective.
- Body language is universal.
- Horses teach humans and humans teach horses.
- Principles, purpose and time are the tools for teaching.