Building a Better Relationship with Your Horse through Communication
By Susan Amundson

Sue takes time to talk with her horse, Sundown, before a play session.

A successful relationship with your horse is based on communication. The most effective method of communication we have with our horses is body language. Horses in the herd rarely use vocal noise to communicate with each other, they use body language. A horse’s understanding of body language is very acute. They watch for and perceive movements and nuances in each other that are barely perceptible to humans. An ear twitch, a slight glance, a tail swish, a weight shift, all mean something to the horse.

Our horses are communicating with us constantly, however few of us are listening. Make it a practice to watch your horse when he is with other horses. Watch their subtle forms of communication. Watch when two horses are standing next to each other. They use very subtle body language to communicate with each other, and with us.

Horses in a wild herd also use mental communication with each other. Each horse knows where every other horse is. Each horse knows how every other horse is feeling. Each horse knows immediately when there is a threat of danger to another horse. This is a survival tactic. Horses in small domesticated herds may not practice this form of communication as much because of their close proximity to each other; body language is more available.

Humans have evolved to rely on verbal communication. We seem to have lost our ability to communicate using our bodies as well as we could. Early man used body language much more effectively, along with limited verbal communication. Think about body language with other humans. We use it unconsciously. We know if someone is mad by their facial expressions, their tense motions, etc. We know someone is sad as well by their facial expressions, their slouched posture, etc. Happiness shows up as exuberance, smiles, and grand gestures.

In order to become more aware of how you communicate with your horse, watch your own body language and that of others. Be aware of what your body language is saying to your horse. Horses are very sensitive animals, very aware animals. It’s how they survive. A horse can read a human’s body language without the human even knowing they are communicating. Horses do not like inconsistency. For example: You are having a bad day, you are upset, maybe sad, maybe angry. Humans have a tendency to want to hide their feelings, or repress and deny them. However, your horse will know the moment you enter his space exactly how you are feeling. He will read it in your body language and in the mental images you are sending. If you try to hide these feelings, or try to mask them with your vocal language, you are sending mixed messages to your horse. This will cause confusion and frustration for him. Horses are much more able to deal with our emotions when we present to them with honesty and openness. When we have a handle on our emotions, we are more trustworthy and reliable.

Try this exercise. The next time you go out to be with your horse, spend the first few minutes just talking with him. Tell him, honestly, how you are feeling, what is making you happy, sad, angry, etc. I am talking about actually vocalizing these feeling to your horse. For example, it may sound like this:
Hi Sunny, How are you today?(Take a moment to listen here.) I am feeling kind of sad today because my friend is going through some bad times and I feel sad for her. I am hoping that being with you today will help me feel better. Thank you for understanding.

Hi Sunny. How are you today? (listen) I have a sore hip today because I fell down yesterday. I still want to ride with you today. I may feel kind of stiff to you and I’m sorry if that makes you move stiff too. Can you help me by being very gentle with your gaits today? Thank you.

This kind of communication does several things:

  • It helps you clarify how you are feeling and therefore you are more able to deal with those feelings. You will also be more able to identify when those feelings may be affecting your relationship with your horse.
  • It helps clarify any incongruency for your horse. You have acknowledged your feelings to him. Now he can understand and rely on/ trust you better. He knows it is not his fault, you are not mad at him or blaming him, etc.
  • It opens up the possibility of mutual healing. Horses are very sensitive and intuitive animals and many are natural healers. Identifying your feelings with your horse will help pave the way for healing within yourself via your horse. If this concept seems kind of flaky to you, just think about the wonderful opportunities and results that have been presented to us through equine facilitated therapy and therapeutic riding programs all over the country - horses helping emotionally and physically handicapped individuals to overcome some of their limitations.

FOCUS

Sundown and Reina communicating with each other. Can you tell what they are saying?

Focus is very important when communicating with your horse - not only mental focus, but physical focus. If you are asking your horse to back up on the ground, be sure your body language is saying, “I want you to back up, straight and with energy. It is important that you do this.” If your body language is wishy-washy, or crooked, ‘Can you maybe back up a little?’, your horse’s response will be as well. The same applies for communication when you are mounted.

Imagine if your boss at work said to you, “I kind of want you to get this report done, it’s not that important, take your time, or if you don’t want to, you don’t have to do it.” Are you going to put that report on your top priority list? Probably not. How about if your boss said, “I need this report done now, and it must be done very accurately.” Does that get your attention?

Be sure that your facial expressions match your focus. For example: Your body may be saying “Back up please”, but your facial expression says, “I’m scared to ask you to do this.” Which one will your horse respond to?

Enhancing Communication

Your attitude towards your horse, and horses in general, will be a very important factor in the way you communicate with them. Are horses livestock? Are they companion animals? Are they part of your family? Do they only exist to serve us humans? Are they willing servants, or slaves? Do horses scare you? Are you intimidated by their size? Do you believe they have spirits, intelligence, feelings? All of these factors will influence the way you communicate with them, and the way you receive communication from them. Take some time to think about these questions and formulate your honest opinions.

A person who views horses as livestock, as slaves, or as beings with limited intelligence, will probably opt for the forced leadership role. That person will definitely communicate this viewpoint to the horse. That person will also probably not validate any communication received from the horse.

A person who views horses as part of the family, to be loved and coddled, or a person who is afraid of horses, yet still awed by their beauty, will probably have difficulty being as assertive as necessary to stay safe and build a solid relationship with the horse.

A person who views horses as companion animals, with high intelligence, intuitive abilities, thoughts, feelings, and an individual spirit, will do much better in his or her ability to communicate both physically and mentally with the horse.

For those who would like to reach that higher level of communication with their horses, here are some tips to help you on that journey:

  • Develop an ability to stay mentally quiet and alert. Many people are so busy in their minds, they don’t have time to pay attention to the world around them. Plans for the day, the conversation you had earlier, worries, doubts, repressed anger, the song you heard on the radio last, all take up mental energy and distract our attention. Being able to shut off those extra noises in your mind and concentrate on the present is a valuable skill, and a difficult one to develop. When your mind is quiet, you have more room to process what is happening in the present. You will have a better ability to read those subtle messages your horse is giving you with his body. You will also have a better ability to detect the subtle nuances of nature that your horse has the ability to detect, and react to. You will also be able to “leave behind” those mental distractions that may send incongruent messages to your horse. Step back, take a deep breath, get a grip on reality, and focus on the here and now.
  • Recognize and acknowledge your own intuitive ability. Have you ever “just known” something? For example: you are sitting on the couch and you get the “feeling” that you should go check on your horse, though you aren’t sure why. When you get out to the pasture, you see your horse is caught in the fence and you’re able to release him without injury. You don’t know how you knew he needed help, but you are sure glad you trusted your “instinct” and went out to check. Begin to recognize, and respond to your intuition. Maybe it’s just that you feel your horse is a little off today, or may seem a bit crabbier than usual. Believe in this communication and listen.
  • Be aware of your own body language. Notice how your body feels. Are you sore, stiff, weak in an area? This will affect how you communicate or ride your horse today. If you are feeling emotional, this is affecting how you carry yourself. For example: if you are angry, are you frowning, walking faster, or stiffer? If you are sad or depressed, are you shuffling instead of walking, is your facial expression bland or worried? Are you in a hurry today? All this affects the way you are leading, tacking up, or riding your horse, unless you step back and regroup. Sometimes it is helpful to have a friend watch you during your interactions with your horse. They may see something you aren’t even aware of in your body language.
  • Learn flexibility. Physical flexibility in your body will help in riding and doing groundwork. Mental flexibility is also important. Be ready to change your attitudes about your horse. Be ready to accept responsibility for some of your horse’s perceived “flaws” or actions. If you can look for the root cause of the behavior and accept your contribution to that behavior, you are ready to become part of the solution instead of part of the problem. Be willing to “think outside of the box”. Don’t limit yourself with preconceptions of what you and your horse are able to do together, for example: “I’ll never be able to ride that well”, “My horse doesn’t know how to do that”, “I would look stupid if I tried that.”
  • Listen to your horse. Accept that your horse can communicate with you. Accept that your horse’s communication is important to you. Be open to surprises. Your horse may be trying to communicate to you in a way you hadn’t thought of before.
  • Learn from your horse. Horses are naturally honest, open and forgiving. We can learn these three traits and practice them with our horses, and ourselves. Horses can teach us so much more about life if we are open to receiving their special knowledge and gifts.

Learning how to enhance your communication style with your horse can make your horsekeeping time easier, safer and more enjoyable. You may also notice that your horsemanship skills will improve as you learn how to listen to your horse’s communication, and return that communication in a style the horse can more easily understand.


About the author:
Susan Amundson lives in Washburn, Wisconsin with her husband, Paul and her two horses, Sundown, a Belgian/Standardbred, and La Reina, an American Quarterhorse. Her program, Backyard Horsemanship, is a natural horsemanship training program which demonstrates how to build a better and safer relationship with one’s horse based on leadership, communication and partnership, rather than fear or dominance. She can be reached at sundown@ncis.net.


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