Horsemanship Is Learning Their Language

A good horseman seeks to communicate with the horse in ways the animal will understand.

“Learning proper horsemanship is learning the language that makes sense to horses—one that they understand.”

If you search for a definition of horsemanship online, you’ll find the following: ”A rider or driver of horses, especially one whose skill is exceptional; a person skilled in caring for and managing horses. Skill in, or the art of, riding, managing or training horses.” I think the skill described in the dictionary and the meaning of horsemanship lie in communication with the horse. A search for “communicate” brings: ”To convey knowledge of or information about; to reveal by clear signs.” Growing up in Germany, I learned foreign languages at an early age. In school, I learned Oxford English, which sounds a bit different than American English. When I arrived in the United States, my goal was to blend in, not sound British. I also wanted to expand my English so I could be completely bilingual and understand all the nuances of the language to better communicate. I walked around with a notepad writing down all the words I didn’t know, learned them, and then started using them in my conversations. Trust me—I got a lot of them mixed up and used them in the wrong way, making people laugh! I still have an accent, but I can now speak English as well as my native language. In order to understand and be understood, we have to have a common language, be able to use the words in the correct context and with the correct grammar, and be able to listen. It’s no different in communicating with horses. Learning proper horsemanship is learning the language that makes sense to horses—one that they understand. In turn, they give us the right responses. Too often, I see a rider throwing information at the horse at random, without any proper sequence, intent or structure—and then expecting the horse to figure out what it is the rider wants. You can see the horse desperately trying to sort out what’s being asked of him, guessing what the rider wants, and then getting punished for coming up with the wrong answer. Imagine if someone did that to you!

“Track-Momentum-Balance” method and the nuances of pressure and release to help riders better communicate with their horses.

Make the Effort  

Horses have their own way of communicating with each other; if you watch them interact, you can learn a lot about their language. Since we invite them to participate in our world, we need to make the effort to learn that language.

Horses respond to pressure and the release of pressure. Sometimes all it takes is the flick of an ear, and the other horse knows to stay away from the flake of hay. A lowering of the head, and a lick and chew, can invite that horse to join in. We want to use horses’ innate ability to communicate with each other to train them to do what we want them to do in our world. Whether you’re just leading a horse, riding it in any discipline, or managing its day-to-day care, proper horsemanship always has the horse’s best interest in mind. Understanding and learning what that is sets the good horseman apart from the rest. Unfortunately, all too often, proper horsemanship has been replaced by what I call “DDL” (drugs, draw reins and longeing). Look around at a horse show, and the state of bad horsemanship is evident at just about every level. We’ve all seen the photos of the horse’s nosebands too tight, the draw reins pulling the nose to the chest with horrible hyperflexion, and the morning longeing routine where the horse is flying around at the end of a longe line with the haunches going one way and the shoulders the other, half the time at a cross-canter. All this trains muscles and behavior, but not in the right way. I will not even start to discuss the drug infractions in the Hunters. The DDL goes back to a lack of proper horsemanship—the art of communicating  diligence and the willingness to grow as a person. You must always ask yourself whether you may have not asked the question correctly, were too late in giving back, or were just too impatient to wait for the horse to find the right answer. Horses do not have the brain capacity to wake up in the morning and decide to be bad today, to dump their riders or to spook at the second jump on a course. There’s a great book that everyone who puts a foot in a stirrup should read: Evidence-Based Horsemanship by Dr. Stephen Peters and Martin Black. It helps to clear up a lot of myths about the horse’s ability to have calculated thoughts.

“Horses do not have the
brain capacity to wake up in
the morning and decide to
be bad today.”

No Pulling

I believe that poor horsemanship comes from a lack of knowledge and feeling, as well as wanting the training to be on our terms and not on the horse’s timeline. The horse doesn’t understand the pressure that’s put on him, and he will always try to get away from it, looking for a better place to be. This situation is most commonly revealed when the horse pulls himself along with his front legs, putting more pressure into the rider’s hands. The rider often responds by pulling on the reins, which provides a great opportunity for the horse to lean harder on the bit. Once that bit doesn’t do the job anymore, out comes a stronger bit and more longeing in the morning. If that doesn’t do the trick, the gimmicks come out, as well as draw reins attached in any possible way to get that horse’s head down so the rider has more control.

 Very often, we don’t listen to understand but listen to reply. 

Does this really provide control? In my opinion, it just punishes the horse into submission without ever having made the effort to calmly teach him what you want him to do in a biomechanically correct manner. Everyone has seen this happen at horse shows, and maybe some of you have felt it yourself. It is not working with the horse; it’s coercing him into what we want him to do. He is not a willing partner, but is controlled by devices, tired out physically, and, if all that doesn’t work, given drugs. True horsemanship is the opposite of the above. It’s poetry in motion, with the horse responding to the slightest of aids in a trusting and relaxed manner. Communicating becomes effortless for horse and rider. Achieving this horsemanship takes time, however, and too often the goals set for riders are what they want to achieve and not what the horse is able to do in his own time. We live with a “McDonald’s” kind of mindset, even in the horse world—instant gratification, regardless of the cost to the horse. If you think about it, this is the only sport where you can purchase your talent and experience. In all other competitive sports, it’s all on you. A poorly ridden horse doesn’t know what his price tag was; he only knows that he’s been robbed of rhythm and balance too many times, and his only means of survival is to start stopping, running out or rearing. At that point, he’s labeled a “bad” horse and sent to be sold or “fixed” by someone else, rather than the rider or trainer taking responsibility and exploring why this horse resorted to such behavior. I’ve had plenty of “bad” horses sent to me to fix over the years. Getting the horses back on track is often quite easy, because they have no ego and want to do the right thing, if given the riders the language it takes to communicate with the horse, because most of them still think that speaking English will do it. A good horseman always seeks what’s right for the horse, not for himself. It takes time to properly train a horse, and even more time and miles in the saddle to learn how to do it. Riding horses is a team sport; it takes two in perfect balance, harmony and rhythm. If one part of the team hasn’t learned the language to communicate with the other, there will always be problems.

Listen to Understand

When I teach new students, I’m often amazed at how little knowledge there is about the biomechanics of the horse, as well as the proper aids to get even basic things done. I can look at the muscles of a horse and tell you if he’s been ridden properly. Dr. Gerd Heuschmann wrote several great books on the biomechanics of horses; his book Tug of War provides great insight into the way a horse’s body functions. Every rider should have this knowledge. If I cannot formulate in my mind what I want to do and know how to employ the proper aids in the proper sequence, there’s no way I can even begin to communicate with my horse. Along with this education comes the ability to feel and listen to the horse.

Very often, we don’t listen to understand but listen to reply.

I think if we can apply this in our communication with people and horses, the outcome in both relationships would be greatly enhanced. This is where the USHJA Trainer Certification Program is a great start in promoting more educated trainers, and, subsequently, riders. I believe the program needs to include more about the timing and feeling aspects of training and communicating with horses. I can teach you all the technical terms, the correct leg and rein aids, and the proper sequence in which to apply them, but the horse is the only one who can teach you timing and feeling. A primary part of learning that feeling is the willingness to listen to what the horse is saying—and responding properly. I’ve had many students over the years who had previously gotten by with a limited knowledge of the language it takes to communicate with horses. However, after putting them in balance with the horse and teaching them the proper language for intuitive communication, they couldn’t believe how incredible it feels to have true communication with the horse all the time. None of them ever want to get back to their old ways of riding. It’s like talking on a good phone connection after years of having static in the line or constantly dropping calls! I don’t think anyone starts out wanting to do wrong by the horse—riders tend to end up there because of ignorance, a lack of understanding of proper horsemanship or incorrect guidance from trainers. Real horsemanship isn’t just about technique, with whom you ride, what kind of horse you are riding or the discipline in which you compete. Real horsemanship is what’s inside of you reaching out to what’s inside of your horse. If what you have to offer to the horse isn’t coming from the right place, you won’t be able to influence your horse to give you the right answer. To me, a true horseman always looks inside of him/herself first before reaching out to the horse. The true horseman is always centered and honest, wanting what’s best for the horse, not what fits into the schedule or satisfies the ego.

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