WRANGLING ON THE RANGE #154
LESSONS LEARNED FROM MY HORSE
by James Arthur Anderson, Ph.D.
I thought I knew about communications, having taught writing and
public speaking for more than 20 years. But when I acquired my
first horse, LLucion de Contrallano ("Lucy"), I learned a few new
communication lessons from a very unlikely source - my Paso Fino.
"Good horseman read their mounts like a book to gain the horse's
perspective in their handling and training," says Beth Beukema,
Director of the Center for Equine Studies at Johnson & Wales
University in Rehoboth, MA. Until I met Lucy, I didn't even know
how to pet a horse, and now that I've learned to "read" her we
are partners with a very strong bond. My wife, in fact, calls her
my "girlfriend." This bond has taken time, love and patience to
develop. During this process, Lucy has taught me that riding is
its own form of communication. What she says makes a whole lot of
WE'RE A TEAM. LET'S ENJOY THE RIDE
It takes both of us working together to make a ride fun and safe.
According to Pat Parelli, one of the leading horse trainers and
author of Natural Horsemanship, "Communication is mutual."
Without this mutual partnership, you might as well be riding a
bicycle. Above all, have fun together or it's not worth doing!
REMEMBER, I'M A HORSE, NOT A PERSON; I'D RATHER BE EATING HAY
THAN CARRYING YOU AROUND
Left to themselves, horses would rather be doing something else
than letting you ride them: eating grass, rolling in the dirt, or
building a facsimile of the Great Wall of China with their straw
(one of Lucy's favorite activities). Pat Parelli notes that "Prey
animals are comfort seekers... comfortable because they're doing
nothing or their own thing, and they enjoy it." This means that
you have to make the ride interesting so it's something your
horse will want to do (we can't just walk around in circles for
an hour). You can trot now and then, or even gallop. Try jumping
over a stick, going somewhere new, and doing something different.
Give the horse something to look forward to.
When I show up with carrots, I get a big whinny, and usually a
kiss on the cheek from Lucy's highly flexible nose. She's glad to
see me and wants me to stick around for awhile. A good whither
scratch and brushing puts her in a great mood for a ride and it
costs me nothing. I also talk to her. Sure, some people might
think that strange, but Diego Bravo claims that "By gently
talking to the horse, a person may calm the animal and awaken its
curiosity" (Science and Art of the Paso Fino Horse). Lucy knows
that when I show up, the experience is going to be pleasant. That
makes the ride better for me.
LEAVE THE BAGGAGE AT THE STALL DOOR
We all have days when we're not 100 percent. Maybe I had a
disagreement with a friend, or didn't sleep well, or I'm worried
about that meeting. Lucy doesn't care about my problems. But if
something's bothering me and I let it show, she picks up on my
feelings. Why would I want to cause her stress? "If you're happy
or in a positive mood while you're riding, you transmit that to
your horse and it affects him," says Parelli. According to
Heather Smith Thomas, author of Storey's Guide to Training
Horses, "Horses read us well. Our body language reflects moods
and feelings, no matter how we try to cover them up."
Once I see Lucy, I put my issues on hold. Leave your problems at
the door and show your horse that there's nothing you'd rather be
doing than going for a ride with her.
KNOW WHAT YOU'RE DOING BEFORE YOU PUT THE SADDLE ON
In order to ride a horse, you have to learn a few things, like
how to groom. put on a saddle and hold the reins. Before you
begin, take a lesson, prepare. and practice. Bravo advises riders
to "dedicate time to learn about horses, such as their habits,
psychology, anatomy, physiology, and handling." I've seen people
jump on a horse without knowing anything - and it usually isn't
DON'T MAKE ME STAND AROUND AT THE CROSSTIES WITH MY SADDLE ON
WAITING FOR SOMETHING TO HAPPEN
Once the saddle is on, Lucy wants to go. Otherwise, she'll stomp
her feet, tease the other horses, and try to knock tack off the
hangers. Parelli points out that "Mother Nature says: 'Don't just
stand there, do something.' People sense is: 'Don't just do
something, stand there.'"
KNOW WHERE YOU'RE GOING BEFORE YOU GO. IF YOU LET ME DECIDE, I'LL
RUN THROUGH THE STICKER BUSHES EVERY TIME
As the rider, you have to have a plan about what you intend to do
and where you want to go. It's up to you to take the lead. "As a
leader, seek to achieve a level of benevolent dominance, which
makes the horse feel more secure and trusting," says Smith
Thomas. "Sensing your quiet confidence, he looks to you as the
leader and respects you as the `boss horse' in his life."
"A rider /trainer must develop skills to achieve the role of the
Alpha mare, which leads the horse away from danger and saves its
life. Once this goal is accomplished, the horse is ready to 'give
all' to that person," says Bravo.
When Lucy wants to have her own way I gently remind her "I'm the
boss and you're the hoss," and I give her direction as to where
and how to go. She doesn't reallv want to run into those sticker
bushes. She just doesn't know they stick until she gets there.
KEEP IT SIMPLE
Horses respond to just a few cues, voice commands, leg and rein
pressure, yet they can do very complex maneuvers. Klaus Ferdinand
Hempfling, author of "Dancing with Horses," says "to communicate
effectively with the body requires the paring of movement and
gesture to the barest essentials ... The simplest gestures become
a language." Don't make it more complicated than it has to be.
DON'T YELL 'WHOA' AND THEN KICK ME IN THE SIDE SO I'LL RUN
Make sure your body language matches your message. Noted horseman
Clinton Anderson says that "Because body language is a horse's
primary mode of communication, it is what a horse will pick up
first." Since horses are masters at reading non-verbal cues, when
verbal and nonverbal language are in conflict, the non-verbal
wins out. So I can say "whoa" all day long, but as long as I keep
kicking, Lucy will keep on running.
I REALLY WANT TO PLEASE YOU SO YOU'LL BRING ME A CARROT
My horse knows that a good ride is much more pleasant than an
unintended rodeo, where someone gets hurt. Horses generally want
to please. "When horse and rider understand each other, they
develop a strong bond of mutual trust and respect," says Heather
I'M BIGGER THAN YOU SO DON'T MAKE ME MAD!
I just said my horse doesn't want to kill me, right? That's true
of most horses, as long as you give them respect. Although I
might be "the boss," I would never do anything to injure my
horse; I treat her as a partner. Yelling and screaming
would scare her and make her angry, and she'd rear up, or buck.
Hitting her would make her head-shy and she'd probably bite,
kick, or run. "Pain and fear are never good motivators; they
distract the horse from the desired response," according to Smith
When I need to correct Lucy, I might use a stern voice, sort of
like the one my Mom used on me when I was a child doing something
wrong (the one where she used my first, middle. and last names).
Smith Thomas says that "a disapproving voice is often sufficient
correction; the horse knows when his human is displeased." If
this doesn't work, I take her to the round pen and make her run
'round and round,' as I call it. After a few minutes of that, she
gets her act together.
(I agree in the main, BUT, what if your horse decides not to come
out of the stall, to go to the round-pen or go anywhere? It's
happened to my horse Goldie. One day she decided she was not
going to move out of the stall. I had turned her around to exit
and she just stood there, no amount of harsh voice did anything.
There was no choice, I took my crop stick, and gave her a strong,
and I mean strong smack on the rump - she woke up and knew I was
in charge again, and had no problem coming out of the stall. It's
called "tough love" - and to the shock of some of you horse-
persons, it does have to be done from time to time, with SOME
horses. Horses are all different, they are individuals, and some
get this or that in their head at times, and have to have "tough
love" applied, others never will, and no more than a harsh voice
is ever needed - Keith Hunt)
END ON A GOOD NOTE
When I'm done riding, I always end on a good note. I might ask
Lucy to back up or do something else that she has mastered, and
when she complies I reward her by praising her lavishly and
calling her a "good horse" and I thank her for giving me a good
ride; then I dismount and give her a treat. She'll remember that
praise and look forward to riding again. In fact, when I ask for
a ride, she's so anxious that she tries to put her own head in
Riding a horse is more than just an activity - it's really a form
of communication between a human and a member of another species.
It is amazing that we can do this, magical, even. And I think
Lucy would agree that it's a glorious experience for us both.
Dr James Anderson is Professor of English and Communications at
Jobnson and Wales University's North Miami Campus. He holds a
Ph.D. from the Uiversity of Rhode Island, and has published
articles, fiction and poetry. He and Lucy ride at Southwest
Ranches Equestrian Club.
Did you catch it? TALK TO YOUR HORSE!!! My oh my, it seems it is
one of the hardest things for horse-persons to do - is talking to
their horse. I've been on trail rides, cross country rides, where
there is up to 40 riders, and I only hear one or two people ever
talk to their horse, and it's usually young kids.....you know the
"sentamental" kids as adults might call them. There is nothing
sissy or sentalmental about talking to your horse. Horses like
(to the shock of many) being talked to, in a kind, smooth loving
way. As you brush them, as you stroke them, TALK TO THEM!! THEY
LIKE IT!! They understand your tone of voice. As you've read in
this article, a stern voice they know, hence a quiet smooth kind
voice they know also. When a horse gets tangled up in a rope
(around its leg etc.), as you go to try and free it, TALK to it
in a smooth low calming voice, like: "Easy now boy (girl) I'm
just here to help you, just here to help you, easy boy (girl),
we'll get you untangled, easy boy (girl)."
I do not understand why horse-people seem to have a terrible hard
time TALKING to their horse....they love their horse, but talking
to their horse seems as hard for them to do as trying to fly to
the moon. GET INTO THE HABIT OF TALKING TO YOUR HORSE!!