Walking the walk…and talking the talk?

So, after my second bone-break this year, and getting back to riding again after a further layoff,  I am thrilled to find that my lively Pom seems no different than if he’d simply had a fortnight’s holiday!

But both of us are flabby and unfit, and though I’ve not been able to ride for long periods, I’ve had time to wolf down books, mags. and videos on horsemanship and, filled with ideas on how we can move forward, I’m champing at the bit to put it all into practice.  So where better to make a start than working on our walk.

I’ve hacked Pom out rather than go straight to the “gym” of our schooling area, as he’s been stuck here with the old (Aly and Pie) and infirm (me!) far too long and he deserves to get out and breathe the mushroomy smells of the woodland rides, feel different surfaces under his feet and the breeze in his mane.  We just worked lots of transitions, some lateral moves, some turns;  lots of guess-what’s-next combinations, mainly in walk and I was so pleased to find Pom really “listening”.  As my voice has been my main aid, other than body language, whilst I’ve been grounded, I feel so happy to find Pom continuing to react to vocal prompts once I’m mounted and am ever trying to refine and lighten my leg, seat and hand aids.  Bless him, English is his third spoken language as well ;-}

Whenever I’m looking for a photo with the horses to illustrate a post, if I’m in the picture it’s usually a dud, not just because I’m famously unphotogenic, but because I’m often talking, as in the two I’ve used here.

Many trainers proscribe speech in the initial training of a young horse, working in the body language nearest to herd-speak until a basic trust and comprehension evolve.  Completely understandable, unless perhaps the horse is home-bred and raised in which case I suggest he would take the sound of human voices as a normal part of his aural landscape.

So …. should we talk the talk?  Actually I’m not a great chatterer in the world of humans and I know you have to keep schtum in dressage competition, but without nattering at the animal until he tunes you out (“marital deafness”, anyone?!)  here’s a list of my, purely personal, reasons for talking to my horse.

1.  The horse’s sense of hearing is sensitive, acute and a vital part of his whole reaction mechanism as a prey animal, so surely, for the domesticated horse, listening to and interpreting the mood and requirements of the nearby humans are vital tools in comprehending his place in his world of work?  A basic ability to react to human-speak would surely help horses to function with greater awareness alongside humans;   which reminds me of lonely, dismal, uncomprehending experiences as an exchange student and, subsequently, an au pair before I got a grasp of the foreign language …. this is not as flippant as it sounds!

2.  He (forgive the sexism – my 3 horses are geldings) needs to be aware of where I am when I am not in his eyeline.  Pom also has slight damage to his left eye, so it’s especially important that he can place me by the sounds I make.

3.  There are sometimes situations where there is no way of giving any other aid than verbal;  have you ever been halfway to sliding off and been glad your horse knows to stand still when told?

4.  Does a horse recognise his name when called?   Why should we need to wonder, as long as he responds to his “call-sign”.    “Calling Alpha Sierra, this is Golf Tango Foxtrot…”  it works for air traffic control – and it’s more specific than rattling a bucket!

5.  A horse immediately knows by my tone of voice or a firm, “No”, if he is hurting me or doing “wrong” without me inflicting any physical punishment – this is important for my safety and it is important that he learn this message well.   And, between my horses, Pie “yelps” a pre-emptive reprimand if Pom threatens to nip or bully him and it works…

6.  And just as importantly, they can be soothed by the right words and tone when frightened or upset, and rewarded likewise.  Sometimes the way competitive riders clap their horses on the neck as a reward looks almost violent!

7.  I believe horses very quickly understand specific words, clicks, noises and/or tones of voice, and how to react.  At the most basic level, witness riding school horses that react to the teacher’s “Trrrottt on,” before the students have time to apply the aids.  Our horses make their way up the hill to be fed when they hear the water start filling in their trough and the bolt on the barn door slide open.

8.  I was impressed by a study carried out by Danièle Gossin, who wrote a book described as the first human:horse, horse:human dictionary after she spent years teaching her mare a vocabulary of 181 words which she appeared to comprehend and respond to, even in quite complex combinations.

When human language is our most powerful and subtle method of communication, it would seem almost counter-intuitive to deprive our horses of understanding us better, as long as it’s a two-way exchange and we learn their language first!

What do you think?

About cavaliereattitude

Englishwoman, transplanted to SW France in '86, blogging - with a large dose of humour and self-deprecation - about life with my husband and our horses, the never-ending renovation of an ancient and crumbly stone farmhouse and the attempt to carve a beautiful garden and productive pasture out of a woodland wilderness.........
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3 Responses to Walking the walk…and talking the talk?

  1. rontuaru says:

    Interesting question! I know when I trail ride I can sometimes get a bit lost in my head. I’m still paying attention to my horse, I’m just not vocal. I like to tune into my surroundings. But I also know that Dharla finds comfort in and confidence through my voice and being a young, green Arabian that’s important. I remember when I first bought Dharla I spent a month riding under the watchful eye of her trainer. More than once he told me that when I say “Whoa” I need to say it loud enough for her to know I mean it. Now she can (and does) “Whoa” perfectly fine off just body cues, but if you’re going to mutter a “Whoa” then why not say it loud enough to make it count for something? Kinda makes sense to me.

    The other thing her trainer said, was that when I start riding her in the woods … which was an alien environment to her at that time … I might want to hum a little tune. His eyes twinkled and he smiled. Patrick is a quiet, unassuming kind of guy and I could picture him softly humming to his charges as he worked with them. I’ve done this and it works; it not only calms and tunes Dharla into me, but it also calms me as well when the going gets tough.

    Over the years I’ve learned dogs tune you out if you’re a screamer, but whisper and you’ll have their rapt attention! I think that translates well to horses, too. I really don’t much care what others can or can’t do in the show pen. I’m not headed in that direction so why limit the tools in my trunk because of what others do? That said, like any other tool I suppose words can be over used, but if talking works for you then why not use it?


  2. Katie says:

    Great thoughts on talking (and walking). I use my voice as an aid and find it especially useful, as you mention in #5, to signal what is “right” and “wrong” without having to resort to the physical (which often easily elicit a stronger physical response in the horse). I don’t limit the voice to the young horse. Why limit our repertoire of conversation?


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