The Language of Horsemanship: An Introduction

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I’ve been thinking a lot recently about how much horse training has in common with learning a foreign language. From the first fumbling attempts to string together a sentence to the triumphant feeling when words finally start flowing, followed by the challenges and frustrations of reaching fluency – there are many parallels. As anyone who has ever attempted to speak a foreign language will know, mastering a foreign language adds a whole new dimension to what you thought you knew about communication. Learning, developing, and honing a method of horse-human communication brings with it a similar learning curve – one that can be enlightening, entertaining, and exciting, but equally humbling, frustrating, and downright confusing at times.

Whether it’s Monty Roberts talking about ‘Equus’ (the equine language), or the ‘language of the aids’ often spoken of in classical dressage, I’m certainly not the first one to refer to this communication as a ‘language’, but how many of us actually consider the complexities of what that entails? After all, while as humans, we typically consider language to be verbal, the methods that we use to communicate with our horses often encompass body gestures, spoken commands, physical aids, and the use of exterior tools. And while we likely all consider ourselves experts in our native tongue, how many of us would have the skills, knowledge, and understanding of our own language to be able to confidently teach it as a second language?

Starting the conversation
Consider for a moment how we might go about creating a method of communication between two humans who did not speak the same language.

We would have three options:

1. We could try to teach the other person our language
2. We could attempt to learn the other person’s language
3. We could choose to create a completely new language that both of us can understand

Think about these options for a moment. All of them make sense, but yet none of them are simple. I would hazard a guess that most of us would begin with option 1, instinctively speaking in our native tongue rather than attempting to communicate in a foreign language. Native English speakers like myself are particularly guilty of this – spoilt perhaps by the proliferation of the English language. I have certainly found myself in a foreign country repeating the same words over and over again, perhaps speaking LOUDER or s-l-o-w-e-r, but ultimately expecting the other person to make the effort to understand me instead of the other way around.

Watch someone who is completely unfamiliar with horses, or animals in general, and you will often find that they attempt to communicate with the horse in much the same way. But while we might laugh, this ignorance is actually an important reminder of how our horses probably feel – to an untrained horse, kicking them in the ribs is just as incomprehensible as saying ‘hey horse, could you please walk forward now’, and then backing it up with ‘HEY! I said walk forward, damnit horse, what’s wrong with you?!!’. Without being able to demonstrate what a word means or offer any kind of translation, our ‘language’ is rendered meaningless.

When it comes to horses, the traditional method is number 3. Having realised that a horse is incapable of mastering speech and not believing it possible to master the language of the horse (more about that later), creating a new language, in the form of simple, easily communicable ‘aids’, is the logical option. Teaching the horse simple physical cues or voice commands that correlate to certain movements or responses is traditionally the most efficient and effective way to communicate with an animal.

This ‘language of the aids’ can be as simple or complex as we make it, but as a means of communication it has one fatal flaw – it allows information to flow in one direction only. Imagine learning a foreign language that you can only understand, but are incapable of ever speaking. The only means you would have to communicate with anyone would be to respond to what they say or not. Because if you think about it, this is what we expect our horses to do. More often than not your horse is only left with two choices – to do what you ask or to not do what you ask… and inevitably have to deal with the consequences of not ‘behaving’.

But while tradition dictates that the language of the aids is finite and that obedience to them should be absolute, I believe that language should be a back and forth flow of information. I don’t see the point in speech without conversation and I do believe it is possible to open this conversation with your horse. Not a conversation of words, naturally. Rather, a conversation of movement and energy, of presence and space, of intuitive reaction and response.

As riders, trainers, and horse owners we unconsciously take on the roles of teachers and students of this unwritten language – yet so few of us take the time to consider what this entails. My next few blogs aim to unravel some of the mysteries of this Language of Horsemanship, looking at the methods we use to communicate with our horses, our understanding of the Equus language, and how we can begin to develop a language of communication that transcends them both.

Coming soon…
The Language of Horsemanship Part I: Learning the Horse’s Language
The Language of Horsemanship Part II: The Language of the Aids
The Language of Horsemanship Part III: Developing the Conversation

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