Communication is the foundation of our fellowship with all other sentient
beings on the planet. We rely on communication through actions and tone to tell our pets when they are bad
and good. We rely on communication to talk to our friends and neighbors. If we don't understand the spoken
language of someone, we rely on gestures and sounds. Working with a horse is no different and requires
just as much care as communication with anyone. Below are five common communication mistakes and
misunderstandings between a horse and their rider.
1. Misunderstanding when a horse asks a question.
Horses ask questions all the time. They are not stupid animals, but
intelligent creatures and they want to be sure they are doing the right thing. Horses may ask a question by
turning their head when something is boring to ask "Can we do something more interesting?", or by twitching
their ears to ask "Where shall I go now?". You want your horse to ask questions and you want to be prepared to
answer them. By building a trusting relationship with your horse, and listening when they ask rather than
assuming they are misbehaving, you are opening a very important line of communication that could save your
life. For example, a horse that can ask its rider a question will ask the rider if something is scary before
Scolding or punishing your horse for asking a question can lead to a very
negative impact on your partnership as your horse may become reactive and uninterested in you and your goals.
When your horse asks a question, politely respond with the cue. You want your horse to feel you are the partner
and leader, not a tyrant.
2. Am I doing this right?
It's not at all uncommon for a horse to lack confidence and seek encouragement
from their rider. A horse that lacks confidence may try to crowd your space when you are on the ground or by
being skittsh when you are riding. If you're standing on the ground and the horse takes a few steps into your
space, calmly wave them backwards the same number of steps without moving your feet. They want to know that
you're paying attention to them, so show that you're a competent leader and wave them back. This says, "I'm in
control and I know what's going on. Don't worry, everything is alright.", to your horse. When riding your
horse, keep them calm and confident while you are saddling and mounting and maintain a calm awareness all
during the ride.
3. Trying as hard as I can!
Horses want to please their owners, but they are prey animals and often take a
little extra time to work up the gumption to take a step in a commanded direction. One common area where this
may be seen are loading a horse trailer. Your horse likely wants to get into the trailer, and is planning to
get in, but first they want to take a sniff around and be absolutely sure that this wobbly thing that smells
funny is safe. Don't pressure your horse and don't punish your horse. Be encouraging and let them complete the
task on their own time. Once your horse is sure it's safe, loading or any other task, will be easier the next
4. Under Pressure
Sometimes riders cue their horse with too much pressure, making the cue
difficult to understand. Listen to your horse. If they're tail swishing and there are no flies or tossing their
head when you try to cue them, you may be using too much pressure when trying to cue. Start over with a much
lighter cue and see if they respond without giving you any trouble.
5. You're scaring me!
Horses are prey animals and humans are considered to be more predatory. This
can frighten a horse that lacks confidence and it is important that you understand how the horse views you and
what it means when they turn their head away. Turning the head away is not a sign of rebellion but more one of
shame or lack of confidence. It means the horse feels they cannot look at you with both of their eyes. Don't
force the horse to face you, instead turn yourself slightly. This will make you appear less intimidating to
your horse. In addition, try doing work with the horse on both sides.
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