Horse whispering basics
24 December 2019
Rebellious, unruly and difficult to train horses need the experienced hand of a trainer who has the knowledge and intuition required to understand and respond to a horse’s needs. The ability to ‘speak’ to a horse is not something beginner horse owners can learn overnight.
It takes years of observing and interacting with your horse, experimenting with different techniques and learning from masters in the field to grasp the art of horse whispering. So whether your motivation is to improve your horsemanship, tame a wild and bad-tempered horse or you simply want to share a deeper bond with your equine brood, you will likely benefit from learning about horse whispering. Below we look at the evolution of horse whispering and some basic practical tips to help you on your path to becoming a horse whisperer.
The Origins of Horse Whispering
Horse whispering evolved in opposition to the inhumane and abusive training methods used to ‘break in’ a horse. The aim of traditional horse training techniques was to dominate the horse, using aggressive and cruel techniques to force the horse into submission. These techniques included typing up the horse, whipping their backs, blindfolding and other forms of restraint like “bagging down” where the horse was saddled with a wheat sack or saddlecloth that would flap against its body.
Luckily, the evolution of animal rights has facilitated a move away from these outdated and barbaric methods of training. Horse whispering is about building a rapport with horses and instilling discipline and respect through gentle training techniques that are grounded in understanding horse behaviour. They key is to communicate with the horse in a way that strengthens the horse-human bond and encourages natural co-operation.
Although horse whispering has been around since the 1900s, Monty Roberts popularised horse whispering as a natural horsemanship technique in his 1996 book, ‘The Man Who Listens to Horses’. Many others have adopted this approach since.
Rule with confidence and calm rather than cruelty
The foundation of a good horse whisperer is the combination of a calm and confident approach. Horses are emotionally intelligent creatures so by acting with confidence you communicate to your horse that you are a strong and effective leader without having to resort to harsh disciplinarian techniques. So how can you prove to your horse that you have the competence to (literally) take the reigns?
Your body language
Use gentle pressure with sharp, assertive gestures when giving commands. Never kick the horse or use excessive force. Talk in low, hushed tones and reprimand the horse with a ‘’shhhhh’ noise. You want to exude confidence and also befriend your horse so maintain your cool and use positive reinforcement to reward good behaviour. Horses enjoy a gentle massage of their ears, nose and mouth or you can give them a tasty treat on occasion.
Observe and listen to your horse
A good horse whisperer recognises that horses are complex animals and has a true desire to understand and respond to their needs. This involves spending time with the horse and paying close attention to their body language, understanding how their senses work and their instinctual behaviours.
Observing their eyes, ears and facial expressions will give you a clue as to how they are feeling:
- Bright and wide open eyes indicate that your horse is alert while eyes that are only halfway open suggest that your horse is sleepy.
- If the horse’s head is held high this means they are feeling anxious or afraid while their head hanging low indicates they are relaxed.
- A relaxed horse will also have its ears slightly forward. Ears to the side or one ear back is the horse concentrating and listening out for something. If you notice that your horse’s ears are flattened back this is a sign they are upset and you should back away and give the horse some space.
- A horse who feels threatened will prick forward the ears and flare the nostrils.
- A horse’s goofy grin, where the teeth and gums are exposed and the upper lip curled is known as the flehmen response. Despite the appearance it is not the horse being funny or cute but actually a useful way for horses to interpret unfamiliar scents in the environment. And a horse moving around its mouth and licking its lips is a sign that the horse is relaxed and ready to be submissive.
And finally, education and repetition
Good horsemanship does not neglect the basics. Groundwork is important for establishing boundaries and opening up a line of communication with the horse. Small details like a getting a horse to stand still when the rider mounts takes practise and repetition as does commanding it to march off, canter or do figure eights. Look for apprenticeships or beginner courses that teach horse whispering techniques. Learning from experts who have spent years studying and living with horses is the best way to transmit knowledge and keep the tradition of horse whispering alive!
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