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The best way for us to effectively communicate with our horses is to just “speak horse”. If you could learn to speak your horse’s language, teaching him what you want him to do becomes so much easier.
What Is Your Horse’s Language?
Horses communicate with each other through body language. It’s not very often you go out into the pasture and hear a conversation going on. Many believe in the miracle of the animals speaking on Christmas Eve, but I myself have never caught them. That would be something!
Usually the only time you hear any vocalizing from the herd is if somebody has been left behind it, feed buckets have been seen to be on the way, or if a member of the herd is being seriously disciplined. Even when I have seen my horses startle and run from an intruder, they make a peep. You’d think they’d at least let the others know they should get out of Dodge, but nope. It’s every horse for himself. The slowest one gets eaten by the carnivorous plastic big you know.
The fact that they don’t speak out loud much can actually work in our favor. I currently have four horses right outside my door. If I hear a peep out of them I immediately assume something strange is going on and go check it out. Unlike when I had chickens and guinea fowl. All kinds of racket, all the time, so who knew when something out of the ordinary was happening.
Funny story: I set the ringtone on my cell phone for one of my students to be a horse whinnying. I can’t tell you how many times I got up and went outside, desperately looking for what was upsetting my horses, before I figured out it was my phone ringing in the other room.
Great horsemen back through the ages studied horses, watching them for hours and hours in a herd setting. Through this observation they were able to learn how horses seemed to be communicating with each other.
They observed how the boss mare would tell another horse to get out of her way, or perhaps how she would keep her newborn foal with her. Over the years this information has been shared in such a way that you can easily learn to speak your horse’s language.
So let’s get right to it shall we?
Get In The Zone
The first thing you need to learn about communicating with a horse’s body is which piece of the horse to “talk to” so that he moves the way you would like. For instance, where should I touch him if I want him to back up?
This all becomes very simple when you learn that your horse has “buttons” on his body that have different functions. We don’t call these areas buttons, we call them “zones”.
This is one of the chapters of my horsemanship education that made a huge difference in my horse handling skills. It immediately changed how well my horse understood what I wanted. Up to that point, the instructions I received had been pretty vague about what I was actually doing when I was asking the horse to move.
There are five zones on your horses body:
- Zone One is your horse’s nose and everything out front of it……for like a mile! Zone One is used to back your horse. Any energy or pressure applied to Zone One causes a horse to move backwards. That pressure or energy could be applied by a wild pig 1000 feet away in the woods, or by the nose band of your halter. And everything in between.
- Zone Two includes your horse’s neck. Pressure applied on the neck turns the horse from side to side. Obviously this is where your reins usually contact the horse.
- Zone Three includes the shoulders and rib cage. Pressure on the sides of zone three causes your horse to move sideways. Pressure down lower, such as with spurs, can cause your horse to elevate. We ride while sitting on top of Zone Three.
- Zone Four includes the hindquarters. Pressure on the sides of Zone Four causes the horse to disengage his back legs. He moves his hindquarters to the side and crosses his legs, thereby disengaging his forward motion.
- Zone Five is your horse’s tail and everything behind it… like for a mile! Pressure in Zone Five causes your horse to go forward. I’m sure you have experienced this type of pressure, whether real or only perceived by the horse, that caused him to go forward extremely quickly when you were least expecting it.
There is actually a 6th Zone on your horse, called the delicate zone. This includes their eyes and ears and the front of their face. This zone is only used for petting. It has no real value when it comes to you communicating with the horse. That is of course unless you have one of “those horses”. You know the ones…. you’re trying to touch his ears and somehow it causes him to put his head up higher than humanly possible to reach.
However, horse do communicate with their ears….big time! With us and each other. What do you think he’s saying?
Another Important Feature
One more part of the horse I almost forgot to mention. The drive line. Lay a rope across your horse’s back right behind the withers, straight down right behind his front legs. That is called the “drive line”.
If, while you are working with your horse, you stand behind the drive line, he will have a tendency to move forward. If you moved even one step in front of the drive line, that should cause him to go backwards, or stop. Just one more little piece of body language to remember.
Applying Energy or Pressure
So now that you know which part of a horse to “talk to” depending on how you want him to move his body, we need to talk about this “energy” and “pressure” that we are going to be applying.
Before you get upset and worry that I’m going to put pressure on my horse and it’s going to be uncomfortable for him or he’s going to get upset — just hold your horses. That is not the kind of pressure I’m talking about. Read on.
Pressure can be applied in a several ways. Horses are extremely sensitive to touch, like a fly landing on them. They are also very perceptive to the space around them. You can influence a horse’s movement with everything from a light physical touch, up to and including body movements and focus which “push” on the air around the horse from a distance. This should make sense if you watch horses in a group move around. They don’t actually touch each other all that often.
Phases of Pressure
We need to learn how to apply pressure in “phases”. You could also call these levels of intensity if you like.
Our goal is to have a horse that responds to very light cues. In order to accomplish this, we should always ask with the least level of steady pressure first. You must then give him a chance to respond. As you are asking, if he doesn’t respond to the lightest touch, slowly increase the amount of pressure until he does. But never use more than about 4 ounces.
Try this: If you aren’t sure how light four ounces is, put your hand on a food scale and close your eyes. Try to guess when you are pushing four ounces worth. It’s pretty hard to get it right. It’s not that much pressure.
If your horse doesn’t move off of 4 ounces of pressure then you need to add something else to help him understand. We aren’t going to just push harder and harder. That will only set him up to brace against you. Instead, you may bring in some rhythmic pressure. You might tap or bounce a little bit, still in the proper zone, until he responds.
If you are on the ground you can also practice rhythmic pressure by pushing the air towards the zone you want to move. As you slowly get closer, if the horse is not responding, eventually you will be tapping on that zone, then pushing on it. If you do this consistently he will learn very quickly to move when you are just pushing the air towards him.
So to make these points about levels or phases of pressure clear:
- Start with a light touch, like a fly, and slowly increase up to 4 ounces of pressure.
- If he doesn’t respond, put some rhythm into it.
Hopefully you will not be trying to learn these techniques on a wild and crazy horse. But if your horse is a little more resistant at first, don’t worry. We will be addressing that later when we get into the games. For now I just want you to remember the zones of the horses (those buttons) and which one moves the horse which direction. And also the types and levels of pressure or energy to apply.
An important note to mention here is that you must also have laser focus on the part of the horse you’re trying to move. Horses feel our focus like you would not believe. Whether we are riding them or working with them on the ground, they can tell where our focus is. This is another form of pressure. Some horses can’t tolerate you staring them in the eye. Too much pressure. We’ll learn more about focus in the games.
The Not So Cooperative Horse
I will admit there are times, depending on the horse, when you are not going to be able to calmly lay a hand or leg on them and get them to move. But we still don’t ever get mean or mad. We basically act like another horse would act if he didn’t move when they told him to. And as always, in the interest of safety, we learn when to back off, regroup, and take a different tack.
We like to say we use as little pressure as possible, but as much as necessary. This is especially true if safety of horse or human is going to be affected. You have to match the horse’s level of energy, plus 10%, without putting any emotion behind it. If he gets big, you have to get bigger. Usually once you and he sort out who’s in charge, this doesn’t happen much any more.
I’m not going to get into horse personalities or temperaments right now (we called them horsenalities). That’s a whole ‘nother subject. But you do need to learn how to read what type of a horse you have. They are not all the same. What works for one may not work for another. You need to have many tools on your belt. But we will get into that later.
We are going to be learning how to apply the proper cue, in the proper zone, both from the ground and from his back. We teach everything on the ground first because it all transfers to something you do while riding.
If this is starting to sound confusing don’t worry. It’s actually very simple once you start doing it. It will become second nature and you won’t even have to think about it.
My next post will help you put all of this information together with the seven basic maneuvers you are going to teach your horse. We call these “games” because we don’t “work” our horses, we play with them. If you aren’t having fun, then your horse sure isn’t having fun, so what’s the point?
On a side note, I plan to add videos to these posts but our weather has turned less than desirable for filming lately, and my cameraman is out of town. So subscribe to my list and I’ll make sure you get notified when I have those videos created. I will add them to the posts where they belong as well.
Catch you later….