Common Sense about Horse Communication

The first thing to remember about horses is that their senses are just better than ours.

I’ve never trusted my own senses. I consider it a good thing.

While I was still in grade school, I broke my nose on a sheep. These things happen; he was a big cross-eyed ram by the name of Grandpa. So, I don’t have a good sense of smell, but no worries, if I imagine what it might smell like I get by. It should impact my taste but you can’t convince me that raspberries taste better to you.

I was born with flimsy eardrums and flunked all my hearing tests in school. Two childhood surgeries later, no improvement. My parents debated whether I wasn’t able to hear or just didn’t listen. I do in fact have a hearing loss. It’s the lower tone range, so it’s mainly men I don’t listen to. I mean hear.

My eyes are my strongest sense. I have a spectacular eye for detail. But even on my best day, if I hadn’t learned to triangulate llama noses, I’d never be warned about visitors on my farm.

It bears repeating: The first thing to remember about horses is that their senses are just better than ours. Every moment.

Horses have a better hearing range with greater frequency than humans. They use it as an early defense system and we usually decide they’re distracted.

Their sense of smell is not as good as a dog, but still much better than ours, as evidenced in the spring when they become besotted with of the smell of new grass. We can’t tell unless a lawnmower has been by.

Their sense of touch is extremely acute; they can feel a fly on their lower hind leg. Do you think we might over-cue?

And vision -the equine eye is the largest of any land mammal. And like most prey animals, their eyes are set on the sides of their head, allowing them close to a 350° range of vision. Horses also have both binocular and monocular vision, which means they can process two separate images at the same time. Go ahead, pause here to push your glasses up your nose.

Most of us think our horses are psychic because it’s easier to believe than the truth about our own limited senses.

Compared to prey animals, we’re not nearly as aware of our surroundings. We tend to be loud and dominating, especially with our hands. We act like we know everything.

Back in the day on Saturday Night Live, Garrett Morris translated the “News for the Hard of Hearing.” He’d stand at the side in a bad parody of an ASL translator, cup his hands to his mouth and yell. Just holler it out. It gave me a deliciously guilty, politically-incorrect laugh.

But that’s how we are next to horses. We stand and yell, our normal tone qualifies, slowly enunciating each syllable as if the horse is deaf or stupid, or sadly, a child. We repeat ourselves, we escalate our cues. It’s what we were taught to do but they “heard” us the first time. It’s pretty arrogant for a human to think a horse isn’t aware of things twice as obvious to them as they are to us.

As the theoretically superior animal, it’s up to humans to learn the horse’s language. This is where not trusting your senses comes in handy for a horse-woman. It makes it easier to want to listen if you aren’t sure what’s going on.

I use the word “conversation” when writing about communicating with horses… but I don’t mean verbal. It isn’t about constantly chattering along, explaining to the horse that his mane is being brushed, that you’re going to pick up his feet now, that the saddle is next. He knows.

And it isn’t just baby talk and explanations about grooming. We sit crooked and our legs flop. Sometimes we kick with each stride. We twist around in the saddle like kids on a school bus. We can’t look to the side without flinging our shoulders around. You’d think we didn’t have peripheral vision

We create such a racket to their senses, that horses stop listening, not being disobedient but just to quiet the roar. It’s a calming signal to us. The cue that we can do less.

Much of what we do with horses is for ourselves. We use them for comfort and that isn’t a bad thing… unless we never give back. Unless we always think that it’s all about us. If you are looking for a better relationship with horses then listen more. Strive to understand them more for who they are rather than who we want them to be.

I use the word “conversation” with a horse because of what it doesn’t mean: Lecture. Soliloquy. Pontification. Sermonize.

Instead, let the air rest. It’s easier to listen then. Be curious in silence.

Say what you mean and mean what you say. Let the rest go. It’s the opportunity your horse is waiting for. He might need a while to trust it but then he’ll tell you his side of things. It will make perfect sense.

Sometimes now as a clinician, I find myself speaking to a group while standing next to a horse. I’m talking as clearly and audibly as I can for the humans, even as I’m aware that I’m sounding like “News for the Hard of Hearing” to the horse.

They tolerate my noise because of another sense that I think horses have. It’s an awareness of intention. It’s the sentiment beyond silence.

I think it’s the best we can hope for from a horse; to find a bit of grace for our loud and rude ways. Perhaps he hopes that one day humans might learn to communicate.

 ….
Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro
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72 thoughts on “Common Sense about Horse Communication

  1. Thank you Anna,
    As usual, you nailed it. I think I’ve said this before, but I love it when you write about things I’m always talking about but you say just that bit differently and with such clarity. I love that 🙂

    Thanks for being out there speaking up for the horses!

  2. Janet Margerison

    Thank you so much. You really opened my eyes in understanding how a horse can get desensitized with poor communication skills. I’m not loud, animated, or rough with my horse, however I tend to repeat myself and at times over cue. I will work on my this! My horse and I thank you for the great information!

  3. Charlotte Brabant

    Thank you! Well put. Helps me a lot. I’m not a chatterer to humans or horses. I don’t baby talk. I do, however, yell a horses name if he/she bites or kicks at one of my horses while leading from the pasture to the paddock. It doesn’t help one bit. It’s out of my fear of being stepped on by my own horse. The yelling probably upsets my horse more than the offender. Thank you, again :).

  4. Jennie Bondelie

    Again you are spot on Anna. So refreshing to read this. Thank you for putting a smile on my face this morning.

  5. Tracey Sands

    So beautiful and so true. I’m sure you’ve noticed, too, that horses will sometimes exaggerate their own signals to us (in this case I don’t mean the desperate measures to make us stop whatever horrible thing we’re doing) when they know we’re listening but just a little slow. My filly has developed an elaborate series of gestures to make it absolutely clear to me where she needs to be scratched in any given moment. Most of the horses I’ve had will give some indication of this, but this little girl could be on SNL herself.

  6. Celeste

    Thank you on several levels for this delightful blog. I am trying every day to learn to listen better and I believe my horse tells me when he thinks I get it. Work in progress – always. I had long ago forgotten that bit on SNL, and it really cracked me up to think of it again, especially since my hearing is all but gone at this point. Thank you once again for touching my heart for the sake of my horse.

  7. Emily Corwith

    This is wonderful. It could be my imagination but I think I’ve been around horses who are so accustomed to being approached by loud and insensitive people that when a human being approaches them quietly and respectfully they have trouble adjusting.

    1. Yes, I have certainly found a wide range of behaviors, including distrust of people trying to do better… But they are usually willing to listen, even doubtfully. Thanks, Emily. I agree.

  8. Lynda

    Great article. I have become more aware of the concept “less is more ” since adopting a mustang mare. She has helped me in many ways, but as I read your article I was realizing how much more I have to learn. And, btw, I did stop and push my glasses up on my nose.

  9. eremophila

    I am wishing WP had an advanced “like” – perhaps a multi star? If they did you’d get full stars for this piece! Thank you. Your writing transfers to all aspects of living.

  10. Sherry Walter

    I don’t usual yell at my horses, except maybe when they get ugly at each other over the hay feeder – two mares in the herd and they can’t like each other! What I take from this is that our horses forgive us for an awful lot.

  11. Good article, but it is still from a human stand point, which causes us to believe that we cannot have a verbal conversation with any animal. The communication comes in various forms, I have seen pictures, felt the emotion as well as heard phrases. It is the human who initiates the limits. I suggest an open mind as well as energy classes, such as Reiki. It will open a whole new world.

  12. Joan Spence

    You’ve confirmed what I’ve discovered myself, that at this time in my training, Peachie, Ziggy and I have calmed me to where I’m “only yelling”. Folks talk so much about “getting” the horse to trust them before they calm their cues and such. But my learning grows by leaps and bounds when I learn to trust my horse, which comes from getting out of the way to be able to listen rather than do! Live is so much easier in the horse’s world.

  13. Lynell Abbott

    Receiving this with gratitude, Anna!
    Soon after arriving at our barn, my young TB started picking on my older TB. I tried unsuccessfully to discourage this behavior, mostly by guiding him in another direction. It came to a head one day after witnessing my older guy being attacked in his stall, unprovoked, From a distance, I screamed from my very core, yelling for him to get out. That horse shot out of that stall like a cannonball! The incident left me shaking as I was surprised at my own rage, especially since I have a rule that nobody yells at my barn! Afterward, I felt so bad for this “bad boy” but it’s been about 2 weeks now and I have not seen him pick on my old boy since! Now all I have to do is wave my fingers toward another hay pile, and he immediately walks over to it. He gets lots of “good boy” rubs these days.
    I found out soon after he came here that he was a bully at his previous barn. Watching him over these months here, I’m thinking he really is a horse who lacks confidence more so than he is a bully? Anyway, I almost believe that screaming incident helped him solidify his place in the pecking order…or maybe not?

  14. Maggie Frazier

    This isnt really a relevant comment – BUT considering how many horse people (and I mean this in a very good way) do read this blog. I wonder if anyone here is aware of the recent push by our sainted “representatives” in DC to remove the horse slaughter defund amendment from the 2018 budget? And it seems that in order to deal with the cutback on the BLM’s budget – the new Secretary of the Interior wants to either allow the wild horses in holding to be sold for slaughter OR to “humanely” euthanize them. We have about 45,000 wild horses in short term and long term holding right now. I honestly dont know if it does ANY good to write & call our supposed “representatives” about this. I’ve done both, as I know many people have already.
    But I have to say, I am ashamed that there is even the possibility that horse slaughter could be brought back to the US & I’m more ashamed that the people we elected & put in office could be so ignorant as to think it would be ok to KILL 45,000 animals who, thru no fault of their own have been rounded up and put in pens for the remainder of their lives.
    Actually I guess this comment is more about venting than anything else. Thanks for giving me a place to do that.

    1. Sherry Walter

      I hate, hate, hate, the idea of horse slaughter but I hate the idea of transport to and subsequent slaughter in Mexico even more. Maybe it’s the lesser of two evils, allow it here but with stringent rules as to transport and treatment leading up to an including the end.

      1. Maggie Frazier

        When we did have plants here – the transport may have been shorter, but there didn’t appear to be “stringent” rules regarding to their treatment. To top that off, these plants were foreign owned – paid very little taxes – and caused much damage to the areas where they existed – look up Kaufman, Texas, for example. There really is nothing humane about sending a horse to slaughter. I realize not everyone is able to have a horse put down & buried. Some rescues are able to help horse owners whose horses need to be put down and cant afford it. I know that doesn’t apply to everyone, but sending an animal to an auction hoping someone will give him or her a good home just isn’t reality.
        Possibly one better answer would be to discourage breed organizations from over producing foals – looking for that “perfect” horse. There are many, many segments of the horse industry bottom line – but breeders, owners, veterinarians, tack shops – none of them profit from horse slaughter.

  15. barbarabluehorse

    As an equine bodyworker I work with many different horses in many different environments and with different degrees/ways of communicating with people. In other words, some are more shut down around people than others depending on their treatment and personality.

    Listening to the horse I am working with and (attempting) to understand their body language is a big part of what I do in every session. I talk about this a lot in hopes of giving others a way in to this kind of understanding. I also say a lot that horses don’t care what training or license you have, they care about what it feels like when we stand in their personal space. I know that people do too, but we often don’t pay attention to what our own bodies are telling us.

    Thanks for what you do and writing about it.

  16. Patti

    Excellent article. Thank you for highlighting that we should consider basking in silence in order to ‘hear’ our horses more. Sometimes I noticed in our human world, there is too much chatter.

  17. Ritambhara Tyson

    I love your blogs. They are informative an so enjoyable to read. The thing I might add is to wait on them. Yes, they hear you and know what you want but, in the case of my 32 year old appy, that passed away 3 years ago, they weigh over 1,000 lbs. and it may take them a minute to arrange their body to actually do what you are asking. Patience always with these amazing beings.

  18. Maggie Frazier

    Having written a comment above about slaughter & the wild horse issues – I really have to say I am so disappointed & discouraged with the almost complete lack of interest from the commenters on this blog. I admit when I was physically involved with my horse & others – at the time I was clueless about the number of horses sent to slaughter & I really was uninformed about the dangers to our wild horses & burros. Now that I’m retired & horse-less, have tried to be involved in both of these issues. And they wont change until people – horse-people – speak out.

    1. I don’t think it’s a lack of interest… Not everyone follows comments, and many people feel powerless. It isn’t true, it’s just overwhelming with all the rest. We care, Maggie.

      1. Maggie Frazier

        Thanks Anna – have really gotten caught up in these “issues”! And powerless sure is the correct description. Again thanks for the caring

  19. Laurie

    Anna, your ability to articulate horse wisdom never ceases to amaze me. Just this morning I observed the lesson of silent conversation with clear intentions. Among a cluster of stomping hooves and swishing tails I started to crouch down next to fly bitten, crusty, dusty, itchy legs; hoping not to sustain a head injury from a flying hoof. I put the soft brush firmly against the top of a fore leg and slid down toward the hoof. He instantly stood stock still among the biting flies. He understood my intention to bring relief…..never a word spoken. Thanks for being here to keep us on the right track.

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