31 October 2010

Horse Talk

Today's offering from A Word a Day (wordsmith.org) closed, as it does every day, with a quotation.  AWAD's Thought for the Day usually intrigues me as much, if not more than their vocabulary word, but this one sent me to post here, because it goes to the heart of horse training:
Our expression and our words never coincide, which is why the animals don't understand us. -Malcolm De Chazal, writer and painter (1902-1981)
I have no idea who De Chazal was, but he identified a central problem I've had to deal with when working with people. Horses observe humans quite well.  In fact, as any good trainer can tell you, horses, are adept at reading people.    Horses, like most other animals, respond to human body language and to the pitch and rhythm of the human voice.  Lowering the voice soothes, raising the voice energizes, and rising the pitch can terrify.

I've lost count of the times when students have blamed their horses for "running away" when the horse was just following orders.   They'd lean forward or inadvertently cue, and when the horse responded, they'd begin repeating the word "Whoa!" with every repetition higher-pitched and more frantic. 

Once the event ended and the rider's heartrate returned to normal, I'd yet again explain that, yes, they were saying "Whoa!", but their voices were high and tight, in some cases even squealing and shrieking.  Worse yet, they inevitably became tense throughout their bodies as well.  The horse perceived--rightly--that the human perceived danger.  Not having any way to understand that the poor human perceived the horse itself as the danger, the horse fled, increasing its speed even more as the human indicated even greater danger. 

Horses understand us just fine.  Few of us understand them at all.