We riders often have laundry lists of the qualities we value in horses. These can be general, like most competitors wanting athletes in their barns, and they can be specific, as in the rider who prefers a hot horse over a quiet one, or the longer-strided steed over the shorter-strided.
The thing is, says Horse Speak® founder Sharon Wilsie, our horses value certain qualities in us, as well, and we can do better by them if we consider what these might be. Even better, we can consider what the horse values an objectives to meet as we strive to improve as horse people, in and out of the saddle. In her latest book Essential Horse Speak: Continuing the Conversation, Wilsie tells us what six of those “horse values” are and what we can do about them.
Riding is supposed to be fun; not only for us, but for the horse as well.
I have had a great deal of fun on the back of a horse. As I began to understand Horse Speak, the first question I had for horses was, “Do you like being ridden as much as I like riding?” The answer came after some time. It took effort for me to not ride for a while and remain dedicated to studying communication (I had a tendency to keep falling back into my “trainer brain”).
But the days came when horses began to line up at mounting blocks and look at me with beckoning expressions. The answer was “Yes!” Horses can reach a place from which they also would like to have the experience of “going for a ride.” Some seem to genuinely prefer it if we are on their backs. So then I set out to discover what would help a horse want to be ridden.
What Horses Value in a Rider
As far as being ridden goes, the horse values his stability and balance above all things. An out-of-balance horse feels threatened. And I do not only mean good physical balance—I also mean emotional and mental balance.
If you sit on a horse and your body is tense somewhere, this will change the horse’s balance. And if you sit on a horse and your thoughts are tense, this changes your micromovements, which changes the horse’s balance. If you are emotional—maybe nervous and unaware that you are holding your breath or repressing some “black box” of stress—this changes your micromovements…and alters the horse’s sense of balance.
2: Well-Fitted Gear
Horses need to be comfortable in their tack and gear. If they are in pain, it needs to be addressed for your riding experience to be optimal. Learning to read their signals with Horse Speak will help you interpret their comfort level and when there is an issue with their tack or equipment.
3: Knowledge of the Chessboard
Being able to use what I call “The Chessboard”—how horses see the world around them and choose to navigate it—well is the next thing on the list of what horses care about. They feel differently about certain spaces and corners because of how they perceive things.
For a long time, we have just pushed them through their spookiness, but how often does that really work? Some personalities can deal with this solution to fear or anxiety on the Chessboard, but others will literally shut down.
Gaining the skill of “feel” means you can use your natural powers of perception to develop a repertoire inside your brain and nervous system for coding appropriate signals from the horse. Feel also enables you to understand and problem-solve from the horse’s perspective. The cool thing about being a human being is that we can imagine. This is an unbelievable power. You can learn to think from the horse’s perspective.
He cannot think from your perspective; his brain does not have the apparatus to do so. However, horses are deeply feeling and empathic creatures; they feel us probably better than we feel ourselves. It’s a great cooperative symbiotic connection, and this is the “one-ness” that people aspire to on horseback.
5: Empathy and Reason
If you saw a horse throw his head back when you first took riding lessons as an eight-year-old and heard your instructor say, “He is naughty!” as she smacked or punished the horse, then you learned, “This high head means ‘bad horse,’ and I should use force to correct it.”
If the horse settled down and became “good” after harsh treatment, then the end seemed to justify the means. The term “bad” now applies to behaviors we do not like or want, and “good” to behaviors we do like or want. Force is applied to change from bad to good.
However, this is very black-and-white thinking such as we find in the developmental stage of a child between the ages of five and ten. Many people begin taking riding lessons around this age and absorb such beliefs from their instructors, who no doubt learned them from their own instructors and so on.
Basically, I think that a good deal of the dominance-based horsemanship that is out there is largely a result of this generational attitude dogmatically being passed down and enshrined. Kind horsemasters for thousands of years, ever since the days of Xenophon, have suggested that being harsh with horses has its toll—not only on them, but on us as well.
6: Understanding the Connection Between Movement, Thoughts, and Feelings
We have figured out that the horse needs to use his body in a particular manner in order to function at his best. Most good training is all about getting a horse into prime condition. However, we tend to look objectively at what the horse is doing—like “good forward movement” or “heavy on the forehand” or “uphill canter”—as a physical response to the function of riding a certain way.
The fact is, horses are not bodies devoid of thoughts or feelings; all three go together. If they learn to dissociate as a coping mechanism, it can be a dangerous situation. A horse who is dissociated or “slushy” (partly frozen and shut down) may mask it well and come across as a “good horse” or even a “dead-broke horse.”
I do suggest that people find good riding instructors who can help them ride physically well; this is, in fact, an important part of the whole thing. But learning to witness the horse’s sense of balance and movement as also a comment about what he is thinking and feeling is the next level.
A good instructor will have some sense of this and will always consider the horse. We are now in an era of choosing to ride horses because we want and seek a relationship or partnership with them. You cannot use standards of punishment in the development of real relationship.
This excerpt from Essential Horse Speak: Continuing the Conversation by Sharon Wilsie is reprinted with permission from Trafalgar Square Books (www.HorseandRiderBooks.com).