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This is a continuation of a series of Articles.
Part One
Part Two
Part Three
Part Four
Part Five
Part Six
Part Seven
Part Eight
Part Nine
Part Ten
Part Eleven
Part Twelve

Horse Training - Communication 101
Part  Ten
By Beverly Whittington

Horses are prey animals, and humans are predators. There are abundant articles, books and reference material online and in print that elaborates on the relationship that this causes. Suffice to say in this article, the horse reacts to most stimuli in a different way than we do, because of its status of “lunch” if it does not remain alert and on guard from attack. 

The horse’s status of “on alert” is demonstrated in his posture and in his instinct to flee from sudden movements or noises. These instincts kick in more forcefully when the horse is in the upright neck, high-headed state. We have already discussed the benefit of teaching the horse to drop his head on command, getting him out of the instinct zone and into the thinking zone. What are other ways to help move the horse away from instinctual fear/flight reaction and into a mental state where he is receptive to learning?

In 1972 research for the analysis of nonverbal human communication done by M. L. Knapp showed that humans only 35% of social meaning verbally, and a staggering 65% non-verbally. You need consider: what exactly is the message your posture and attitude is conveying to the horse.


Eye contact is part of the total message that our body language communicates to the horse. Hard eye contact is view as a threat by horses. To the horse it is a sign of being stalked. When you rebuke a horse, you can actually use direct, hard eye contact as a form of the admonishment. But what if that was not your intent? People are always told to make direct eye contact to convey their meaning when communicating with another human. If you follow the habit that you have formed in human communication, when dealing with your horse, you can be sending mixed signals or causing stress or discomfort in the horse. There is also the possibility that the horse will take it as a challenge.

You want to practice softening your eyes. We tend to squint when we concentrate, try opening your eyes as wide as possible and taking in as much as you can in your range of vision. People tend to focus their sight on a very small area in relation to what we can actually “take in”. You want to try and work on the amount of peripheral vision you use. This is done by looking forward, but taking note of as much as you can see at the sides, without changing the aim of your eyes. If you practice this, you will find that you HAVE to soften your eyes to open up the peripheral range.

You also need to remember the widely spaced eyes of a horse give him a large field of peripheral vision on each side. But it also limits his field of binocular vision (i.e., where he sees with both eyes at once) to a small area directly in front of him. There is also the space, directly in front of the horse, where he has a “blind spot”. This means that unless a horse is viewing something in his binocular fields, he cannot get a good judgment of distance and depth. If you keep this in mind you can avoid some of the situations where a horse may react in fear. 
Horses also have “ramped retinas” which means that they cannot properly focus on something without being able to move their head. Allow the horse to move his head freely from side to side and up and down to get the “spooky thing” in a range where he can focus on the object. This will enable the horse to determine how far away an object is, and how big it is. The fact that the horse cannot use this binocular vision on objects beside or behind him means that he may spook more readily at stimuli from these angles. 

So what works FOR the horse and WITH the horse in these instances? 

What works FOR the horse is to allow him to check out objects using his binocular vision. What works WITH the horse is to incorporate this in your training. 
When introducing a new object to a horse, do so by showing the horse the object in its field of binocular vision FIRST.
Avoid approaching horses in "blind areas" which are located out of the horse’s range of vision.
Allow the horse free range of motion with the head and neck, to allow him to bring items into focus.

Are YOU relaxed or tense?

The horse immediately reads when you are handling the horse a relaxed or tense posture. In most instances you would benefit by a relaxed posture, as the horse will assume a similar stance and they learn better when relaxed.  The tense posture can be used to benefit when you are reprimanding a horse or needing to reaffirm dominance.  Once again, if you are not aware that you have assumed this posture, you cannot anticipate the affect on the horse. 

Many of the horses that I have seen that have become hard to catch, have become so because the owner enters the pasture with “hard eyes” and tense posture. This communicates to the horse “FLEE”, so they do! 

Applying Undersaddle

Undersaddle, the tense carriage of your body can communicate preparation for application of an aid, or by holding your body tense against the horses’ movement you can ask for downward transitions or encourage the horse to assume a different gait. In most instances the best carriage of your body when riding is to be in a relaxed state. Do not confuse this with sloppy and slouched; a relaxed seat can be achieved while maintaining good equitation!  You need to master a relaxed seat with “soft eyes”, and then only AFTER you can maintain this in all instances begin to apply the tensioning of your body and the hardening of your eyes as communication tools. 

Practice in an enclosed area.  Start with your horse in a relaxed walk, and your eyes soft and body relaxed. Your pelvis should be moving gently in the same rhythm as it would if you were walking.  Your right hip moving forward as the horses’ hind leg comes forward on the same side. Close your eyes and concentrate (Being careful not to tense) and you can FEEL the horse’s stride in your pelvis and hips. Now STOP all movement of your pelvis and hips, tensing your frame, but being careful not to squeeze the horse with your legs. The horse should slow or come to a stop. Often this will not work initially because the horse has become deadened to responding to these subtle cues by poor equitation in previous riders or having never been taught this cue. So if they do not slow or come to a halt start over and try again. 

The tensing of your body is signaling the horse that there is about to be a request for a downward transition in speed.  We are now going to further encourage the horse to come to a complete halt by applying a “but tuck”.  Remember the “seat bones” we discussed previously? The firm application of the seat bones in a simultaneous DOWN and forward motion becomes a “scoop” with the seat bones.  This movement will encourage the horse to bring his hind end underneath him. You apply the butt tuck with the tensing of the body, and your horse should come to a balanced stop on the hindquarters, instead of the forehand. If the horse does not respond, add another aid. This time gently SQUEESE (NOT Pulling) your reins as you reapply the butt tuck aid. Praise the horse for any degree of response, a slowing of his speed or an actual halt. 

To put the aids in an order:
1. STOP all movement of your pelvis and hips tensing your frame.
2. Tuck your butt!
3. Gently SQUEESE (NOT Pulling) your reins.

OK Now one more aid to add, JUST as you tense your body, harden your eyes. Focus HARD on the spot right between your horses ears. This will encourage a straight halt. 

A good, solid, straight halt is essential to all horses. It is the basis of many other exercises such as the half halt. The cue for the halt in the finished horse should be a subtle signal, invisible aids, ones which are clear to the horse, not visible to the onlooker.


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