Horses and Human Language

Picture this: A person whose language you don’t speak (let’s call him ‘A’) takes you by the hand and leads you into a shop. There he stops you, says something to you (which you don’t understand). You begin to notice that you’ve walked into an organic food market! Your favourite! You want to check out the fresh fruit that you see ahead of you. ‘A’ grabs you by the collar, says something in a very strict voice (you don’t really know what), and yanks you back to the place where you stood before. You think: That person seems quite stressed- perhaps a little yoga would help?

Your eyes wander off to the fair trade chocolates. Mhm, chocolate…before you know it you make a step forward, and -wham!- ‘A’ grabs you by the arm, hard, yells something at you (which you don’t understand), puts you back to your original position, yells a bit more. Hey, you think, what was that for? Now you are bit scared to make ‘A’ pissed off even more, you just look around and don’t move anymore. Until you see this really yummi goat cheese! You just want to check it out when -wack!- ‘A’ has hit you in the face, turned purple, and yells one whole minute at you. You decide to stay at your place, because this ‘A’ seems to have a really bad day whenever you put a foot out of line.



This is a true story: I came to the stable the other day and by the car park I could already hear someone was in the barn, yelling. My Polish is not very good yet, so I couldn’t make out what the person said. I went in and saw that someone was yelling at her horse. I watched a little to figure out what the problem was. It looked like the woman tried to tell her horse not to move. The horse was standing without being tied up and the woman tried to put the saddle on. The horse made a step towards the hay, the woman yelled (I had no idea what), yanked at the reigns, shoved the horse back to its original position. The same was repeated about five times, with more and more anger. She probably said something along the lines of “I told you a hundred time you should stand still when I put the saddle on!”. Here is the thing: If I, a human, didn’t understand what she was saying, do you think the horse understood any way better? He got more and more frightened and had yet to learn to stand still. Oh, and her friend tried to apply the same method to put some salve into her horse’s eye. You can imagine how that went.

Today, I cuddled my horse a bit (he was in cuddling mood, which happens about once in a million years). I scratched his admittedly big belly and said, ‘Sorry dear, but once you’re up and running again, I really need to put you on diet.’ He closed his eyes and licked my hand. He had no idea what I just said (because if he had, he would have organised a strike immediately. Eating is his favourite thing to do!!!). But he liked the scratching and my soothing and friendly voice.

On the other hand, horses are very good at learning vocal commands. They don’t know what the word itself means (an arbitrary combination of letters/sounds anyway), but they can learn very easily to behave in a certain manner if we just break it down in a way they can understand. For example, just bring your horse back to its position when he wanders off and say a command, like whoa. Repeat until he stays for a moment. Tell him he’s a good boy! or give him a little treat. Treated like this, the horse will really like to do stuff with you. In theory most horse owner know this. Still, I see lots of people at the barn talking whatever to their horses, who understand as much as I do (nothing).


Since I live as a foreigner in Poland I’ve become very aware of how the horses must feel. Some people talk to me like a waterfall and I don’t understand anything. Then I just smile politely and do my thing. Some people really try to communicate and use easy words and constructions. Then I’m eager to communicate as well.

Instead of talking a lot to my horse (which I do sometimes anyway, but more for my own sake than expecting him to understand) I taught him a set of simple commands and rewards.

-Whenever I feed him, I put my hand right on the spot of his neck that I can reach from the saddle and say good boy. This way, he learned to connect the touch of my hand in this place and the words with a good experience and it’s easy to tell him that he’s done something right when I’m in the saddle or doing groundwork with him.

– I taught him to stop (from walk, trot and canter) on a short ho, falling intonation. A longer hoooooo is the soothing sound I make when he get’s worked up or scared.

– I use the German pfui! when he should stop doing something, like chewing the reigns or turning over the grooming kit. It’s a short, sharp sound. When he’s done something very well, I use the German ja fein! with its long soft vowels. Good boy also works well.

– It’s very useful when a horse knows the commands to a certain gait, both on the ground and in the saddle. Since I bought Nazir when he was already broken in, I use the Polish words stęp (walk), kłus (trot), and galop (canter) that he already knew.

– I say stój! when he should stand in one place, and komm! if he should follow me. I call his name when I want him to come to the paddock gate.

You see, my language commands are in three languages. I didn’t do that on purpose, it developed out of my daily life. I made most of my horse riding experiences in Germany, speak English to my husband and my friends, live in Poland, and have a Polish horse. My horse really doesn’t care about the muddle as long as I use the same word every time. Great that carrots are very international 😉

One more thing: Horses are very good observers and of course they learn how we express ourselves when we are in this or that mood. They pick up the slightest hesitation or confidence in our voice. That’s why we often have the feeling that they’re getting us. But they respond to our emotions rather than the meaning of the words we say. I think it is more useful to see our voice as one communication tool among other such as body language and mental images. A lot of the things we try to say to our horses we could express  with a gesture or movement of our body, and then we would give our horses a much better chance to understand us.




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