A Phone Call Makes Me Ponder How We Communicate With Our Horses

The language we have to teach our horses, continuously, is a language centered around communication with our bodies.
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The language we have to teach our horses, continuously, is a language centered around communication with our bodies.

A couple of weeks ago, I had my first real telephone "conversation" with my son, Wesley, who's 4 ½ years old. I probably haven't tried to talk to Wesley on the phone much more than half a dozen times, but this was the first time that I was sure he understood that he was talking to me, even though he couldn't see me.

We have to teach our horses to respond to the signals or cues that we give them.

We have to teach our horses to respond to the signals or cues that we give them.

After I hung up, I was struck with a minor sense of awe, a sense that his developing brain had entered into a new era of communication. From there, I began to ponder, once again, how we communicate with our horses, especially since communication and comprehension is a continuing theme I have when discussing horse training with our students here at Phoenix Farm.

There were actually two things about this phone call that struck me. The first was Wesley's increasing vocabulary and ability to express himself. For the first time, he told me in some detail about what he'd done that day at pre-school and then with his grandparents.

This reminded me of my often-repeated theme that, as with children, we have to teach horses our language in order to communicate with them, but it’s a language that doesn’t rely on words. I like to say that when a horse gets confused and doesn’t respond properly to your aids, the horse feels like the student would if I’d suddenly started speaking Greek to them.

The language we have to teach our horses, continuously, is a language centered around communication with our bodies—our legs, our seat, our weight, our hands, our eyes and, yes, sometimes our voice. Yes, horses can respond to voice commands, but it’s by association with other cues (especially reward clues), not because they “understand” the words in the sense we do.

When we’re riding them, we have to teach our horses to respond to the signals or cues that we give them, and we have to learn to understand the meaning of the way they respond to those cues. We have to learn to understand whether they’re saying “yes,” “I don’t understand,” “something’s worrying me,” “this is hard,” or “no, I won’t do it.” And we, then, have to respond accordingly.

But the second, and more interesting, thing from my phone call with Wesley was that I could tell, for the first time, that he wasn't just staring at the phone in confusion and amazement, wondering why he could hear what sounded like my voice when he couldn't see me.

This ability to imagine using our modern communication, to "see" people who aren't in the same place we are as we talk to them, is an essential difference in the brainpower between us and our animals. Their brains are very literal—something (food, predator, rider) is either with them now or it isn't. They can anticipate the arrival of food or the presence of a predator through association with signs of either one. They can also remember when and where these things were before. But they can 't imagine them in a different place.

This point caused me to ponder how our elders began to communicate using phones and how human interaction has changed as a result of telecommunications in the last century.

I think of my father, who was born in 1914 and died in 2000, and how he never seemed to be truly comfortable on the telephone. It was, to him, a device to communicate messages, not to have conversations. Granted, that was partly because he was a doctor who was often on call, so the phone line had to be kept clear in case of an emergency call (especially since this was in the days before call waiting).

I look at the teenagers we coach today, who are constantly texting or surfing the web, and I know that my father would be absolutely astounded and confused by what cell phones can do today. And I suspect that when someday I tell Wesley how telephones required you to call an operator first to reach another person’s phone, and how when I was his age each state had only one area code, he’ll look at me with bewilderment.

And yet the way we communicate with horses has changed very little during the last five or six centuries. Yes, we have a far better understanding of how to communicate with them; our methods are far more sympathetic and the way we care for them is certainly much improved, but we still can’t talk to them with words or abstract thoughts, whether we’re standing next to them or on a cell phone.

We’re still using the same natural aids (legs, seat, weight, hands, voice) to “talk” to them, and we’re still relying on bits, whips and spurs to amplify our natural aids.

Just another sign, I guess, of how the more the world changes, the more some things remain the same. I’d say that—particularly in this case—that’s a good thing.