Actions speak louder than words
Although horses can come to understand and react to the intonation of a very limited number of words, the words simply act as cues and there will always be a delay while the horse translates from the word to the action.* If words are used during training it is important that we make sure that the horse can distinguish them from our general chatter which must be so much ‘white noise’ in a horse’s life. I have been able to demonstrate that a horse that reacts to the word “back” is just as likely to step backwards for the word “peechay” which is Hindi for back because the horse actually recognises the body language that we use rather than the word. It is sometimes useful to stop talking altogether to see what your body language is actually telling the horse (which may be something entirely different). I prefer to work with horses using body language because it is the language they use with each other and that they understand automatically. It’s better to show a horse a “no” rather than to say “no” even loudly. To most horses the word “no” means absolutely nothing at all.
* I am going to add a little proviso here - horses that are clicker trained, or those that are trained with blinkers for driving, do seem to be quicker to react to words.
Sometimes, our voice will give away fear and I often say that “steady!” or “shh, shh, shh” is actually Equus for “panic!” Our voices usually go up and octave and we speak very quickly when we are afraid. This is a dead giveaway to a horse and tells them that there is something to worry about.
Copycats not horses
I don’t think that horses can copy tasks but I do think they copy demeanour. By keeping our own adrenalin levels down, talking in a soothing tone of voice, acting confidently and remembering to breathe we can help the horse to be calm and confident too. Breathing out has am amazing effect on most horses and yawning around them can really calm them down.
These are the last of my general notes on training. I will follow them up with some notes on groundwork and so on. Please remember that they have been intended as an aide memoire for my own clients over the years and that every aspect of them can be altered to fir an individual horse. They do not provide details of a mechanical process, I do this two three, you do that two three, and must be read with a good degree of common and horse sense.