Whether you are conversing with a person or equine, the rules of effective communication are the same.
1. Establish a connection: This first step has to do with engagement. If you want to talk to someone at a party, usually you’d do something to capture their attention. The same goes for horses: you need to establish a connection with them in some way. Many say the best way is to start on the ground. Try: touch, play, experience, and be present with your horse.
2. Create a language: This may come as a surprise to some, but horses do not speak English. They come complete with their own language, which is meant to serve them in the best way possible. Imagine you found yourself in a foreign country surrounded by unfamiliar people and customs. You would have to find a way to bridge this gap if you wanted to get around. When it comes to horses, you must create a shared language of pressure and release. The language you seek to develop is based on the way you use your body and energy. In other words, since your equine buddy can’t speak English, you have to step into his world and learn a little about speaking horse.
3. Decide on your intention: What is it that you want? Be very clear with yourself before you pass along your message to your horse. All the same stuff that breaks down our human-to-human communications can break down what we have going with our horses (assumptions, beliefs, emotional states, body language). Try stating your goal to yourself before you ride.
4. Make your request clearly: At this juncture, you’re ready to relay your message. It may be a little pressure to move left or right, or a more complex sequence of pressure and release to indicate something like collection. Consider the person who has their arms firmly crossed but says, “I’m not mad at you.” This is much like the rider who says, “Yes I want you to go forward,” but grabs and snatches at their horse’s mouth. Sometimes a lack of skill or consistency of skill causes our intention to be fuzzy and hard to interpret. Learn to check and re-check your message’s accuracy and clarity if you find yourself in a repetitive struggle with your horse. It just may be your partner is not all that sure what you’re asking.
5. Listen for feedback: What kind of message are you getting back about the request you just made? Today, the feedback you get from your horse is considered very valuable. It gives you information about whether your message was delivered as intended. This step, when properly executed, defines the very nature of partnership. Think about your human-to-human communications. How do you feel most respected and connected? Chances are, it is when someone has shown you they care enough to listen.
6. Respond: If this is truly to be a working partnership you have with your horse, then you must let them know in some way that you heard their communication to you. In horse speak, this may look something like: “Yes you got it = release of pressure”, “No, not quite = reapplication of aid.
7. Stay present: This is a very common challenge for many. There you are, out there riding when suddenly you think of your grocery list. If only you could remember what it was you needed to pick up on the way home. Since your horse cannot say, “Ahem, can we get back to me please?” you may get another more unpleasant reaction such as a drop in pace, a spook, some rapid tail swishing or even a buck. When you are not in the present with your horse, consider yourself to have become “unplugged.” Use key words to help you get your attention back on track, like “soft” and “forward” or count out your strides rhythmically until your focus returns.
— April Clay is a counselling and sport Psychologist, with a private practice in Calgary. Visit her website at www.bodymindmotion.com.