How’s your communication with your horse?

By April Clay, Psychologist

Perhaps the most overlooked, yet most important skill for riders is communication. Riding is a relationship-based sport. You have a team-mate, who must be made aware of your goals and learn how to follow you. Your horse may not speak English, but he depends on you to be a clear, decisive communicator.

Your relationship with your coach will also be smoother and more effective if you know how to communicate well. Strengthening your communication skills begins with an understanding of the type of communicator you currently are.

The go-alongs
Go-alongs value getting along with others while avoiding conflict at all costs. “Don’t make waves” could be your motto. If your horse is challenging your aids, you are more likely to try to keep asking the question instead of increasing the pressure or otherwise upping the ante.

Marshal is a go-alonger. He repeatedly apologizes to his coach for being such a poor rider and is prone to a lot of negative self talk. He may even over feed his horse treats to make up for whatever mistakes he put him through.

His trainer hates how hard he is on himself and spends a lot of energy trying to pump him up. What she likes about Marshal is his great focus in listening. Because he is so concerned with his horse’s well-being, he has become very skilled at listening for his mount’s feedback. Unfortunately, because Marshal does not trust himself to follow through with his knowledge his training is not always fruitful.

The biggest cost to this communication style is a diminished sense of self. Go-alongs slowly lose faith in themselves and end up feeling powerless and even resentful. Their horse may take advantage of them. If you have this style, keep in mind that your horse is a partner in sport and not just a pet. You are the leader of an athletic team.

The drivers
Drivers are positive they are right. They demand a lot from their horses, sometimes to the point of stressing them. While their strength is clear communication, their weakness is pushing too hard too fast. Drivers are more interested in results than listening for feedback from their mounts. Drivers are typically impatient and emotional control may be an issue.

Coaches main complaint about drivers is they don’t take direction well. On the flip side, their strength is they’re very focused and often get the results they seek. However, all this intensity is not without cost. Drivers may find their horses “react” by acting out, bucking or otherwise trying to escape.

If you are a driver, the biggest cost to your equine relationships is you get compliance instead of willingness from your teammates. Drivers tend to regard their horses as tools — a means to an end goal. If true partnership is what you seek, you will have to temper the driver style inside.

The mediators
As a mediator, you are very clear about your rights and the rights of others. You know your horse has feelings and bad days. You respect your coach and understand it’s his goal to help you learn. You will always look for the win-win.

Like the conversations you have with others, you are very clear about what you want from your horse. You will ask for what you want then listen carefully for the reply. Mediators trust themselves and seek out trust in those they interact with. They tend to view their equine relationships as true partnerships.

Sara used to be more on the go-along side until she realized her horse was becoming stressed from her lack of leadership. A young horse with tender nerves, her mount would get nervous and act out when she didn’t know what Sara wanted.

Once Sara became a more assertive leader, her horse’s demeanour improved. The new certainty in Sara’s aids gave her horse confidence. Like children who really want clear boundaries from their parents, Sara’s horse took great comfort in knowing what was expected of her.

Obviously, the most balanced communication style is that of the mediator. Keep in mind though, that most people blend different communication styles. The good news is our weaknesses are usually specific and changeable. Remaining aware of your own communication style and tweaking it when needed, gives you the best chance of success in your equine and personal relationships.