Do You Speak Russian?

We've all heard it. You hear it sitting in the stands at a horse show, standing in line at the local tack shop, or riding along the trail with a group of friends. It's got to be the most repeated phrase in the horse world... "My horse is perfect, except..." Regardless of the 'except,' I have come to see that those imperfections we find in our horse's training and behavior stem from a few basic problems in our horsemanship and our relationship with our horses.

Story originally posted by: Patrick KingCopyright 2009. All rights reserved.

A look at the root of trouble between horses and humans: Part I
This week we address Communication/Understanding.

I find that the problems that plague riders and horsemen root from four basic areas: communication/understanding, fear/confidence, disrespect, and pain. I’d like to take a look at these problems in the order that I see them being most prevalent. You may find that my ‘order of importance’ will seem different from many other trainers and horsemen, but if you give it some thought and take my ideas to the barn with you, I’m sure that you’ll come to agree.

I know a man that will talk to you at great length about what a great communicator he is. He’ll tell you how much he understands people and the psychology behind communication. He’ll then go on to tell you how successful he is at business as a result of his exceptional communication skills. He may even tell you that he could teach you a lot about the art of communicating. A real confident guy, to say the least.

The more you’re around him, the harder it is to be around him. Seriously. He’s continually complaining that no one he works with or around will do what he tells them to do, and his favorite line seems to be “Why am I paying someone to get on my nerves – I should just do it myself!” I have seen this guy get into major screaming matches and arguments with people, and he’s always ready to step into a physical fight. I have also seen numerous potential customers turned off by his arrogance and ‘Napoleonic’ attitude. His reason is always the same – “People just don’t know how to communicate.” If this guy knew anything at all about real communication, he might see where the problem really is – himself.

Communication is two or more individuals sharing and understanding an idea. If I say something to you, but you don’t understand me, we aren’t communicating – I’m just talking at you. As hard as we try, if you can’t understand me, or I can’t understand you, real communication isn’t going to happen. I had this point drilled into my head by a high-school mathematics teacher years ago. Anytime I struggled with an idea or exercise, he would ask “Do you speak Russian?” He always asked this in Russian, which certainly helped to make his point… if you don’t understand the language, you won’t be able to solve the problem or understand the new idea. It wasn’t that I was stupid or bad at math – it was just that I didn’t understand the language. When I would break down the language and start again from the beginning, things were always easier. Things turned from problems into exercises, and learning would begin again.

I feel that this is the most common problem that we, as riders and handlers, face with our horses. “Human, what do you mean?” As a general rule, the horse is always trying to figure us out and find out how he can do what is being asked of him. Our lack of clarity with our horse, and even our own misunderstanding about what we want, oftentimes impedes our results.

We have to develop a language with our horse in order to communicate effectively. Please excuse the blinding flash of the obvious, but horses and humans speak two different languages. Something I ask at most of my clinics or demonstrations – if you were to go to Russia, would you expect every Russian to speak your native language, or would you try to learn Russian? If you want to communicate effectively and efficiently, you would take the time to learn Russian, rather than spending countless time teaching all of the Russians how to speak your native language. Likewise with the horse. You can expect every horse to try to learn your language or techniques or way of riding/handling, or you can learn to present yourself in a way that helps the horse to understand you.

Let’s take, as a basic example, a simple scenario that you can go to the barn and try yourself. When I direct my lead rope or my rein, from the ground or the saddle, I want my horse’s feet to follow. If I’m sitting in the saddle and I hold my left rein just ahead of my saddle horn (or pommel if I’m riding in an English-style saddle) and reach it out to my left, I want my horse to step his left front foot out to the left. Much like a puppeteer, my puppet’s (horse’s) feet should follow my strings (reins).

If I hold that left rein just behind my saddle horn (or pommel), toward my belly, I want my horse’s left hind leg to step under him.

I know this sounds simple and obvious – it should be. But try it. See how light you can be with your hands and reins. Try to lift the rein and direct those feet without pulling on your horse’s mouth. See if you can even keep slack in the rein and direct his feet. If you’re pulling your horse into it, you’re making it happen. If you can move that rein and have your horse move his feet with slack still in the rein, he understands. You’re no longer making, you’re communicating.

When I’m riding one of my horses, if I reach my rein out there and my horse leans on the rein or does anything but what I want, I don’t do anything else until he has time to figure things out. I won’t pull on him, spur him with my leg, tap him with my crop… I will simply sit there in position and wait for him to prepare to move that foot. I will wait as long as it takes for my horse to figure that out. When we go slow and make sure that he understands, we have something to build on later when we want more from our horse.

Think about your child learning his or her ABC’s. How long did you let your child try to figure out the ABC’s before you started rushing and spurring and swinging your whip? You didn’t (hopefully!). You allowed time for understanding and learning. It’s the same as this exercise with our horse, except that it usually only takes seconds or minutes for a horse to learn this, while it may take your child days, weeks, or months to learn the ABC’s. In the end it’s all the same – it’s about creating, developing, and consistently using a language that your horse or child understands.

Most often, riders and handlers mis-name a horse’s misunderstanding as being a lack of respect. So they get firmer or work the horse longer and harder until he figures out what the person wants. The horse does eventually, through repetition, figure things out – but he often will feel rushed and stressed. Then when he rushes a maneuver or swishes his tail or braces in his body, he gets worked longer and harder again until he gets more ‘respectful’ and ‘complacent.’ But all we had to do is wait for the understanding to come through to begin with.

So before you think that your horse is being disrespectful, try to see if he really understands and if the two of you are speaking the same language.

Watch for Part II next week where we will discuss Fear/Confidence, Disprespect and Pain.

For additional information on Patrick King, go to or give him a call at 724-859-8558.