Conventional wisdom isn’t always right. For decades I’ve heard (and read) from a good number of equine professionals (along with the studies they cite) that the human voice is a poor choice for a training tool. The argument is horses can’t easily decipher our words. Maybe reciting Shakespeare isn’t going to lead to mass absorption, but most horses can understand a word or few at a time used consistently.

Horses do hear you

A horse with a name

We nickname every client horse that comes into Halcyon Acres®. The reasons are many, but the short answer is many don’t come in with names and the ones that do tend to have long, convoluted registered monikers that are too hard for me to remember or say quickly, so it’s doubtful the horse minds a shorter and easier identity.  The important result is every horse at the facility comes to know his name.

Today, I was struck by how critical such a simple practice can be in potentially dangerous situations. Three older, bigger and more spirited horses in for conditioning training managed to open the gate separating them from a herd of mostly three-year-olds in for starting under saddle work. This could have gotten ugly, quickly.

Horse name-calling saved the day

We’re pretty careful about how we select turn-out groupings. These were two gangs that didn’t belong together for a lot of reasons, not the least of which being the likely resulting considerable vet bills. Fortunately, the farm horses were being fed in close proximity when this occurred, so the mixed herds didn’t have time to mingle for long.

As luck would have it (sometimes you make your own luck) the three-year-olds were accustomed to a routine where they were released into a long chute with a temporary gate at the end that led back toward the barn at evening feeding time. The older horses were not. A funny thing happened next.

Just as the screaming, striking and kicking was about to get underway, I called the most aggressive three-year-old filly. Hearing her nickname, she jerked her head around to see me at the gate. I hollered ‘come on’ (that’s the dinner bell) and she started walking over. Getting her out of the fray reduced the likelihood of all-out war (predicting the behavior of certain horses helps in such cases).

Once ‘kick ‘em ‘till they gush’ was close enough to grab and send down the chute, I called the gelding that guides the young herd to the designated paddock and back to the barn. The ‘meet and greet’ was just about to get bloody, but this good kid (he’s classic ADD much of the time, so you never know) turned his focus immediately to the call-out of his name. Once the other two pasture-mates saw his lead, they trotted off behind him through the gate and toward the barn.

Since the older horses were used to waiting at the gate to be led in one at a time, it didn’t occur to them to try to shoot through.

In a matter of about two minutes, some simple voice cues segregated the horses and averted a potential crisis. Body language certainly wouldn’t have worked here as whole focus was on the war drums and choosing a sparring partner. Would you want to be the human putting yourself between these hoofs with visual cues? Food rewards wouldn’t have allowed smart culling and would have probably escalated the situation as aggressors beat off others for first dibs. Think discipline or fear would be an effective motivator here – yea, right.

Simply having a crew of horses who were used to being addressed by name did the trick. These were horses that trucked in during the month of December, so this didn’t require years of conditioning. Merely making it a daily practice to greet and instruct horses by name had each acknowledging that designation in less than two weeks.

Can you voice your opinions with your horse?

Some horses respond better than others to the voice, but most can learn what you mean if you’re consistent with the words, tones and rewards. Many use and cite food as a primary motivator for horses (it is), but I don’t. Yes, there’s always at least a handful of grain in a tub to reward farm-owned horses for going to their designated stall unfettered, but for most training activities, the voice can come to be as effective a reward as a treat. This is particularly true with horses that are pleasers. Sometimes a ‘good girl’ means more to such equines than a cookie. It also makes it a lot easier to make your response immediate and encourages your horse to be a thinker and a partner rather than a trickster for treats.

Recently, I read (scientific studies) that horses are now believed to have a wider range of hearing than dogs. Survival of wild horses has been credited, in part, with their ability to associate subtle sounds as forewarnings (such as the tone of bird chatter) of danger. It’s not such a stretch to conclude consistent voice cues can be easily understood by the horse. Often, people give horses less credit for intelligence and adaptability than they deserve. You might be amazed at how quickly your horse steps up to the challenges you offer if you’re willing to listen too. Why not explore how well your voice can work for you as part of your strategy in ‘talking’ to your horse?

9 Responses

  1. I agree fully. That also proves how important routine is. If you didn’t have your routine set up as well and stick to that routine the outcome could have been different. Kudos for good management!

  2. How true on the routine, Stacey. I have some great new help here who is learning quickly what happens when you make even slight changes in the horse care routine. The horses are quick to tell her when she gets things out of order :-).

  3. I loved reading this post! I’d like to add a funny story…

    My 27-year-old mare still gives a few riding lessons. I was at the barn and they were running a little behind and my mare was just hanging out in her stall. I gave her some attention and started walking to the tack room (after leaving her stall). Half way between her stall and the tack room, I got an idea. So… I said to the instructor “Since it’s going to be a while, I think I’ll take Izzy for a walk.” At that moment, from behind me, my mare started nickering and went right to her stall door – basically saying “Yes! Yes! Let’s go for a walk!”

    Crazy how much they understand!

  4. Several years ago, I was competing in a blacksmithing and horse shoeing competition at the Western Heritage Fair in Abeline, Texas. After four days of hammering hot steel and shoeing horses, we were pretty worn out and anxious to get home. As everyone was loading up to leave, a grounds keeper was moving equipment with a pair of Belgians pulling a freight wagon. He came over and apologized for having to ask if one of us would shoe one of the horses. He was losing shoes and the driver was afraid his feet would be torn up too bad to shoe by the end of the day working on the asphalt.

    We were all tired and really didn’t want to look at another horse, just wanted to go home. The president of our association came to the rescue and answered the call. He told the driver to move the wagon over to the other side of the road and unharness the horses. The driver backed the team and wagon to the spot designated and unhitched the team.

    He had backed the team with such skill he had the attention of everyone. There wasn’t a farrier there that could have backed a trailer that size with a truck and maneauvered it as well as this pair of horses had.

    The driver brought the horses over and sat on the truck tail gate. One horse named “Ben” was back a little further than the other. Never making any gesture or moving a hand, the driver said, ” step up Ben, your back too far.” When the farrier stooped to pick up the foot, the driver again said, ” pick up your foot Ben, don’t make that man pick it up”. Ben responded immediately and held the hoof up. By now, Ben had all the farriers pitching in and helping work on him.

    When asked how the owner had trained Ben so well, he responded, ” Divorce “. He said, ” when my wife and I divorced several years ago, she left with everything. The only things she didn’t take was me and these two horses. I had no T.V., radio etc. , so when I came in the evening, I went to the horse pen and visited with them. I would tell them how my day went and I could tell how their day went.”

    I figure it works the same with horses, dogs, or kids. If you spend the time, take the interest and treat them like your best friend, they will respond as a best friend.

    1. This is a wonderful tale, Ron. I was laughing out loud. Thanks so much for sharing. You should put this on your blog as a post :-).

  5. What a fun story, Patti. My dogs seem to understand sentences better than single words too. Maybe it’s a human style factor – or perhaps, how much intelligence we credit our animals with as we interface with them? So often, humans and horses rise (or fall) to expectations. I have a mare here (she’s too smart) who refuses to respond to single word cues. If I craft in a sentence, however, she’ll think about doing what she already knew was being asked.

  6. I love these examples of communication. Nanette, you are so right about the power of the voice, but Patti’s comment about her mare is also so relevant. I have always felt that horses understand the whole intent of what we say. Its great that we train them to the voice, but it is my belief that they get the jist of our conversation through the way that our bodies express themselves as we talk. I met a very handsome six year old arabian the other day who had a bad gelding experience. Everything to do with the event has stayed with him as a negative, including little things, like he was caught using a scoop so he won’t eat out of one or have one near him. They have tried a lot of different ways to get him to accept the scoop, but even though he is food driven he is still wary of it. I did something simple, I took the scoop, stood in front of him, connected and then explained in full conversation, that the scoop wasen’t the issue, it was the intention of the human holding it that was the problem. This took about five minutes in total. The pony’s head dropped, he stood quietly, then stepped up and licked that scoop from top to bottom. Since then, it has not been a problem. I use conversation like this all of the time when I work with the horses. It might feel a bit strange at first, but for me, it is part of the partnership. They get to know what we are doing before we do it and I believe that I get horses who maybe better understand our relationship. It is amazing what they understand!

  7. A compromise is an agreement whereby both parties get what neither of them wanted. ~Author Unknown

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