The Language of Horsemanship (Part One)

A couple of weeks ago I read this article by Susanna Forrest:

Two Horses, One Language (The New York Times)

I found it very interesting and I’ve been pondering about it for a while. I’d never really thought of horsemanship as a language before, but it makes a lot of sense.

We’re familiar enough with ideas of  ‘horse whispering’, ‘natural horsemanship’, or ‘equine behaviour’ to know that horses have a language of their own. They whinny and nicker, but being prey animals by nature most of their communication is silent. When we’ve been around horses enough we start to pick up on things – such as if they prick their ears forward or turn their hindquarters to face us. I think, however, we probably miss out on a lot of subtleties.

The thing about horse language is that it is for horses. For the herd. We can try and learn it. If we want to become true horsemen/horsewomen that’s what we will do. But it was not intended for us, and all horses everywhere understand it by nature.

Then there is human language. Unlike horses, we usually rely on verbal communication. When we think of language – if you’re like me – the first thing that comes to mind are our spoken languages. English, French, German, Spanish, Hindi, Latin, Cornish, Afrikaans, Russian, Japanese, Portuguese, Punjabi, Greek, Swedish…

The list goes on. As far as I know, no other species has felt the need to create so many different languages. Maybe this is both our strength and our weakness. If we study them long enough we are able to comprehend many different languages, but perhaps our reliance on words makes us less sensitive to the subtleties of non-verbal communication. Of body language. This is what I mean by human language.

The ways we think and the ways we act, along with our emphasis on words, are part of our human language. And in many ways it is fundamentally different to horse language.

As humans, no matter how kind we may personally be, we are the most dangerous predator on Earth. We can hunt animals to extinction. We can destroy natural habitats in a way no other species can. We can choose to protect and care for other animals. Whichever we choose, as humans we are powerful. We are also able to rationalise and are social creatures.

Horses, on the other hand, are flight animals. Prey animals. They know it’s better to be safe than sorry. They’re intuitive. Sensitive. Every part of their makeup is designed for this purpose, from their long heads to allow them to see over the grass while grazing to their long legs that let them run from danger. There is safety in numbers and they rely on their herd to alert them to danger, so they’re constantly ‘listening’ to their herd members as well as the surroundings. They are social creatures.

This is perhaps the single most important link between humans and horses – the need for companionship, for a relationship of some sort.

Horse-man-ship. The relationship between Horse and Man. Something we, as horse lovers, strive for. It requires its own way of communication, however, to be possible. A compromise between horse language and human language, something created over thousands of years by humans but with horses. We spend years learning this language when we first start riding and then a lifetime finessing it. Horses also have to learn it – it’s not their first language either.

This is something I’ve been thinking about and trying to understand quite a bit lately. This blog article is already too long now though, so I think I’ll have to create a part two!

Happy riding and keep loving horses!

Horse Daydreamer x


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