The Language of Horsemanship (Part Two)

Read part one here: The Language of Horsemanship (Part One)

I’ve been learning to play polo for nearly two years now. Something I’ve found really interesting is both how different and yet similar it is to ‘normal’ riding. Although it’s still riding and at the end of the day polo ponies are horses like any other, the language used is very noticeably not the same. Almost like a different dialect.

Horse language is the same wherever you go. So is the essence of human language, even though there is much cultural variation. The language of horsemanship is different since it involves inter-species communication. It’s based on the idea of a relationship between two fundamentally different creatures rather than being rooted in the survival instincts of a particular species. It’s a created language. A learnt language. I think that’s important to remember.

If a horse and a rider learn that language even slightly differently then there’s likely to be miscommunication at some point. Once we acknowledge that we can begin to work with the horse to understand each other instead of getting frustrated at the horse being ‘naughty’.

This is emphasised in the difference between a dressage/showjumping horse and a polo pony, since they’re trained in a completely different way. As riders, we’re trained in certain ways as well.

To give an example, when I first started learning polo I used to take the reins in two hands when I first got on, then rearrange them into one hand. Not only do you hold the reins in just one hand for polo, but you also hold them ‘upside down’ and threaded completely differently between your fingers.

When I tried to steer a polo pony with the reins in two hands, even if it was just to get out of the way of the mounting block so other people could get on, the ponies just did not understand. I had to switch the reins into one hand and neck rein for them to know what I wanted them to do.

As I’ve already said, the language of horsemanship is learnt not instinctive – even though it becomes second nature with practice.

In switching disciplines the language variations are obvious. When simply switching horses it’s much more subtle but there can still be a difference. A ‘lazy’ riding school pony use to beginners has learnt to respond to a different language than a highly sensitive competition horse, for instance. And a horse familiar with just one rider can become confused when ridden by someone else who asks for something in even a slightly different way.

This is part of the skill of a horseman/horsewoman. We need to become fluent enough in the language of horsemanship that we can communicate with any horse regardless of what ‘accent’ or ‘dialect’ they’ve learnt.

Horse Daydreamer x


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