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


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

Wild Heart

wild heartI wanted to share this poem I wrote with you. It’s called Wild Heart. I love reading and writing, and sometimes I turn my daydreams into a poem or story.

Wild Heart was inspired by the New Forest ponies I saw when I went camping there with some friends, and the strange longing us humans have to be able to tame wild horses. You only have to look as far as all the pony books to see that the befriending of wild/difficult horses is a common theme. Admit it, who hasn’t dreamt of the horse only they could ride?

There’s a saying that if inside every wild horse is a tame horse, then inside every tame horse is a wild horse. Sometimes the pony we adore might not share our love, and just want more than anything to be free. It’s this idea that I wanted to explore in my poem.

Because it’s essentially a love poem, I tried to write it in the form of a Shakespearean sonnet to express the girl’s love for the pony. In the end I decided not to let it not be confined by the rules of poetry form, which is why it’s not a typical 14 line sonnet.

I hope you enjoy reading it, and any constructive criticism or thoughts on it are welcome!


Wild Heart

Moving between the thick oaks and alder,
Cautious, are the ponies of the forest.
Their moonlit shadows make me recall her,
The pony I loved dearest.

Ribs sharp as flint stones stretched her blackberry coat;
She’d been rounded up from her wild herd.
She loved me not, although I clung to hope,
The mare with soul of a bird.

One year she left, galloped away, was gone.
I knew she had a wild heart, but still
Shed liquid stars in the silence so long
For my pony of untamed will.