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Horses and language

Laetitia Bataille

Horse behaviour that we find “stupid” (such as pulling back when tied) isn’t necessarily so for the horses: it’s simply a question of them being at odds with a “civilised” life. Domestic horses must constantly make an effort, notably casting aside their herding and fleeing instincts whilst trying to understand our demands in an environment that is sometimes counterintuitive.

I was recently surprised by a young mother who spoke at length with her three-month old baby, and made sure to do so as if she were talking to an adult. During lunch the baby-basket was by her side and she would turn regularly to the infant, “Now, you see we’re going to start the main course.”

A few days later, a visit to the pediatrician showed that the child already had very highly developed motor skills for its age.

Some (idealists) claim that a horse can understand some 200 words or more. Let’s say that a very well educated horse understands between 20 and 30, which is already good. But it’s not the words that count. The baby mentioned earlier obviously didn’t understand “main course”, but instead received a message of love and interest from its mother. This child is programmed to grow and one day speak, whilst a horse obviously isn’t. However, beyond these words that a horse can never utter, there is the positive emotion that it can feel. This will allow better learning and a better exchange. The horse will become more “understanding” and also more “understandable” for the rider who takes the time to listen.

The first thing beginners are taught is never to approach a horse from behind without “talking” to it. Why should these few words, used to avoid being kicked, be the only things said? In our busy lives as riders why can we not spend a few minutes in the horsebox for “no reason”, not for care or grooming, but simply to recount our day - is that incongruous, eccentric? A lamentable display of anthropomorphism? Konrad Lorenz, who gave lengthy speeches to grey geese, was he mad to do it?

And once in the saddle should the “conversation” be uniquely that of guidance, where the question of voice (except in groups) is nearly always forgotten? Do you see many teachers tell their students “talk to your horse” when a problem arises? No, in general the advice shouted is only of a technical nature. It is forbidden to talk to your horse in a dressage competition, but there is nothing against it in the stables. A ride with a little commentary, is it not for both rider and steed a source of harmony?

But let’s be clear – it’s not about befuddling the horse with a stream of incessant babble, which will infringe on its thinking and blunt the effectiveness of more useful talk. As the voice should above all calm, reassure, motivate and allow (notably outdoors) difficulties to be resolved, such as to prevent falling. It’s also a question of giving time for “educational communication” where speech can potentially be associated with games. 10 minutes is enough, as horses lose their concentration quickly.

As for communicating with the animal the know-how, which we so highly value in this magazine, comes undeniably from knowing how to talk. All whilst keeping in mind the philosophy of great French riding master Alexis L’Hotte, who defined equestrian tact as “balance joined with circumstance”.

Front cover photograph : © Claudia Duffé

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