The Other Language of the Horse

It’s interesting to note that books and calendars are not filled with dramatic pictures of wild stallions snoozing in the sun. The more common image is of two rearing, teeth-bared stallions engaged in mortal combat. So naturally because of these popular photos, one might assume that horses commonly use force to interact and communicate with each other.

These images may also help spread the popularity of natural horsemanship, which is based on pressure and release, which in itself is based on watching rearing stallions establishing dominance. I totally understand how folks would think that this is the language of the horse. It’s exciting, all this rearing and claiming of leadership status. And yes, horses do respond to humans that emulate rearing to achieve leadership, but that’s motivation through force.

I’m seeing a different side to horses as I closely observe my herd of four (three geldings and a mare) who are turned out 24/7. I see a lot of boring stuff. Plenty of snoozing, grazing, back scratching.

In my experience, most of their day is spent moving toward something that attracts them. And by most of their day, I mean a whole lot of their day, something like 98% of the time. (And no, that’s not a scientific calculation. It’s just my attempt to show how often I see them moving towards what they want).

The rest of the time (2% of their day) they’re moving away from something they don’t want. These are the photo ops. This is where you’ll see teeth. This usually occurs at feeding time when the dominant horse decides he needs all the food.

As a side note, I’ve been able to remedy food time aggression by giving the aggressive horse something else to do besides biting to get what it wants. I teach it to stand on its pedestal and then it will get its food first.

Yes, I did try flailing at him to stop, (both with and without fancy cowboy boots) but it just seemed to heighten the frenzied nature of the moment. By giving the horse a clear option as to how to get his food instead of biting his buddies, he quickly complied and is now a gentleman at feeding time.

To me, it make more sense to spend the majority of my time interacting with my horse how he interacts with other horses the majority of the time. I know it’s not dramatic (no snapping teeth and flying hooves), but it is the manner in which its very first communications took place between he and his mama.

Provider or Predator?
Here’s the other hairsplitting observation. When I work with my horses using the boring-but-effective, Follow the Sponge technique, I’m emulating many of the things that it experienced when it first met its mama, who is a provider of all good things.

I create situations where the horse moves towards what it wants and I reward it in ways similar to good ole mom. A tiny morsel of food (three pellets) or a mini back scratch. It’s very interesting for me to see how quickly a horse understands this concept.

So I become a provider by following this simple principle,

Give a horse what a horse wants.

This I think makes a horse feel good because it’s very familiar to the horse. In contrast if I worked with the horses how they spend the minority of their day, they may view me as an aggressor, or worse, a predator.

On many occasions I’ve noticed that the most insecure, fearful horses are the most aggressive. So, if I were to use aggressive behaviors toward my horse, would the horse then view me as insecure? You bet.

I have a feeling the the horses who don’t respond well to aggression are first in line at the auction. I believe these are the intelligent horses that ask questions like, “Do you think that just because you can whack me with a stick that you’re fit to lead me?”

How ironic for me to see that when I’m acting as a provider, allowing the horse to move toward what it wants, it’s so much easier to get a horse to do what ever I want it to do than using aggressive, predatorial techniques.

You’d think that more effort and energy would get more of a result, but it’s the opposite in my experience. Less is more. And guess what, my aging, petite, soft spoken self has no need to establish dominance as the alpha leader. I don’t even have to be a passive leader or pull a muscle with fancy foot work.

I just get to do what my maternal, nuturing self loves to do and that’s provide something wonderful for the creatures I adore. Why does this work so well? I think because being a provider is more meaningful to a horse than being a predator.

Even in the wild the horse doesn’t spend most of its day running from wolves or engaged in mortal combat with a rival stallion. It spends most of it’s day grazing. I think in a horse’s mind the single most important thought that occupies 98% of their day is this:

Where am I going to get my next blade of grass?

It’s that simple.

I think that horses speak two distinct languages. One of pressure and one of attraction. Why not learn to speak both?



4 thoughts on “The Other Language of the Horse

  1. “On many occasions I’ve noticed that the most insecure, fearful horses are the most aggressive. So, if I were to use aggressive behaviors toward my horse, would the horse then view me as insecure? You bet.”

    Have you read Mark Rashid’s book “horses never lie?” He talks exactly about this phenomenon. The herd often has multiple leaders. The insecure horses lead with aggression. But the true leader of the herd usually does not use aggression. The horses follow him strictly because they like and respect him.

    By the way, what is your follow the sponge technique? It sounds interesting.


    • Following the sponge technique is using a dressage whip, or lunge whip or crop and duct taping half of an auto sponge to the end. The sponge becomes a bright yellow soft object to target. In my mind it becomes a magic wand. Once the horse learns to target the sponge, I use my ‘spunge (lunge) whip’ for teaching a horse to move away from me without pressure. I also use it to teach a horse to lead at my side. It’s invaluable for trailer loading…they just follow the sponge into the trailer. I can teach pressure-free disengage, back, shoulders over all kinds of helpful things by just pointing the sponge where I want the horse to go.

      • cool! I had just never heard it called ‘follow the sponge.” I’ve done a bit of targeting with a few horses, usually as a first trick or two when beginning clicker training.

        I’ve only recently begun to use it to really teach other behaviors. Now, the more I apply it to other things, the more I see just how many benefits it has.

        I think there’s a ton of untapped power in follow the sponge (or follow the target) that horse people using positive training / clicker training don’t take advantage of. Not only is it good for asking the horse to go in a certain direction, I think by asking the horse to follow you, it also helps build the relationship and partnership.

        I’ve started taking my dog to some pre-agility classes. In the actual agility classes, nearly everything is taught by having the dog follow the owner’s hand.

  2. Totally, tons of benefits! I think too, it’s the key in attraction based work. What I like so much, is I never have to figure out “Just how do I get my horse to do such and such?”

    I’m usually just using/pointing the sponge whip or another object to show the horse where I’d like it go. I find it’s so much easier to show it than using pressure. I think the horse eagerly looks forward to these interactions.

    I also think horses enjoy the chance to use their brain to figure these things out. I’m finding they are amazing problem solvers. And when they are encouraged to do so, it truly heightens their motivation and I think their world and mental development expands proportionally.

    I started the ‘follow the sponge’ by default actually. I wanted a light weight object that I could put on the end of my lunge whip to teach an attraction based/pressure-free way to move away from me.

    The wonderful part about targeting is how easy it translates to targeting other objects, both stationary and moving. Now, as you mentioned with dog agility, all my horses target my hand. Rarely do I have to use a halter and lead to take them anywhere. The sponge-stick is great for pointing them in a direction where my hand cannot extend.

    The other part that’s really cool is how they can quickly differentiate between the objects you want them to touch. So, if I’m holding a sponge whip, they know to target the end of the whip and not my hand.

    Did you happen to see my link to R+Dog Training? She’s an amazingly talented positive reinforcement agility trainer and competitor. I literally hang on all of her words, they make so much sense.

    I do think horses as well could do agility (without a rider). I’ve actually played around a little bit with this with DaVinci. He loves to climb and navigate objects such as our teeter toter. He can stand and stay etc….

    I’ve seen folks do something like this with their horses, but they’re usually behind them pressuring them from behind to make them move through obstacles. So in a sense they’re simply pushing their horses rather than giving them the choice to either target the object or follow their hand signal.

    It’s been an interesting exercise to identify when I’m using pressure and when I’m using attraction. Things like teaching a horse to paint, I believe, can only be done using attraction. That’s why it think it’s such a great place to get started.

    Could you take your horse to your agility classes?

    As always thank you so much for your comments.


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