Clear Communication

The dialog between horses and humans is nonverbal, but the conversation is always happening.

By Raquel Lynn

If you’re looking for a way to foster a stronger connection with your Paint Horse and take your relationship to the next level, it’s time to develop a better understanding of using body language to communicate with your horse.

Body language is the language of horses. It’s a primary way they communicate amongst their herd, says accomplished horseman and clinician Ben Longwell of True West Horsemanship inRangiora, New Zealand. Ben honed his communication and horse training skills while riding and working cattle on the Western slope of Colorado, where he grew up. He spent many years starting colts, learning horsemanship and working with expert horsemen before moving to New Zealand, his wife’s native country, to build his horse training and clinic business.

“As horsemen, we try to adapt our approach to fit the horse and work in a way that makes sense to them,” Ben said. “They are incredibly cooperative animals. It’s pretty easy to get them thinking about what you want them to do if you communicate in a way that they understand.”

Elements of Body Language

The term body language is frequently used when referring to horses, but it’s not always well defined. Ben breaks down body language into three elements: position, energy or life, and space.

“A large percentage of human communication is through body language, but it is unconscious. We have to actually become more aware of it to realize what we are talking about,” Ben said. “I like to break it down into three elements to define body language. Position, space and life are working together all the time.”

The first element, position, refers to where you are in relation to the horse, usually during groundwork. It seems simple, but this visual cue is essential for communicating with the horse.

“A powerful and effective part of positioning is what I call intention, which has to do with where you are facing or where you are connecting,” Ben explained. “Think about where your toes are facing—this is where your intention is directed.”

Energy or life relates to direct movement or stopped movement that changes how a horse responds. An example of life is noise and movement from the human body that initiates moving the horse’s feet. Ben encourages equestrians not to confuse body language with manmade tools such as whips, flags and sticks.

“When I hear folks use the term body language—but the focus is on the use of the flag or a tool—I know the person is going to be using that tool more subconsciously than learning through body language,” Ben said. “If we can’t put down those tools and actually try to learn to use our own bodies, we cheat ourselves, and then we cheat our horses.”

It’s very important to create a rhythm in the movement and verbal cues that are being expressed to communicate with the horse, Ben explains. Rhythm is intuitive and a natural instinct to horses. It’s the way they move together as a herd. Horses naturally get in sync and know how to move in harmony together. It all starts on Day One when a foal learns to move alongside its mother.

“Every gait has a different rhythm or beat. We can begin to show horses harmony first by going together and use the change in rhythm in our own bodies to indicate that we would like them to make a change—whether it’s faster or slower in a gait through the change of rhythm in our feet,”Ben said.

Finally, space is a bubble around you that the horse shouldn’t enter unless you invite them or approach them. Most riders think of space as a safe zone, but it is much more than that.

“Space is a big part of body language and horses are aware of their space,” he said. “They also need to be aware of our space.”


This is an excerpt from the full article—get the whole story in the Spring 2021 Chrome magazine, which is sent to all current APHA members. Not a member? Join or renew at apha.com/join.


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