by Mitzi Summers
Although horses are much less vocal than some of your other farm creatures, such as your watchdog, they do indeed communicate to each other and to you through various means of vocalization. If you have ever heard the heart-rending cries of a foal weaned (sometimes incorrectly done) from his dam, or the all-night neighing of a new horse in the barn missing her former stable mates, you are all too aware of how vocal a horse can be.
There are many people, myself included, who wish that a horse was a bit more vocal. If they could whine when they were cold or hungry, or cry out in pain when an abusive trainer hurt them, possibly there would be more understanding and awareness with some people who work with horses. But in fact, horses are quite stoic, and suffer indignities in silence.
On a lighter note, let’s explore the sounds that horses DO make in an effort to better understand them:
The Snort
It is a cold day, and a bit windy. You lead your horse to the outdoor ring and approach the mounting block. Then you hear “the snort”. It is a loud sound and lasts only a second, and it is accompanied by unmistakable body language. Your horse’s body will be rigid, he will be holding his tail out stiffly, and he may be frozen to the spot. Only a masochistic adult or clueless beginner would proceed to go ahead and try to ride at that moment. Your horse is telling you as plainly as he can that the frost on the distant pond is going to attack him at any moment, and the jump in the distant distinctly just moved, and you both had best run away from this spot as quickly as possible.
Obviously now is the time to quietly lunge the horse, decide to ride in the indoor ring at first, and then maybe have your trainer get on him just to be sure. To go ahead and mount at this moment is absurd…even if you are feeling decidedly macho. If your horse does not buck, shy or run off, his mind will not be on schooling. It will be on surviving the troll under the roll- top fence.
The snort is an “I am worried and tense” sound. Another vocalization:
The Blow
This is produced in the same manner as a snort, the horse closing his mouth and forcing air through his nostrils, but it is not associated with fear. It is more of the “I feel good” communication. It may also be accompanied by tenseness in the body, but the horse is usually just exhibiting pent-up energy. A good rider can deal with this, and put the horse to work and sit any errant playfulness. Care should be taken with an intermediate rider, however, and probably quiet lungeing or some ground work is in order before starting your training. If you are trail riding your horse and come upon loose horses in a pasture running about, your horse may very well “blow” That is a signal for you to use caution, and keep your horse busy and refocused on you.
The sound you are looking for before mounting safely is:
The Sigh, or Deep Breath
Right now, as you are reading this, purposefully take a few quick, short breaths from your upper chest. How do you feel? Now take the time to sit up straight and take a deep breath, breathing from your diaphragm. Take another breath. Notice how you feel afterward-probably more relaxed mentally and physically. The first example — your horse snorting or blowing, the second is the sigh or deep breath.
If I am schooling a horse who was tense, the sigh is what I am looking for so the horse is ready to listen. It will be accompanied by comparable body language — relaxed tail and spine, lowering of the head, soft chewing, ears relaxed, gaits even and the body of the horse supple.
I have gotten into the habit of taking a deep breath myself when working with a tense student or horse. This is two-fold. They will often unconsciously follow my example and begin to relax, and it also prevents me from being influenced by them…..tense horses and or students can make their trainers follow suit, which results in an unproductive lesson.
The Squeal
This is an indication of aggressiveness, extreme irritation, or defensiveness. It is usually noticed in a herd situation. A new horse is introduced to the herd, a mare is protecting her foal, a horse is fighting for pecking order, or a stallion or gelding is establishing hierarchy. If the squeal is intended for the handler, take caution. A horse can be a 1,200 pound animal that can hurt you. It could be that you just touched a very sore spot on his back or that he is responding negatively to an aid. A squeal can be followed by kicking, biting, or charging, so take heed.
I recently had a follow-up lesson with clients from Alabama. Their mare, a bay Morgan, had had a bit of an attitude when I had worked with her a year ago, but through positive reinforcement she turned from the “terror of the barn” into a horse that they were trail riding, showing and hunting successfully.
They did mention that they had tried to keep lungeing her but that they had not been able to — that she had refused to go forward and so they quit trying. They did not mention that they had actually tried quite a few times and that her behavior had deteriorated. I attached a lunge line to her and noticed immediate aggressive behavior, as if I had flicked a switch. She squealed, ears back and tail swishing. I asked her to walk again, and then, squealing, ears back, tail swishing, she charged me with the intention of ridding herself of this pesky person.
Horses are so interesting…..I simply put a second outside line on her (double lungeing) and gradually by pulling on it and enlisting the aid of an assistant on the outside with a line to keep her away from me, I succeeded in getting her to go forward. Negative reinforcement would not have worked. By flicking her with the whip she just got worse….now she is lungeing again and behaving herself, but the angry squeal was a definite warning which I could have reacted to a bit more quickly!
The Whinny
The whinny is a carrying sound, used to call horses over to them and locate their friends. It can be heard up to a mile away and can have a distinctive sound that identifies the horse. It is also the longest sound a horse makes.
Perhaps the greatest sound a horse makes is:
The Nicker
It is a friendly sound that horses use to communicate with nearby companions, horse or human. We hear it when a mare greets her foal, a horse is reunited with his pasture pal, a stallion initiates a response from a mare, or it is feeding time. Horses can also have a genuine fondness for their human and nicker to them.
The human voice is recognized as one of the four natural aids in working with your horse. Recognizing and working with your horse’s vocalization is another key to their moods and thought processes.
Mitzi Summers is an International clinician, specializing in teaching people to train their own horses in non-abusive methods. She also certifies instructors for Centered Riding and the Certified Horsemanship Association.