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The Horse’s Language

You’ve probably noticed this: horses don’t speak our language. (Many of us don’t speak it very well either.) So our job is either to teach the horse to speak our language, learn to speak the horse’s language, or come up with a compromise: giving the horse signals it will understand, and understand what he is signaling back.

The horse’s language is one of emotion, of approach and avoidance. It is more connotative than denotative. Several parts of the horse may combine to express the same emotion, and to make his position unmistakable.

What is Natural Horsemanship?

Our language easily confuses us. Pat Parelli —a horse trainer who practices natural horsemanship and founded the Parelli Natural Horsemanship program — calls a whip a “carrot stick.” Monty Roberts — a horse trainer who promotes his techniques of natural horsemanship through his Join-Up International organization — sells halters that crush the horse’s delicate nasal bones if the horse refuses to keep a slack lead line. And he sells a bit, daring to suggest that it is comfortable in the horse’s mouth. Riders have become numb to the pain they inflict in their horse with spurs and bits, in part because “everyone does it,” in part because horses don’t use the same language or speak with the same clarity that a human does: try leading your child through the grocery store with a bit, and spur him if he slows. See how that works.

Others imagine that horses simply “move away from pressure”. So if you tap them on the back end, they move forward like robots, on instinct. In fact, horses move into pressure when they are pulling a cart or plow. What horses move away from is pain or the anticipation of pain. A tap on the back end is a threat of a harder tap. The horse has a good memory and a good imagination.

Should I Blanket?

Horses adapt to the cold. In fact, they adapt better to the cold than the heat: Horses try to maintain a body temperature of 99.5°F (37.5°C). If their body temperature drops by more than 10°C or rises more than 5°C, death results. Horses can’t stand the heat, and you won’t find them in the kitchen.

Adapting to the cold — acclimatization — involves raising the basal metabolic rate to increase heat production, and adding a coat to reduce heat loss. As with other large mammals, the horse adapts primarily through changes that reduce heat loss (small mammals adapt primarily through increases in heat production)6. This is accomplished with the development of a winter coat, and as needed, vasoconstriction to shunt blood away from the skin.