Horseback Riding

Improving Communication

September 20, 2010

Work toward better understanding between horse, instructor and rider.

The proper instructor can improve a rider's communication with her horse.

By Tara Gamble, Certified Horsemanship Association president

Have you ever seen a horse and rider in action where they seem to move together effortlessly, and you wonder in amazement how they did that?  Ever wonder what the secret is to their success? Besides a lot of time, effort and practice, there is something even greater – the ability to deliver a message clearly, at precisely the right time, and then fully receive the intended message, and respond accordingly. In other words, they have optimum communication.Communication involves the transfer of information to and from individuals. It can be either verbal or non-verbal.  The cycle of communication involves a sender who delivers a message to the receiver, who in turn processes the information and responds with feedback to the sender. Effective communication requires both the sender and receiver to be fully involved in the process. If they are not, there is the potential for blockages to occur along the way, which could lead to the incomplete transmission, or distortion of the message. Feedback from the receiver determines if the message was understood as intended. For example, think of a horse that is annoyed by another horse that has crossed into their “space.” The annoyed horse (sender) will deliver a message to the imposing horse (receiver), probably by flattening his ears, possibly switching his tail and perhaps even stamping a hind foot (message). If the imposing horse reads and computes the message as intended, he will move away (feedback), and the situation is defused (completion of communication cycle).

Trail riding is one of the most rewarding and relaxing activities you can do with a horse. But it is not without its dangers. AQHA’s Trail Safety report will keep you and your animals out of harm’s way when you’re on the trail.

When the number of individuals entering the cycle increases, there is the potential for miscommunication. This need not be the case. There are certain steps you can take to improve the clarity of communication and see results.

The Horse
Horses may not speak to us in words, but their body has a language all of its own. Whenever you approach a horse, take some time to read what he is saying. This can let you in on how he is feeling, possibly what he is thinking, and you might even be able to anticipate his next move. Horses will give you many clues, and by paying close attention, you can gain insight into the mood and personality of the horse.

Some potential obstacles in the communication process:

  • The rider or handler lacks experience and does not know what she should be looking for, or how to interpret signals from horses. To provide a safe environment to the novice horseman, supervision and guidance should be provided at all times, and sequential lessons about horse behavior and how to handle them safely on the ground should also be included in the program.
  • Not paying attention to the horse’s cues. Whether on the ground or on the horse’s back, this is not a safe situation. When working with horses, the interaction between horse and rider should be a continuous exchange, and should have focus.
  • The rider or handler is not familiar with the horse. Spending some time getting to know the horses you are working with is beneficial and is a reciprocal relationship. The horse also appreciates getting to know you and will become more comfortable once he feels he is safe and understands what you expect from him.

Roll It!

Team Wrangler Professionals Leslie Lange and Charlie Cole demonstrate how to fix an incorrect lead change.

The Instructor
The role of the instructor is very important. The instructor essentially rides the horse through the student and facilitates the partnership between the rider and horse. Timing and feel are very important in teaching since the instructor must be ahead of the rider and the horse. I always say teaching is more of an art than a science. A good instructor displays kindness and empathy and can read her audience of students and horses.

Here are some tips that may be helpful in improving communication with the horses and riders in your lessons:

  • Uncover the goals and needs of your students. Ask them why they are riding and what they want achieve. Some people want to enjoy a lesson with their family, some want to get over fear, some want basic skills and some want to compete. Knowing the direction your student wants to go will help set up success. You will have to reassess periodically, since things may change over time.
  • Set boundaries for your students as to what is acceptable behavior around horses and in the arena. Attitude is paramount! Students can learn from every instructor and every horse if they keep an open mind. Lead by example and be a positive and encouraging mentor.
  • Open communication lines. I always encourage people to ask questions if they are unsure. Sometimes people are intimidated to do so, but if you take an open approach, so much more can be gleaned from the lesson.

The Rider

Execution of timing and the ability to feel the horse’s subtle responses are keys to achieving successful communication. What you ask your horse to do and how you ask your horse to do it will affect the outcome. Whether under the guidance of an instructor or not, the horse will only go as well as he is being ridden.

Experts in three different areas of trail riding offer tips and advice on how to better enjoy trail riding while keeping your horse’s health and protecting the environment in mind. AQHA’s Trail Safety report can help keep you and your animals out of harm’s way when you’re on the trail.

Here are some tips to improving your riding partnership with your horse:

  • Set reasonable short- and long-term goals. A seasoned, well-trained horse takes a lot of time and effort, regardless of the discipline. Adjust your expectations according to the individual horse and rider combination.
  • Think of your horse and yourself as a partnership. If there is an instructor involved, you are part of a team. By adding an instructor to the picture, there is one more person to communicate with. To avoid miscommunication, keep the dialogue open at all times and ensure that there are clear, common goals you all are working toward.
  • Try to broaden your scope of many disciplines and breeds to improve your success on any horse. Riding different types of horses will make you a better rider, since you will be faced with different challenges on different mounts and will have to respond to each a little differently.

When communication is open and effective, goals can be attained with greater ease, and results can be very rewarding. By striving for effective communication and being aware of the process, success will be maximized! This can aid in eliminating communication blocks and can strengthen relationships between the horse, instructor and rider. Implement effective communication, and people will be asking what your secret is!

The Certified Horsemanship Association, a nonprofit organization in operation since 1967, is based out of the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington, Kentucky, home to the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games. It is the largest international horsemanship instructor certifying organization in North America. The purpose of CHA is to promote excellence in safety and horsemanship education for the benefit of the horse industry. CHA is one of AQHA’s educational marketing alliance partners.

Don’t forget, the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games are just days away! Commemorate WEG’s first United States appearance with specially designed and manufactured medallion coins. They bring the spirit of the games to your home, while celebrating AQHA’s passion for the sport of reining as an official sponsor of the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games and the official breed sponsor of reining.