This is an extract from my book, Conversations with Horses: an in-depth look at signals and cues between horses and their handlers. Please see the BOOKS tab above to easily preview any of my books.
Defining a Signal
In the horse world, there are several terms used for the signals we give horses. One is ‘aids’ which is commonly used when riding. The term ‘cue’ seems to have become popular with clicker trainers.
Much more about Clicker Training is available in my book, How to Begin Equine Clicker Training. The term ‘stimulus’ comes from animal behavior laboratories.
I prefer the term ‘signal’ because it suggests that a message is sent and the ‘correct’ or intended message is received by the other party.
If a Morse code sender carefully sends his message, but the person at the other end does not know Morse code well enough to decode the message accurately, then the signal has failed. The garbled message may well lead to troubled times.
In other words, if a signal does not relay the desired message, then whatever we have used as a signal is not acting as a signal. By definition, a signal must communicate the person’s message and be received as such by the other party, in this case, the horse.
If it is not working as intended, the signal needs to be adjusted or changed so the message sent equals the message received.
When we are with the horse, he is busy sending us signals about his emotional, mental and physical well-being. If we can’t pick up these signals accurately, then the horse becomes frustrated and misunderstood and often retreats from willing interaction by trying to leave or ‘shutting down’. He becomes reactive rather than responsive.
Cues and stimuli are constantly bombarding all of us. A signal is something we want to stand out from everything else the horse is noticing and everything else we are noticing. We want the horse to easily separate our signal from all the other many cues that are constantly flowing in.
At the same time as we are communicating our intent with our signals, the horse is trying hard to communicate his intent and his feelings with his body language. The more ‘in tune’ we can get with the signals our horse sends us, the better our two-way communication can become.
In this work, I will use the term ‘signal’ rather than ‘aid’, ‘cue’ or ‘stimulus’. I’ll also refer to all horses as ‘he’ for ease of reading, unless I’m talking about a specific mare or filly.
Like the rest of us, horses thrive on clarity and consistency of communication.
Building a relationship with a horse is like locating a set of keys to unlock a door so the horse’s true nature can come out.
The horse’s total well-being depends on how well we can help him adapt to the peculiar life a horse must live in a human-centered world.
While we are trying to get to know our horse better and understand his emotional, mental and physical boundaries, the horse is doing exactly the same with us.
He is trying to read our intentions so he can be ready to react or respond, according to his perceptions. The more we understand about the signals we are giving the horse, the more we can develop a mutual language.
The more we realize that much of what we are communicating to the horse is in our unconscious body language, the more we can ‘still’ our body between meaningful signals.
We would like the horse to respond confidently to our requests rather than become anxious, reactive and bracing against the pressure of our signals.
The horse would also prefer to respond rather than become anxious, adrenalized and feeling the need to react by trying to escape, push through pressure or mentally and physically ‘shut down’ – hiding inside himself.
A horse needs a sound foundation of knowledge to enable him to cope with the very strange things people expect of their captive horses.
To do this we need to:
- Take the horse through a careful education program
- Set up a teaching schedule suited to the individual horse’s background and ability and adapted continually to the feedback the horse gives us
- Give him every opportunity to master each small step of a large task, before asking him to string all the parts of a big task together.
This cutting of a whole task into its smallest teachable parts can be referred to as ‘thin-slicing the task’.
My book, How to Create Good Horse Training Plans, looks in detail at thin-slicing and writing Individual Education Programs (IEPs).
For each step of the teaching process, we must make sure we are sending a clear message rather than a confusing mumble. Therefore, a key element for the success of any teaching and learning program is ensuring that our signals are consistent and clear.
Horses are so sensitive that if we alter a signal even a little bit, they often think it means something else. The more things we teach our horse, the more carefully we need to think about the signals we use.
We can give our horse the best deal by becoming more aware about:
- The specific types of signals we can use
- How we are orientating our body
- How we can refine our signals as the horse becomes confident
- How to use a ‘signal bundle’ or ‘multi-signal’
- When we are ‘nagging’ rather than communicating.
As mentioned earlier, it is the most natural thing in the world to expect the horse to change so it does what we want. However, in reality, it is by changing what we do that yields the results we want.
There will be variations in horse behavior based on each horse’s innate character type, his personal history, his relationship with the handler and the situation of the moment.
Horses will always be horses and will respond in the way that horses respond. Being prey animals, their main concern is safety.
Before we can cause change in the horse, we must become hyper aware of what we are doing while the horse is watching.
Whenever we are in our horse’s view, he is picking up all sorts of signals from us – our posture, our energy level, our intent, what we usually do that time of day, any specific signal we may be giving and so on.
Once we learn to pay close attention to the horse’s body language, we get better at understanding the signals the horse is sending us.
A signal is a direct, purposeful communication between horse and handler. If we’ve carefully taught a signal for backing up, then the horse will back up when we give that signal.
If the horse raises his head and points his ears with strong concentration, we pick up his signal that something in the environment has his full attention.
First, we learn the horse’s language – his signals. Then it is up to us to teach the horse the language he needs to remain safe and comfortable in the human world – our signals.
Since we have taken the horse away from his natural lifestyle and made him our captive, it is up to us to become fluent in Universal Horse Language and learn to use it effectively. To be effective we need:
- An understanding of different horse character types.
- An understanding of our particular horse’s character type.
- Awareness of our body language and the different ways we use signals.
- Knowledge about horse senses and sensitivity.
- As much knowledge as possible about a particular horse’s background experiences.
- To write good training plans which can be turned into individual education programs (IEPS) designed for a specific horse.
- Adept use of body language, body extensions, ropes, reins.
- Timely application of release reinforcement.
- Adept use of reward reinforcement along with release reinforcement.
There is detailed information about using reward reinforce-ment in my book, How to Begin Equine Clicker Training.
The more fluent we are about understanding horse body language and the mechanics of both release (negative) and reward (positive) reinforcement, the better a teacher we can be for our horse.
It is hard for the horse to learn from someone who doesn’t have a good understanding of who and what they are teaching.
Before we head into an overview of the signals we use with horses, followed by a detailed look at each signal type, we need to look in detail at how horses sense and perceive their environment. (The next part of the book delves into this.)
Once we are conscious of the biological differences between horse and human perception, it is easier to allow horses the leeway they need to feel safer in our company.