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Do You Speak Russian?

A look at the root of trouble between horses and humans

We’ve all heard it. You hear it sitting in the stands at a horse show, standing in line at the local tack shop, or riding along the trail with a group of friends. It’s got to be the most repeated phrase in the horse world… “My horse is perfect, except…” Regardless of the ‘except,’ I have come to see that those imperfections we find in our horse’s training and behavior stem from a few basic problems in our horsemanship and our relationship with our horses.

I find that the problems that plague riders and horsemen root from four basic areas: communication/understanding, fear/confidence, disrespect, and pain. I’d like to take a look at these problems in the order that I see them being most prevalent. You may find that my ‘order of importance’ will seem different from many other trainers and horsemen, but if you give it some thought and take my ideas to the barn with you, I’m sure that you’ll come to agree.

Communication / Understanding

I know a man that will talk to you at great length about what a great communicator he is. He’ll tell you how much he understands people and the psychology behind communication. He’ll then go on to tell you how successful he is at business as a result of his exceptional communication skills. He may even tell you that he could teach you a lot about the art of communicating. A real confident guy, to say the least.

The more you’re around him, the harder it is to be around him. Seriously. He’s continually complaining that no one he works with or around will do what he tells them to do, and his favorite line seems to be “Why am I paying someone to get on my nerves – I should just do it myself!” I have seen this guy get into major screaming matches and arguments with people, and he’s always ready to step into a physical fight. I have also seen numerous potential customers turned off by his arrogance and ‘Napoleonic’ attitude. His reason is always the same – “People just don’t know how to communicate.” If this guy knew anything at all about real communication, he might see where the problem really is – himself.

Communication is two or more individuals sharing and understanding an idea. If I say something to you, but you don’t understand me, we aren’t communicating – I’m just talking at you. As hard as we try, if you can’t understand me, or I can’t understand you, real communication isn’t going to happen. I had this point drilled into my head by a high-school mathematics teacher years ago. Anytime I struggled with an idea or exercise, he would ask “Do you speak Russian?” He always asked this in Russian, which certainly helped to make his point… if you don’t understand the language, you won’t be able to solve the problem or understand the new idea. It wasn’t that I was stupid or bad at math – it was just that I didn’t understand the language. When I would break down the language and start again from the beginning, things were always easier. Things turned from problems into exercises, and learning would begin again.

I feel that this is the most common problem that we, as riders and handlers, face with our horses. “Human, what do you mean?” As a general rule, the horse is always trying to figure us out and find out how he can do what is being asked of him. The clarity of our communication with our horse, and even our own clarity about what we want, oftentimes impedes our results.

We have to develop a language with our horse in order to communicate effectively. Please excuse the blinding flash of the obvious, but horses and humans speak two different languages. Something I ask at most of my clinics or demonstrations – if you were to go to Russia, would you expect every Russian to speak your native language, or would you try to learn Russian? If you want to communicate effectively and efficiently, you would take the time to learn Russian, rather than spending countless time teaching all of the Russians how to speak your native language. Likewise with the horse. You can expect every horse to try to learn your language or techniques or way of riding/handling, or you can learn to present yourself in a way that helps the horse to understand you.

Let’s take, as a basic example, a simple scenario that you can go to the barn and try yourself. When I direct my lead rope or my rein, from the ground or the saddle, I want my horse’s feet to follow. If I’m sitting in the saddle and I hold my left rein just ahead of my saddle horn (or pommel if I’m riding in an English-style saddle) and reach it out to my left, I want my horse to step his left front foot out to the left. Much like a puppeteer, my puppet’s (horse’s) feet should follow my strings (reins).

If I hold that left rein just behind my saddle horn (or pommel), toward my belly, I want my horse’s left hind leg to step under him.

I know this sounds simple and obvious – it should be. But try it. See how light you can be with your hands and reins. Try to lift the rein and direct those feet without pulling on your horse’s mouth. See if you can even keep slack in the rein and direct his feet. If you’re pulling your horse into it, you’re making it happen. If you can move that rein and have your horse move his feet with slack still in the rein, he understands. You’re no longer making, you’re communicating.

When I’m riding one of my horses, if I reach my rein out there and my horse leans on the rein or does anything but what I want, I don’t do anything else until he has time to figure things out. I won’t pull on him, spur him with my leg, tap him with my crop... I will simply sit there in position and wait for him to prepare to move that foot. I will wait as long as it takes for my horse to figure that out. When we go slow and make sure that he understands, we have something to build on later when we want more from our horse.

Think about your child learning his or her ABC’s. How long did you let your child try to figure out the ABC’s before you started rushing and spurring and swinging your whip? You didn’t (hopefully!). You allowed time for understanding and learning. It’s the same as this exercise with our horse, except that it usually only takes seconds or minutes for a horse to learn this, while it may take your child days, weeks, or months to learn the ABC’s. In the end it’s all the same – it’s about creating, developing, and consistently using a language that your horse or child understands.

Most often, riders and handlers mis-name a horse’s misunderstanding as being a lack of respect. So they get firmer or work the horse longer and harder until he figures out what the person wants. The horse does eventually, through repetition, figure things out – but he often will feel rushed and stressed. Then when he rushes a maneuver or swishes his tail or braces in his body, he gets worked longer and harder again until he gets more ‘respectful’ and ‘complacent.’ But all we had to do is wait for the understanding to come through to begin with.

So before you think that your horse is being disrespectful, try to see if he really understands and if the two of you are speaking the same language.

Fear and Confidence

I often discuss fear and confidence together. It can be helpful to think of a sliding scale, with fear on one side and confidence on the other. A horse’s responses and reactions will differ slightly as we head down the scale, but the two opposing ends of the scale will show a very different horse.

Take trailer loading for example. At the confident side of the scale, our horse will have no problem walking into the trailer, with or without us, will stand quietly as long as needed, and will travel quietly down the road for as long or as short of a trip as we have planned. On the fearful side of the trailer loading scale, our horse will stress and resist loading. Once we get him in the trailer, if we get him in the trailer, he fusses and stresses, maybe pulls back against his halter and tie. Once we hit the road, he might only be in there for five minutes, but he comes out at our destination covered in enough sweat and froth to make him look like he just ran the Kentucky Derby in 90degree weather.

As we slide along the scale from confident to fearful, the changes can be small and often go unnoticed or just passed off as “he’s just testing today and being disrespectful,” or even “oh, it’s okay – he just doesn’t want to. We can go to the next show (trail ride, event, etc) instead.” We’ll start to see resistances like hesitating at the trailer door or wanting to rush out right away once he gets in. Maybe he paws or whinnies to his buddies back at the barn. These small things build as we go down the scale until we get to that all-out fearful horse.

From my experiences, it seems that a horse’s confidence is never ‘set’ or ‘stagnant,’ it’s always either building or regressing in small or large steps. If we aren’t working to build our horse’s confidence in given situations, such as trailer loading, it is likely that he will slide somewhere down that scale we mentioned. I often hear the comment, “But I’ve never put him in a bad situation” or “ He shouldn’t be afraid, he’s never been hurt by…(whatever the situation might be).” This may be true, but there’s a big difference between not having a bad experience and having a great experience that builds confidence.

But again, because of a misunderstanding, the rider or handler will often think that the horse is being disrespectful and act accordingly. Then the horse gets pushed and punished and worked harder. Or, in the case of the ‘cupcake rider,’ he just gets kissed and petted and offered treats before being turned out in the pasture or returned to his stall. Both situations are equally bad for the horse’s confidence. In one situation the rider is punishing the horse for his fear, in the other, the rider is reinforcing the fear by avoiding the situation altogether.

Our duty, as our horse’s leader, is to recognize when our horse is fearful and help him to gain confidence. But you can’t rush or force confidence – you build it gradually and progressively. It’s our job to continually offer small chances and experiences that build our horse’s confidence. Don’t be afraid to challenge your horse, but be mindful not to throw too much at him at one time. You don’t want to destroy what you’ve worked so hard to build.


We hear many owners, trainers, and clinicians talking about disrespect from a horse being the main root of problems. Even many of the most popular clinicians traveling the country focus most, if not all, of their attention on getting more respect from a horse and working disrespect out of a horse. They’ll book clinics and sell DVD’s stressing disrespect as the main problem with your horse. I’m not saying that disrespect isn’t a problem; it just seems, to me, that it’s the easy answer for too many people that aren’t looking closely enough at understanding and confidence first.

Most often I find that when a horse is understanding your requests, you will have earned his respect. When you have helped to build, and not destroy, his confidence, you will have earned his respect. But there are times when a horse is simply disrespectful. Typically, disrespect is taught, so rather than talking about what respect is or isn’t, I’d like to talk about how to preserve the respect that is usually in there to begin with.

Let’s say, for sake of example, that you are on the ground and moving a loose horse around an arena or corral. Your horse is trotting around going in one direction and you want him to change direction and go the other way around the corral. If you step up toward your horse’s front end to turn him and you are successful (in other words, he turns), then you have promoted that respectful, understanding response. If you step up there, though, and you are in the wrong position or you don’t do enough to convince the horse to turn around and he continues on, you have taught him to be disrespectful. You have told him, “When I step up here and ask you to turn, just ignore me and keep going the same way.”

If you don’t follow through with your requests so that the horse does what you have asked, you have taught him that he doesn’t need to do what you ask. And that’s a good definition of disrespect, if you ask me. So we need to always be sure that when we ask a horse to do something we follow through so that he does it. Whether it is turning in a corral, following the feel of your lead rope, moving over when you ask, making changes in gait, whatever it is, you are always teaching your horse to either do what you ask or not do what you ask.

Ultimately, the easiest formula to preserve your horse’s respect for you as a leader is FOLLOW THROUGH. If you ask him to do something, follow through to see that he does it. If you let him walk past you when you ask him to stop, if you let him just stand there when you ask him to move, if you don’t follow through with any request you have, or wait for him to find the right answer, you are teaching your horse to just ignore your requests and disrespect you. Be sure to keep in mind that I’m not saying force, rush, or punish. Give your horse time to understand, and don’t try to push too far past his confidence level, but follow through so that you are getting what you are asking for and you will have gained your horse’s respect.


On the balance of the troubles that I see between horse and rider, pain is typically least in occurrence, but it does happen. Saddles are typically made to fit better today than they were in years past, and riders and handlers are more educated about tack fit and adjustment, but there are still occasions when a saddle or bridle will fit so poorly as to keep a horse from doing what we ask, or even confusing the horse (which takes us back to understanding). Things such as teeth troubles, a sore back, hoof problems, and other things will cause pain for a horse and you could start to see training and behavior problems.

Pain is usually pretty obvious if you are taking the time to look over and listen to your horse. If you have understanding, confidence, and respect, pain is a possible reason for not getting what you ask for from a horse. Many times, it is even expected pain, rather than actual pain, that will cause problems for a horse. A head-shy horse, for example, is expecting to get hit or hurt in some way. It may have been a long time ago that he was slapped or hit for something, but he would carry that along with him until he learns that the pain won’t happen (it could also be argued that this would be fear, rather than pain).

So head out to the barn and visit with your horse. Take into consideration some of the things that we’ve talked about here. If troubles come up, think about what might be causing them. Is it really disrespect, like many folks would want to have you think? Or could it truly be a breakdown in communication or understanding? Maybe it’s a confidence issue, and your horse really is afraid of the water puddle or tarp? Be sure to check and rule out the chance that pain is an issue.

How you decide to handle troubles and challenges is up to you, but I can promise that if you want a solid foundation and a dependable, confident horse you will achieve it much faster if you work on the clarity of your communication and on building your horse’s confidence, instead of just expecting the horse to figure you out.

Don’t be a ‘Napoleon’ and think more of yourself than your horse does… be humble and open to new ideas. Don’t try to rush your horse and make things go your way… give your horse time to gain confidence and understanding. Above all else, remember that we are all on a journey to becoming a horseman (or horsewoman)… enjoy the journey!

For additional information on Patrick King as well as his training and clinic schedule, go to http://www.PKColtStarting.com or give him a call at 724-859-8558.


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