If your horse keeps saying no, you are either asking the wrong question or you are asking the question in the wrong way
Jossy Reynvoet, lizensed Bent Branderup Trainer from Belgiums know how to communicate with horses – especially by using body language. We speak “human” and horses speak “horse” – how can horses still understand us?
The perfect understanding…
Jossy: I am not sure if it is that easy for a horse to understand us. The first step for us riders is to build up a good connection to the horse and to learn more about their language. The more we focus on the horse`s communication the more we learn how to develop a body language. This way humans and equine start “talking” to each other and develop a better connection. If you want to really bond with your horse, learn how to “bodytalk”.
And why do we have so many difficulties to understand our horses?
Jossy: Our nature is different from the horses. We are predators, they are flight animals. We are used to walk or resolve problems in direct lines, we want quick answers and quick reactions. Horses are quick indeed, but quick on their flight from us. When we need protection, we gather together and come closer, but horses would run away to save themselves. We really need to understand the nature of the horse otherwhise we will never be able to interpret the horse’s behavour correctly. And that is why horses have so many difficulties to understand us as well.
Our main problem is humanity. Of course we think and act like humans, which is different for a horse. For horses it is that simple: They like you or they don’t. The way they show it among themselves is very simple.
We are the complete opposite: We spend much time on focusing and reflecting about our own feelings. But our own feelings do not represent the horse’s needs and feelings. It is often a circle of misinterpretation.
So we should focus more on body language. What are the most important elements of body language?
Jossy: That is a good question. I have been working on this subject for many years. I already mentioned that the horse is a flight animal – so the first thing we do is to make it stop.
If you can do a full halt with your body language, the first step of a good connection to the horse is achieved. If you can tell the horse to stand still it will learn to focus on you and listen to what you have to say.
Sounds easy but it isn’t if you are not really aware of your body. We always “do” something. We are intelligent, we have feelings and instincts but sometimes we are not aware what we are really doing and what we really are. If you talk to a horse it is important that you are “really there” in the moment. The horse is like a mirror. You might think you stand still but the horse still moves. The reason? You were not present in the now and you were not really relaxed enough.
After those first steps – or better said halts – we can start focusing on our aids. We have a direct hand and an indirect hand. The direct hand is in contact with the horse’s head, holding a rope for example.
The direct hand can support your body core and your body language. You can communicate with the hind legs by using the direct hand for example.
Another important point in body language is the intention line: It is the parallel line between horse and human and it is your point of weight that “gives information” to the horse. Intention line for example means: You made up your decision about your walk through the riding arena. The horse shall not pass or cross your intention line. Watch two horses of the herd – one stopping the other when walking to the hey. Intention line means to stop the horse and to “save your path”. Parallel line means walking together with the horse. Of course you can look once at the horse, but I advice my pupils to feel the horse and to work on their awareness.
If you are always looking at your horse you are always in its personal space. Horses feel more comfortable when you are not so focused on them.
The point of weight is another important element. If you move your stomach forward, your horse should mirror the same movement. So on the parallel line, mirroring each other we can turn by using our body. We can go backwards, we can collect and ask for more forward down, control rhythm and tempo. I can ask my horses to do a piaffe or to canter as well. Show the movement with your own body and explain to the horse how to do it. If I show trot to my horses, I do the trot myself.If my steps are more on the place and my point of weight is more backwards, trot will become collected till we have a nice piaffe.
You should learn all these things first on the ground. This way it will be easier with the riding too. It feels wonderful to be together and to watch the horse following your ideas without any physical connection.
You said: without physical connection. Why do we need ropes, whips or other materials to communicate with the horse?
Jossy: The whip is important to touch body parts and to explain movement. It is more like a longer arm for me. Reins and whips are more important for optical communication. There are optical and physical aids and of course there is your voice. The better all three aids work together and the better you can separate them, the better is the communication between rider and horse.
If we talk about optical aids I really need to mention the importance of your legs. Our heels mirror the hindlegs of the horse, our toes mirror the frontlegs. On the Parallel line we can ask for canter, transistions to trot and collection or sidemovements only by using heels and toes.
Physical aids are the connection from groundwork to riding.
Halter, bridle, rope we seldom work our horses freely. How can we get better at this?
Jossy: Of course I never start to ride my horses freely. First we have to develop a good connection on the ground. Later I ride the horses bitless. Also in this training we need a full halt and a horse that can stand still. It is necessary that I can ride all gates in a relaxed shape. If I need reins in the basic to keep my horse with me, I have no real connection to the flight animal. After getting used to the bitless bridle – the cavesal – I would use a neckrope and combine them. I do a lot of work in standing and I walk when I explain the riding aids to a horse. Progressing in time you use less an less aids and then you can ride without anything.
And when you work liberty on the ground?
Jossy: The first connection is build up in the roundpen with the horse. The horse gets direction from the outside and also for the human pupil it is easier to be aware of your own body in the roundpen. And again: the first thing we teach is the halt by using our intention line. Then we start to use our point of weight.
How do you start training the young horse? With liberty work, or do you work with cavesal or cavceon right from the beginning?
Jossy: I like to use the cavesal for the young horse. But I am not too busy to place the horses head. Relaxation and feeling comfortable is the first goal. Later in the groundwork I teach the horse to use its body. Groundwork should prepare the horse to become a riding horse. Therefore we need some gymnastic like side movements and the rider must be able to feel the reactions of the spine with his hand.
There are three steps in the beginning. First I move the horse’s head without moving the shoulders or hindquarters. The horse has to know that moving the skull is something separate. Then we move only the horse’s shoulders and then the hindquarter. This way I can prevent the horse from moving shoulders and hindquarter together.
What are the most important aids you can give with your body?
Jossy: The parallel line is one of the best tools. When you and your horse are moving next to a wall and your body turns away from the wall – you will get a shoulder in. If you turn towards the wall again: quarter in. You also need to use heels and toes to give direction of movement.
And when you want to leave the wall?
Jossy: The aids are exactly the same. Just go on the diagonal with your horse and turn to the horse’s neck – you will get a quarter in again.
And when we are lunging?
Jossy: You use the body language as well. By improving your level of body language you will improve the level of communication and you will raise the level of fun you have.
How can you play with energy?
Jossy: It is quite easy. Play with your horse. Run with it in freedom. Be enthusiastic and happy. When you do this often, the horse will be more outgoing with its energy. You can click with your tongue or send a kiss…then you will get trot and canter. Use your voice for transitions. When you stand still and do not speak the horse will be more focused on you.
But do you stay still or do you mirror the horse?
Jossy: When I really train voice communication I stand still. The horse has to learn one sign of my voice and it has to continue for example to do trot. It is a good way to train energy. You feel the connection which is really great. When you want to raise the energy up to collection, you can also use the voice but then you must add your body language and play with your point of weight. For more collection you go more backwards.
When the horse reacts, what feedback do you give?
Jossy: I become neutral with my body language. It is also important to give the horse comfort while it is moving. Get neutral and then give him a goodie.
The problem with communication is: You cannot stop. You always communicate through your body. And horses will always react to it. Always.
I know your lessons are loaded with energy You seem to never become tired of teaching. In September you will come back to Graz and I am happy to welcome you on the 24th and 25th of September. Everybody who is interested in the clinic with jossy can find the information on my website.
Jossy: I am really looking forward too 🙂