Home : Horsemanship Essays by Franklin Levinson : Precision and Firmness - their relevance when communicating with horses


and their relevance when communicating with horses

I recently had a discussion with a friend who is professional instructor/trainer about the relevance of precision and firmness when communicating with, training and riding horses. I had asked if one was more important than the other. We both decided that precision in the ability to make clear requests and explicit communication with the horse was more important than being firm. Precision can exist without firmness. But firmness without precision and clarity in requests should not exist. Of course appropriate firmness is very important at the right time. Not making commands, but rather the ability to have good and steady resolve when precisely asking for something from our horses is very important. But if an error is made in the communication and the animal becomes confused and the human continues the firmness (force) in asking the horse to comply, frustration is created within the horse and the human alike. Frustration leads to angry feelings for the human and fear within the horse and unwanted, aberrant and potentially dangerous behavior by the horse is the result. Traditionally, methods of dealing with horses contain a lot of firmness, force and “show them who is boss” paradigms. There is little to no mention of clarity, wisdom, compassion or developed skill.
Precise Commands with horsesMany of us who spend time with horses have experienced resistance from the horse to comply with a request. Just as many of us have attempted to push the horse forward towards what we want the horse to do, despite the animal showing it is confused and afraid. Continued use of firmness, or outright force, when the animal does not understand the request creates more fear. The fact that we may have been lacking precision in our request and communication with the horse eludes us and is often not even considered. We rush to judge the horse as stubborn, willful, having its own mind (like that is supposed to be a bad thing) and intentionally going against our wishes and showing disrespect for us personally. This allows us humans to not take responsibility for what is happening with our horse. We can tend to make an unfulfilled request the fault of a bad horse and certainly not because of something lacking in our horsemanship, knowledge or skills. This is a sad but true fact everywhere in the world where humans are with horses, no matter what the activity.
My approach to training horses is very calm and quiet. I have said that watching me train a horse can be like watching grass grow.  Slow and steady gets it right for me. This calm, quiet approach helps me be a better and more precise communicator with the horse. Have you ever tried to have a conversation with someone who is speaking too fast? It’s not easy and can be a frustrating and confusing experience. As horses do not speak English and have a distinctive language of their own based on body language (posturing and spatial aspects), sounds, shared feelings (empathy and intuition) and developed trust, it is so very easy to have a miscommunication with a horse. It is simple to unintentionally confuse this flight prone animal and cause it to experience fear. Thus, extreme caution and awareness should be exercised when we apply firmness and repetition to requests we make of our horses to make certain the animal actually understands the request. It is very important to not rush to judge the horse as bad if we are not getting compliance. Horses want to comply with their good leader. They unfailingly follow the leader of their herd in the wild as this supports their survival. They move aside when that leader (lead mare) wishes to move through the herd. They willingly comply with any and all requests made by this good, herd leader. Her communication is always precise and clear and only extremely rarely does she need to apply any firmness to her requests, and then only to a youngster perhaps. The firmness applied by the leader of the herd in the wild more often takes the form of intention and resolve rather than firmness.
A good way to have consistently better communication with a horse is to ask for something small and easy at first, being as precise as possible. If the animal understands and tries to comply, and then immediately gets rewarded for its effort (release of all pressure), afterwards we can ask for a little more. Asking for too much too fast, with or without precision in the communication, is a common error humans make with horses. I think this is the cause of the majority of problems humans have with their equines. Additionally, the absence, of steady and consistent positive reinforcement (reward of short breaks from all pressure) is part of failed communication/interaction with a horse as well. Without the reward the horse doesn’t know it has done or tried to do as requested. The human’s communications then become an endless stream of frustrating feelings and fear for the horse. Without the consistent reward for its efforts at compliance the horse will always become confused, frustrated and, therefore, fearful.
Another word for precision in communication could be clarity. Obtaining clarity is very desirable in most anything. When confusion is present chaos can happen easily. Chaos creates a fearful situation not only for horses but for us humans as well. Clarity of what we want in our minds, before we ask for it, is certain to provide a better chance for a positive and successful outcome in all circumstances, especially when we ask for something from our horses. Often times we are not really certain of what we want to ask of a horse. We have more of a general feeling than a specific image. It’s like asking a human what they want in life. Some people will say just to be happy, which is rather vague. Others may say a great marriage or career which is more specific and sends a clearer communication to the listener. Another may say to be an author and write a bestseller. That is being very specific and precise. I think the clearer and more precise we can picture or think of what we want, the better chance we have of receiving it. I know that the more precise the request made of a horse, the less firmness is needed and the chances of the horse trying to provide the request are greatly enhanced.
The most successful trainers, equestrians (riders) and horse people I have seen strive to have their relationships with their horses to have these very significant elements (provided in order of importance): compassion, wisdom of horses (not opinions or projections of human behavior), learned and well-practiced skills (excellent and very clear communication), earned and developed trust. Personally, I feel the two most important things listed here are the first (compassion) and the last (trust). If compassion and developed trust are main factors in the relationship, the other elements seem to appear simultaneously.