Language and how we use it

I have been thinking a lot about language and our use of it. It’s remarkable how some people can ask us to do something or give us advice, and only succeed it making us dig our heels in! Other people seem brilliant at dolling out advice and never incurring anyone’s wrath.

Being able to give tactful advice, or feedback to others is a brilliant skill. It is learnable, so don’t despair if it is not one of your natural talents. Pay attention to who you take advice from. How do they convey their advice? Often it is not so much the words as the delivery of those words. The old “it’s not what you say but how you say it” springs to mind. Some people empowers us with their advice and others cut us down.

Language has the ability to build bridges or burn them. Be careful with your words. But consider the language with which we talk to our horses. Language doesn’t just encapsulate words, but body language, voice tone and many other subtle nuances. My dog trainer does a wonderful demonstration of training the recall. A flat, boring tone of voice, with dejected posture will never encourage the dog to return to you, whereas an enthusiastic, friendly tone, combined with an open and approachable posture will encourage the dog to recall.

All our interactions with our horses form our language. Are we cheerful and open? Or are we stressed and closed off? Our horses are reading this all the time. Every interaction not just our ridden work will have an effect on our bond with them. Our language will impact our relationship, so make sure your language conveys that right message. Animals are in general very forgiving, so they will forgive bad days and tense times, as long as the majority of your language is positive. Remember language matters, make sure you communicate from your heart…

Mind your words…

We all know the old saying, “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me,” and we all know it’s rubbish. Words don’t break your bones, but they can break parts of your soul, which is infinitely more precious than bones.

I was reflecting on this while considering how you give advice. Do you sail in stating exactly what someone should do, pointing out all the things they are doing wrong, or do you edge around the subject, never quite actually saying what you feel, or do you take the criticism sandwich approach and slide your advice inside two compliments.

I try to do the latter (emphasis on try!). I also try not to dole out unsolicited advice as there is nothing more annoying, other than when I believe it is necessary.

The other day two people said much the same thing to me but in entirely different ways. The first delivered in a heated discussion made me defensive, and closed. The second delivered kindly with empathy during a supportive conversation made me reflect upon my behaviour and see that point of view. It’s not what you say but how you say it…

So, if you see someone doing something with their horse that you think could be dangerous, or simply just not going to work, before you sail in all guns blazing consider how to approach it. For example someone is trying to load their horse on a slippy yard with lots of shouting. You could sail in with “don’t be stupid that’s not how you do it!” or you could say “horses that don’t load are really tricky, I had a horse that didn’t load, shall we help you move your trailer to an easier space and get some treats and stuff?”

You still might not get anywhere with the second approach, but you certainly increase your chances of having some chance of the person considering your suggestions.

So remember be careful with your words, for while they may not like sticks break bones, they can like arrows, wound.

Naughty or struggling? Can you tell the difference?

Our horses rarely wake up in the morning, and think “today I will be really naughty…today I will only canter on the left lead not the right lead.” This is a common issue that many of us face, and our perception of the problem is one of the key factors in helping to solve this issue.

When we train horses, we train them to accept and understand the aids that move us from trot into canter. When they are learning this can be difficult for them, as they have to work out the connection between our aids and our desired outcome. It is our job to give these aids clearly and consistently, with much praise for the correct response, so that our horses learn what we are asking for. Without praise, they won’t understand that they have done as we have asked. Praise can be verbal, or can be through the release of the aid.

When faced with a horse which will canter on the left, but not the right lead, we become frustrated. To us, in our logical human brains, we feel that the horse must be being “naughty” as we know full well that he understands and can carry out the action from trot to canter. However, it only takes some weakness, or stiffness in his body, to cause him to struggle with the transition on this rein. This imbalance in the body can be harder to pinpoint than a more obvious lameness, but it is up to us to work it out.

Horses can only communicate their pain, or distress through their actions, they have no other language. In general, they are incredibly stoic creatures who will try their very best despite the limitations of their bodies, or our, sometimes vague, aids. If your horse cannot do something that you ask of him, it is not a personal insult! He is simply trying to communicate with you, in the only manner that he knows how, and it is up to us to listen.

There are many exercises that you can do on the ground before you get anywhere near riding that will help you to listen to what he is trying to say to you. Can he bend his neck equally to both sides? There are many excellent resources available showing you how to do simple carrot stretches (beware of your fingers!). When turned in a tight circle do his hind legs step under to the same degree on both reins? Does he track up evenly when walked and trotted in-hand? Any difference on the left and right side in-hand will be likely to provide you with the key to why he is struggling with ridden work.

So, the next time you are feeling frustrated by apparent naughtiness in your horse’s behaviour, take a moment to stop. Take a moment to listen to your horse, and think about what he is trying to say. Our horses are always talking to us, when we take the time to listen, we might hear what they are trying to say.

Sue’s Standpoint

Guest blogger Sue Palmer talks about her new Patreon project.

Click here to find Sue on Patreon

Do you want to make a difference to horses throughout the world? Would you like to help owners and riders who are struggling? No horse wakes up in the morning and thinks “Today I’m going to be naughty. Today I’m going to be deliberately difficult.” What we see as ‘problem behaviour’ is the horse’s way of asking for help. I’d like to lead a conversation around pain in horses, and to search for the proof that pain affects performance. 


If you’re struggling to understand how pain affects our horses, how to explain this to others, or even how to persuade people that pain does affect horses, then I’m with you, and there are many others in the same boat. There’s a saying that ‘many roads lead to Rome’, and no matter which road you’re taking towards improving the welfare of the horse, you can be part of this conversation. I want to harness the power of numbers to raise awareness, in a way that no one individual can do on their own, of the fact that horses can only communicate pain or discomfort through their behaviour or performance, and that as owners, we can learn to recognise pain, and to find the right help for our horses. 


There are sore horses in every walk of life, from happy hacker to Olympic eventer, and their language is the same, no matter what their ‘job’ is. Every horse owner I’ve every met wants the best for their horse, whether that’s to enhance his life as a ‘field ornament’, or to compete successfully in 160km endurance rides. I have chosen Patreon to begin this discussion because I want a safe place to be myself, to share my thoughts, and to learn from others. Social media is no longer a safe place to do this as openly as I would like to, and my thinking is that because you choose to sign up to this page, we are all coming from the same place of wanting to share our knowledge and experience for the good of the horse. I’m not sure where this conversation will go, what it will lead to, but as the saying goes, ‘a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step’.


In 1986, Zimmerman described pain in animals as “an aversive sensory experience caused by actual or potential injury that elicits protective motor and vegetative reactions, results in learned avoidance and may modify species-specific behaviour, including social behaviour.” It is clear to me, and to many others, that horses modify their behaviour (and their performance) in response to pain. Yet on a day to day basis working as an ACPAT and RAMP registered Chartered Physiotherapist, I see examples of this behaviour modification being ignored or misunderstood, and this pains me. My other qualifications as a BHSAI (Stage 3 Coach In Complete Horsemanship) and Equine Behavioural Consultant (Intelligent Horsemanship Recommended Trainer) mean I’m ideally qualified to drive this discussion, and my passion for the subject brings me here.


I have a dream that one day a sore horse’s plea for help will be listened to, understood, and acted upon. 


I have a dream that one day, people will ask the right questions and search for the right answers, rather than try to extinguish a behaviour with force or violence.


I have a dream that one day, horse and rider will work together in harmony to overcome difficulties, rather than fighting each other.


I am lucky enough to be surrounded by a network of people who share these dreams, and have similar dreams of their own. The seeds of change have been planted, and they are growing throughout the world. To continue to grow, these seeds need ongoing care and attention. For these dreams to become reality, our horses need you and I to play an active part in the revolution. We must share our passion, our knowledge, our ideas and our experiences, for the love of the horse.

I see sore horses every day, and am extremely priveleged to be in a position to help them directly, but to reach more horses I need your help. That is why I have set up this page, in the belief that our shared compassion can create a better world for the horse. To lead change, you need to be the change, and our horses are reliant on us to step up to the challenge.


Above is the information on the opening page of my new project,  Sign up from just $1 per month to learn while I learn, as I share my knowledge on the research exclusively with my Patrons.


P.s. Please note that the amount is in American dollars because this is an American site.  I picked an American site because there isn’t the equivalent English site yet.  There are no extra bank charges for converting to English pounds, but the amount you pay will vary slightly each month depending on the exchange rate.  For example, if you pledge $1 per month, you will pay 76p this month, but next month it might be 74p or 78p.  Payment comes out on the 1st of each month.  I know this partly because it’s what Patreon say, and partly because I am already a Patron of The Horse’s Back, so I see my payment of $5 go out of PayPal on the 1st of each month.  I have given this information in response to initial concerns from a couple of people, please contact me directly if you have any other concerns.  Thanks 🙂


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