Horse Training Tips - Your Voice

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The Voice - A Natural Aid

In horse riding, you have four natural aids and two artificial ones (whips and spurs).

The natural aids are hands, legs, seat...and voice. The voice is an important training tool (to the point where I won't ride if I have a cold and have completely lost my voice, or ride immediately after a dental appointment which involved numbing my mouth). In carriage driving, it is even more important, as the only natural aids you have available are hands and voice.

Learning to use your voice correctly is very important. Understanding how horse's hear and process sound, and how they vocalize, helps understand why the traditional uses of the voice are employed and also what not to do.

Do Horses Understand Words?

The traditional wisdom is no - horses only understand your tone of voice. Unlike dogs, horses will fairly readily accept a change in name, although many horses will come when called (not all, though).

More recent studies, however, have indicated that the traditional wisdom may be wrong. In fact, there is evidence that horses understand words better than dogs do and can remember command words even when they have not heard them for several years.

Of course, every riding school instructor knows that the traditional wisdom is wrong...every time she has to spell out a command or define a different word to mean canter to stop experienced schoolies from being 'voice controlled' by the instructor.

Equine Vocalizations

Horses vocalize in a number of ways. They are, in fact, very vocal creatures. Understanding the 'words' your horse use is important to understand what they are saying...but also to using your own voice correctly. Here are some horse noises and what they mean.

Groan - generally, horses groan when in pain, although some horses groan as a habit. A horse that groans with a specific rider may be complaining about something that rider is doing. (Habitual groaning in the stall can be a symptom of ulcers).

Nickering - a nicker is a call sign. If your horse nickers when you walk up, he's pleased to see you (or, at any rate, the treats in your pocket). It's a friendly sound. Notice that it is soft and low in pitch.

Snorting - a horse generally snorts when happy and relaxed...snorting under saddle is a good sign. A snort is low pitched and has a downward inflection.

Neighing - a neigh is 'attention' and 'look at me'. Horses neigh when excited, or when trying to find another horse (or a human). Sometimes, every horse in the barn will neigh when the horse trailer pulls in. Horses separated from their friends will 'call' to them. A neigh has an upward inflection.

Squeal - a squeal is very high pitched and is a sign of distress or anger. If a horse squeals at another horse, they are not happy with them.

Scream - if a horse screams it means aggression or pain...much the same as a human scream.

What do we learn from this? We learn that a high pitched sound means distress...a squeal or a scream. An upward inflection to the voice, to a horse, elevates the mood. A downward one relaxes. All of this can be used when talking to your horse.

Pitch

One of the big rules is never to use classic human baby talk with a horse. When a human (particularly a woman) 'baby talks', the pitch of her voice comes up. To us, a high pitched voice is childlike and unthreatening.

Horses only elevate the pitch of their voice when upset. So, if you 'squeak' around your horse, you sound as if you are either A. Mad with them or B. Afraid of something. Neither of those reactions are conducive to calm training.

I consider it important to talk in your normal tone of voice when chattering around or to your horse. Your horse will thus learn what your normal pitch is and be able to pick up on differences from it, which can then be used to make your commands more effective.

Horses also do learn to recognize the voices of specific humans - I have known horses come running to the gate when their owner walks in the yard talking to somebody else. However, I've also seen them run to the far end of the field if said somebody else is the vet...

Inflection and Rhythm

Commands should always be given with the correct inflection.

As a general rule of thumb, if you want your horse to speed up, use an upward inflection. If you want them to slow down, use a downward inflection. So 't-rot' can be said with an upward inflection when going from walk to trot, but a downward one if coming down from a canter.

Additionally, the command 'whoah' or 'ho' to slow down or stop is best given with a low starting pitch. Low sounds reassure horses - mares lower the pitch of their voice when vocalizing to their foals.

Speaking more slowly also reassures and encourages a 'slow down' reaction. Hence the traditional 'whoah' (a long sound) for stop. Another traditional command, 'hup', used to remind a horse to pick its hooves up over a jump is a short sound. These commands have been used for a very long time because they work with the way a horse's mind operates as far as vocal commands are concerned. In some parts of the world, clucking or clicking with the tongue is used to mean 'go faster'.

So, again, a fast rhythm and an upward inflection should be used for 'go faster', and a slow rhythm, downward inflection and lower pitch for 'slow down' or 'stop'.

When calling a horse in from the field, an upward inflection on the name is the best. Just as horses neigh with a slight upward inflection to get the attention of other horses, so an upward inflection will get the attention of the horse or horses. They do learn to recognize their own name. Many (although not all) horses can be taught to come to their name or a whistle.

Reassurance and Reward

A low pitch, again, reassures the horse. Once the horse knows what your normal pitch is, they will understand that you dropping the pitch of your voice means 'calm down'. Again, mares lower their voices to talk to their foals...this is a normal and natural thing that horses understand instinctively. If a horse is upset, then speaking to them in a low voice will help. With some horses, singing quietly, in the lower end of your range, can be very helpful.

Horses will also readily learn to understand 'good boy' or 'good girl' as a reward. A vocal reward is the easiest to give and as horses seek social gratification is very effective. I always give a good boy or good girl with a downward, reassuring inflection.

Correction

A verbal correction can also be effective, although you may have to pair it with a physical one. 'No' or 'Stop' are effective command words with most horses.

A verbal correction should be delivered with a slightly (but not excessively) raised pitch. If you raise the pitch too far, the horse might think you are afraid. It also helps to cut the word short...to speak 'sharply'.

Like all corrections, verbal corrections should be given immediately, if possible before the horse 'finishes' the offense.

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