Evaluating a Horse's Vocabulary

Faith Meredith
by Faith Meredith
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When we work with very young children, we keep our vocabulary simple because their understanding of spoken language is limited. A two-year-old child's vocabulary is much smaller than that of a four-year-old or a seven-year old. But by the time that child becomes a teenager, his or her vocabulary will number in the thousands of words.

Similarly, you may be able to hold a sophisticated, highly nuanced conversation with someone in English. But if you switch to Spanish or French you may find yourself limited to asking for water or food or where the bathroom is because you lack a rich vocabulary.

Horses are the same. A young green horse has a much smaller "vocabulary" or understanding of what we are asking him to do through our aids than a seasoned 10-year-old campaigner. With horses, vocabulary size is not only a function of age but also of training level. An untrained 10-year-old horse might have a larger "on-the-ground" vocabulary than a two-year-old colt but put him under saddle and his vocabulary will not be any better.

Before you ride any horse for the first time, ask yourself what vocabulary you can reasonably expect this horse to understand based on any history you have available. This is particularly important if you are trying out a sale horse or beginning to work with a "problem" horse brought to you by a client. It is just as important if you are borrowing a friend's horse for a trail ride and want to judge how well you and the horse will be able to communicate. One of the goals of your first ride is to discover the range and the limits of the horse's vocabulary. That is the foundation you will have to build on as the two of you begin working together.

If the horse's previous training was based on cues rather than horse-logical rider pressures and the horse's previous handlers have not shared those cues with you, you may discover that the horse's vocabulary is somewhat limited. By cues, I mean that the horse was trained to perform a particular action based on some audible, visible or physical pressure that is not horse-logically related to the action you want. For example, the horse was trained to increase its gait when the rider raised the reins a little bit or clucked or kissed to it.

Cues are a vocabulary but they are a limited vocabulary because they do not form the foundation for other, related things we might ask the horse to do. They also cannot be modified in order to get a range of responses from the horse. Consider the horse trained to pick up a canter lead based on which shoulder or elbow the rider touches with a boot toe. That horse will pick up the correct lead at a particular pace and rhythm he's learned to associate with the cue. If the rider wants to slow or increase the horse's speed or extension, touching the horse's elbow again will not modify the cue in a way that tells the horse which option the rider wants. It is going to take a different cue - or even set of cues - to modify the horse's canter.

Compare that to the horse that has learned to respond to a vocabulary of horse-logical physical pressures that can be built on and modified as the horse's training progresses. The horse is constantly trying to stay in balance while carrying a rider and we take advantage of that fact in teaching our horse "vocabulary." For example, one of the horse's earliest lessons involves learning that the off balance feeling created in his body by a rider's leg pressure goes away if he moves his hind feet away from it. Then he learns how to respond to a corridor of leg pressures. If inside leg pressure asks him to move his hindquarters over but outside leg pressure does not allow that, he learns he can get back a feeling of balance by stepping up under himself a little more with his inside hind leg. Gradually, the rider shows the horse that different degrees of leg, within a corridor of leg pressures, dictate the degree to which the horse should step under himself.

As the rider adds weight aids and rein aids to the "leg vocabulary" the horse already understands, she becomes able to communicate with the horse in more and more complex sentence structures. They can spiral in and out staying "straight" on a circle at a walk, trot or canter, maintaining the rhythm and pace or varying it. At the canter, the horse understands that a certain "sentence" or combination of aids means the rider is asking for a canter on a particular lead at a particular pace, in a particular direction. And at any time, the rider can modify that canter request by modifying one or another of the "words" in that sentence the horse understands.

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© 1997-2010 Meredith Manor International Equestrian Centre. All rights reserved. Faith Meredith has successfully trained and competed through FEI levels of dressage during her more than 30 years as a horse professional. She currently coaches riders in dressage, reining, and eventing in her capacity as the Director of Meredith Manor International Equestrian Centre, an ACCET accredited equestrian educational institution.