Is silence golden?

From the beginning, I’ve chatted to my horses.  Put it down to a lonely kid finding friendship in a different species – but talking to my horses has always come naturally.  When I began showing, I quickly learned that verbal encouragement was not acceptable (I had a few -2 marks in my Dressage tests along the way).  So, I tried to learn to do my tests in silence – but continued my gab on the ground.

Then the Natural Horsemanship guys came on the scene, with their message that words had no meaning for horses.  Your voice was for a brief noise only, then mostly silence.  Anything else is just meaningless.  But is that true?

I remember well a lesson, decades ago, when I’d taken a couple of my students to ride with my own mentor.  One of them was a chatter box, largely from nerves, and had the habit of telling her horse how good he was every time he did something correctly.  “Good boy!” rang out many times in her lesson.  My mentor finally laughed and said “You might as well save your breath!  All that chatter is meaningless to him!”  I didn’t necessarily agree, but had no proof to the contrary – and Dressage was such a serious endeavor, after all – so I said nothing.

Along the way, I taught myself to find other ways to praise my horse – reaching down to give a quick stroke with my hand worked well.  A nice neck rub at the end of a ride seemed appreciated – as did a nice face rub when the bridle came off.  But it never completely curbed my habit of talking to them as if they understood. Does it work?  Or is it wasted breath?

A couple of years ago I read a study done on the affects of the human voice on horses.  The conclusion was that angry voices had an affect, but soothing voices did not.  I believe the conclusion as to why it was that way rested upon the nature of the horse as prey animal.  My conclusion was that the study was flawed – not because I want to believe that soft words work, but because I cannot see how one type of voice causes a reaction, and another type would not.  Then I read how they did the study …

It seems that they put horses into an enclosed arena, with no people present.  They then had disembodied voices sent through loud speakers into the area.  The scolding or angry voices caused increased heart rates, but the soothing voices caused no apparent change.  Soothing voices … through a loud speaker … does anyone else find a problem with that notion?  I have yet to find a loudspeaker that doesn’t cause a distortion in the best of voices.  And truly soothing tones are low – not something you can blast through a loudspeaker!  So, bag that study!  Someone please try one with real people, so we can have a real result.  I understand that they wanted to control for body language, but there has to be a better way to do that.

I continued to believe that soothing tones had to mean something, even though there are times when they cannot override a truly stressful situation.  But, even if it just made me feel better, and I had no scientific proof that it helped the horse, what’s the harm?  Then, one day I had my own, very unscientific, proof of the affect my voice can have.

I was lungeing Tally, in the first year of her recovery from the horrible trainer.  My mother was sitting at the edge of the arena watching.  Tally had been such an emotional wreck when she started back to work, that I had fallen into a near sing-song of soothing chatter.  I didn’t know if it helped, but it seemed the thing to do for an uptight horse – besides, it kept me from getting angry or crying at the clear psychological damage I was witnessing!

So, there I was saying soothing things to her, when my mother asked a question.  I don’t remember what it was, but something simple.  Thinking nothing of it, I began to answer her.  Tally, who’d been going around quietly at that point, suddenly became mildly unhinged.  Her stride became erratic, the circle was wavering, and her head went up on a stiffened neck.  Instinctively, I began my sing-song again – and she immediately went back to the relaxed stride she’d had.  I continued to answer my mother’s question, and the whole scenario repeated!  Curious, I chose another nice moment, and again spoke to my mother – again the mare lost her cool!  Science it may not be, but that was a sure sign that the tone of my voice had clear meaning for Tally!

Mom having words with Coffee. He appears to me to be listening intently.
Mom having words with Coffee. He appears to me to be listening intently.

So, I feel validated in continuing my one-sided conversations with my horse.  To a horse, they will all respond to a scolding tone by stopping the thing they are doing immediately.  Soothing tones often result in a “melting” moment, where a head is softly rested on my chest, asking for eye or ear rubs.  Why would one ever imagine that a sensitive, highly social animal would not respond to vocalizations, even if they don’t understand the words?

Now, to end on an ironic note.  That same mentor of mine, who derided my student for chattering to her horse all those years ago, has changed his tune!  At the in-hand conference I attended, earlier this year, he talked of the importance of voice in training horses.  Words are still not important, but tone is all important in his mind.  Imagine my inner chuckles as he actually derided handlers for not keeping up their sing-song to the horse as they worked it!  Even an old horseman can learn a new trick or two!

Be good to your horses … and be sure to talk to them!


2 thoughts on “Is silence golden?

  1. My first horse handling experience was with a man whose trekking horses lived our but got groomed for the day’s work in tight stalls where you’d often be forced to come up behind a horse. He said he expected everyone to talk gently and constantly around the horses so they could hear where you were.

    My other thought is that regardless of the direct effect on the horse, it does nervous people a lot of good to talk to the horse because it stops them holding their breath, which is a positive thing for the horse and the human.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Great points! I have had nervous students that I’ll chat with, while they ride, so they keep breathing! 🙂

      I’ve also found it useful for those students who treat the horse rather mechanically. Getting them to praise the horse, verbally, seems to get them to relate more to it as another being.


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