Learning to Speak Horse
Anyone who reads my writing can tell that English is not my first language. It’s not my second language, either. It’s my third.
I grew up in Germany, where I learned to speak German without thinking about it, the way any child does. In high school, I learned English (and Latin, which does not really count, and French, which I never used). My teachers explained the rules of English grammar, correcting mistakes in red ink, assigning grades. I grew up in the 80s, so I also listened to a lot of Bruce Springsteen and the Dire Straits, realizing that my English did not help me understand the lyrics.
Im 1989, the day after I graduated from high school, I moved to Italy, without speaking a word of Italian. I found a job on a horse farm, where I cleaned lots of stalls and rode all the horses no one else wanted to ride. I had no time to go to school, but learned to speak Italian just by hearing it all around me, every day, needing to use it to survive. I remember the kindness of my co-workers, their encouragement, the extra time they took to help me understand, their efforts to not laugh at my pronounciation. I never once heard anyone criticize my grammar. Whenever anyone corrected me, it was done with a smile. No one ever told me “You are saying it all wrong!” though I did, of course, say most things all wrong, most of the time. But six months later, I spoke relatively fluent Italian. And decades later, I still have a grasp of the language. It comes back to me whenever I hear or read it.
In 1990, I moved to New Mexico, with nothing but a one-way ticket and the big dream of becoming a professional cowgirl. I went to work for a successful Quarter Horse trainer, cleaning lots of stalls and starting lots of colts. I thought at the time that my English was pretty decent, because my grades in school had always been good. I soon realized how wrong I was. Knowing the grammar did not help. My pronounciaton was terrible. I stumbled over every “th” sound and all the drawn-out vowels. I had to think so hard about the correct word order that I avoided speaking in complete sentences. But over time - years, decades - my English improved, along with my horsemanship. Today, I feel more comfortable speaking English than speaking German.
What does all this have to do with horses? Plenty. Learning to ride means learning to communicate with someone who speaks a very different language from our own. It involves both learning their language and teaching them ours. It means understanding what our horses are telling us, and, using that feedback, teaching the horse what our aids mean. Knowing the grammar - the underlying system of these aids - is important, but, while we have to play by the rules, we can’t expect our horses to know them. And before we try to teach them our language, we need to to listen to what they tell us. We need to take in what they are saying, without pressure or expectation, like I did when I came to Italy. We need to offer our horses room to experiment, where they are not afraid to make mistakes. When we do correct a mistake, we can’t get stuck in saying “This is wrong!” Instead, we need to get to a place where we say “Yes, this is right!” as quickly as possible. The feedback we offer needs to be kind, constructive, and without judgment. A horse who worries about making a mistake can’t learn.
I remember feeling completely lost, in both the English and the Italian language. I remember the waves of unfamiliar words and sounds crashing against me. I also remember the joy of wading in and learning to swim in that ocean - just like I remember the joy of learning to speak the language of the horse’s back with my back. If you’ve never learned a new language, please give it a try. You will come away with a better sense of what our horses need from us if we expect them to learn ours. We can make the ocean inviting for them. We can keep the waves small and the water warm. We owe them that much.