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  • Writer's pictureKatrin Silva

Words and Silence: Horse-Rider Conversations

Young Cami, taking her Western dressage test seriously.

I think of riding as communication, a dialogue between horse and and human. Just like in other conversations, sometimes both parties understand each other perfectly, sometimes less so. The type of tack a horse is wearing has nothing to do with the quality of that horse-rider conversation, but the style of riding does influence its tone. For example, Western riding is based on a working tradition, with practical goals like roping a steer or checking a fence. Horse and rider have to focus on something other than riding at least some of the time. Because of this, they have to trust each other without constantly checking in with each other. Here’s an example of a conversation I had last summer when I was on a trail ride with a friend on the ranch her husband manages. I was riding an old buckskin horse named Big’un who really knew the terrain, and his job:

He knows he's got a job to do.

“Hey, Big’un?”


“Let’s jog up that fence line.”


“Just follow Christina’s horse.”

“You silly person. I would have done that anyway.”

. . . . (ten minutes pass)

“Turn left.”


. . . . (time passes)

“Think we can lope for a while? Otherwise, it might get dark by the time we get home. ”

“Good idea. I was thinking the same thing.”


. . . . (time passes) . . .

“Whoa. Time for a walk break. Don’t want you to get home all sweaty.”

“It’s about time! Thank you”

. . .

You get the idea. Like the dialogue in an old Western movie, Western horse-rider communication uses few words and wastes none. Pauses in the conversation feel comfortable and don’t need to be filled with idle chatter. A good Western horse knows his job, and does not need constant reminders on how to do it. No talk is better than small talk because both conversation partners may have other things to worry about, like a rope or a cow, or even a simultaneous conversation with a friend on a relaxing trail ride.

OTTB Ivy, learning focus and other conversational skills.

In dressage, the opposite is true: riding happens for the sake of riding, not for any other, more practical reason. Horse and rider can focus exclusively on each other. Their conversation demands every bit of both partners’ attention, which is why there are more words, longer sentences, and fewer moments of silence. This is a conversation I had with a Quarter Horse named Houston I used to show at Second Level. Houston was always eager to please, but could be a bit of a worrywart when we entered at A:

Houston, the little plain Quarter Horse who tried so hard. Retired now, but never forgotten.

“Hey, are you listening to me?”

“What? Oh, sorry, I was daydreaming about that cute Andalusian mare I saw in the warm-up pen. Now I am.”

“Dude, it would never work out. She’s out of your league. Ready to trot up centerline?”

“Just a second . . . turn now? Now?”

“Ok, let’s go! . . . no, not like that. You’re shuffling. Pick up your hind feet!”

“Like this?”

“Yes, but don’t rush, either.”

“Ok, I get it. Like that?”

Yes, but don’t wiggle. Stay straight.”

“Geez, make up your mind. Like that?”

“Yes, thank you.“

“Well, hallelujah! Are you finally happy with my trot?”

“It’s great now, except we need to halt at X. Almost there, get ready!”

“Got it! Now?”

“Not yet . . . now!”

“Was that good? It was, wasn’t it? Please say it was good! ”

“Yes, it was, thank you, but your left hind foot is parked way out behind you. Bring it up, please.”

“Yeah, yeah . . . I think standing square is overrated, but whatever. Trot again? I know you want to! Can I? Can I?”

“Wait til I’m done saluting the judge!”

“Are you done yet? Hurry up, I want to trot!”

“Not quite . . . ok, now.”

“What’s next? Oh, wait, that judge looks scary. I don’t want to go that way!”

“Don’t be such a chicken! She won’t eat you.”

“She looks like she might!”

“Please move forward . . .” “No, I won’t!”

“ . . . or I’ll use my whip!”

“Ok, ok, I guess you’re right. She just looks scary. I’ll scoot by her booth and throw her a dirty look. That will show her.”

“Thank you! Ready for the shoulder-in?”

“Yes, you know this is my good direction. Like this?”

“A little more bend, come on, I know you can do it! No, not just your neck, that’s cheating.”

“I was hoping you wouldn’t notice. Ok, is that better?”

. . . and so on. Again, you get the idea.

Cinco, the Western horse . . .

In a conversation between a Western horse and his rider, words are few, but every word means something. The moments of silence in the dialogue can have a reassuring, confidence-boosting effect. On the other hand, too much silence and too many unsaid words can become a source of misunderstanding. When horse and rider don’t check in with each other often enough, communication can break down. Horses can stop listening to their riders, sometimes without their riders noticing, and just go on autopilot instead. In the conversation between a dressage horse and his rider, the opposite extreme is a bigger risk: Constant reminding, constant checking-in with the horse can easily turn into constant nagging. A horse quickly learns to tune out and ignore his rider’s signals, which leads to unwillingness and resistance. Micromanaging a horse does not build the kind of trust and respect we are all looking for. On the other hand, neither does disengaging.

. . .and Cinco, the dressage horse. Not so different after all.

Instead of thinking of Western and dressage as two completely different styles of horse-rider communication, I have learned to think of successful horse-rider communication as a sliding scale, with actual ranch work on one side and classical dressage practiced as an art form on the other. Both can work, but neither is right a hundred percent of the time. Good riders know when to talk, and when to shut up, but they also know that which they choose depends on the horse they’re on and the situation they’re in.

Working a gate is a useful skill for any horse - not just for obvious and practical reasons, but also because it fine-tunes communication.

There is no reason why horses can’t benefit from the best of both worlds. Every well-trained horse should be able to focus on his rider in the way a good dressage horse will, just because it feels so amazing when it’s right, which is about ten percent of the time if you’re lucky. But every good horse should also be able to go on a loose rein down a trail without constant reassurance from his rider. Similarly, every good rider should develop enough feel, timing, and coordination, along with enough mental focus, to have a subtle, polite, and ongoing conversation with her horse. On the other hand, every good rider should also have enough trust in the horse and enough mental discipline to leave the horse alone for a few strides or a few minutes. Trust, respect, and harmony can only develop in the interplay of words and silence, the lines of dialogue, and the deep breaths between them.

Ivy and I, taking a breather and stretching at the canter

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