Riders often hear that we should be in a “dialogue with our horse,” but what does this really mean? Horses do not communicate with anything like the complex linguistic structures that humans have developed, though they do seem to have complex ways of communicating, which we can only superficially interpret. A large part of any training system is fundamentally about establishing a common language between horse and rider, so that the rider can give instructions to their horse and help them to carry out those instructions. However, I often see riders who have about five or six “words” in common with their horse trying to communicate with them in complex “sentences.” The result is like watching the cliched American trying to give directions to a foreigner who only knows a handful of English; when the foreigner is thoroughly confused, the American just keeps repeating the same directions only louder and louder.

So, the first element that we need to have in place in order to have a real conversation is a common language. Since we are mostly communicating directions to the horse, we can start by thinking in simple terms like “stop,” “go,” “back,” “turn left,” and “turn right,” which will get you pretty far in any discipline. However, in dressage, we also have a number of more complex instructions. There are five instructions that form the basis for most dressage movements, and those are: “reach into the bit contact softly and consistently,” “keep going forward energetically even though the bit is shortening your frame,” “stay in this particular gait, rhythm, and tempo” “stay evenly balanced and level through your body,” and “bring your haunches further under your body.” These five basics are refined and their level of difficulty increased as training progresses. As part of specific movements we might also ask for the following: “shift your weight back onto your haunches but keep moving,” “push your weight more forward from the haunches,” “bend laterally through your body,” and “move your body sideways.”

Just about everything we do in dressage is a combination of the basic directions and the more complex instructions. For example, shoulders-in is a combination of the five dressage basics plus “turn,” “bend through your body,” and “stop (continuing to turn).” Pirouette is again the five basics (minus “go forward”) plus “shift your weight back onto your haunches but keep moving,” “turn,” and “bend through your body.”

Horses do not come out of the box with an innate understanding of any of this, so it is important to make sure each element is understood individually before trying to combine them in complex ways. For example, a young horse making a downward transition first just needs to understand “stop.” Then we would add “reach into the bit contact consistently” while following the “stop” direction. As the horse progressed we would add “stay evenly balanced and level through your body,” and finally “bring your haunches further under your body.”

At any stage in a horse’s progress, they may become confused as the number of things we try to communicate increases, so when this happens it is important to go back and make sure each element is being understood separately. For example, as the horse is learning to stay level and balanced in a transition, we might sacrifice some of the immediacy of the stop response, which then has to be refined again. The important thing is that riders must always be clear in their own minds and bodies about which particular elements they are trying to communicate, and they must constantly be evaluating their horses’ response and understanding of each element. The less advanced the horse and/or rider is, the more simple the communication should be.

Thus far the conversation we’ve been talking about sounds rather one-sided, and to be honest, as the brains of the operation, the rider is the one who needs to be steering the conversation. What the rider needs to be listening for from the horse are primarily indications of whether the horse does or does not understand the rider, is or is not listening to the rider, and whether it finds what the rider is asking to be easy, difficult, or possibly uncomfortable to carry out. Because we are not fluent in horse, we are guessing about their language as much as they are guessing about ours. However, we have the benefit of being able to share our experiences over time, so we can make some fairly educated guesses. At a basic level, the communication we get back from the horse falls on a two-dimensional spectrum from compliance to non-compliance and from willing to resistant.

The challenge in interpreting the horse’s side of the conversation is that “non-compliance” can mean either the horse didn’t understand, did understand but is ignoring the request, or finds the request difficult/uncomfortable. The first of these circumstances is often overlooked in more advanced horses, because there is a greater assumption that the horse “knows” what the rider wants. As I have discussed, the more advanced a horse becomes, the more complex and numerous the signals are that we use to communicate with, therefore the easier it is for a horse to become confused. For example, even in something as basic as leg-yielding, I often see riders desperately squeezing away with their inside legs and outside reins, yet with no resulting sideways movement. This is because the horse is not getting the entire message about what to do; specifically, they are not being told in what direction to move. After all, a squeeze with the inside leg can mean “go,” “bend,” or “move sideways” in different contexts. In leg-yield, a slight rein indication is needed to send the shoulders in the right direction, and the rider must subtly shift their weight in the direction of travel — things that an experienced rider might do without even conscious thought. However, a horse that is newer to leg-yielding may not understand, and require parsing out the individual pieces of the exercise, such as teaching the horse to move away from the inside leg, to follow the rein, to understand the straightening aid of the outside rein, etc.

The knowledgeable horse being given the correct aids may still ignore the rider if it does not respect the rider’s leadership or if it is distracted by other higher concerns (like being asked to move towards the scary door). The rider who is not capable of correcting the horse towards the right response to their aids will not be respected, nor will riders who antagonize, give conflicting aids, or over-communicate with their horses. The hardest to distinguish can be the uncomfortable horse, because it takes an understanding of a horse’s knowledge base, combined with a knowledgeable rider to ascertain when a horse may have a real problem. Swishing tails, gnashing teeth, and uneven gaits can result from internal pain just as well as from a rider’s conflicting aids.

Note that I do not consider “doesn’t want to” as a valid interpretation of non-compliance. It is very important to remember that we are the ones with the desire to do dressage, not the horses. There may be horses who enjoy following our plans and pleasing their handlers, but that is not the same as having a desire to actively pursue the specific agenda of a dressage rider. However, horses do have their own agendas, which we can guess at when we know them well, and we have to figure out how to get those to mesh with our own, so that by sleight of hand we can create the illusion that they are getting what they want by following our desires.

For example, horses that are well-suited for higher level dressage should have a desire for energy release. Allowed to follow their own agenda, this could mean taking off running and bucking. This is clearly undesirable for a rider, so we have to close the door on that option, and open other doors that provide for energy release in a more controlled way, such as an extended trot or piaffe. Horses also typically have desires to feel safe, which riders can provide through calm, confident, predictable leadership, as well as keeping their horses feeling balanced (an unbalanced horse is more likely to fall and become lion fodder). Above all, we need to foster a desire for reward, which can be anything from a positive word, to a quick release and scritch on the neck, to a complete release and cessation of work. Much has been written by others about systems of training that create positive associations for animals, such as the clicker method, and those same principles can be employed to create reward words and actions to use while riding.

Some horses have a stronger attachment to their own agendas than others. They may have been left feral too long as young horses, or used as school horses with many inexperienced riders, or they may simply be bored with their situation and not getting enough energy released. For whatever reason, there are horses that will try to draw riders into their own form of conversation, which might be something like “hey, what’s behind that door?!” or “I’m not going in that corner!” These horses are like door-to-door sales people who come to your house and say, “I notice your home has older windows. Did you know that windows can account for 70% of a house’s heat loss?” If you respond by saying “my heating bills are low and the windows seem fine,” now they have you engaged in their conversation. “Did you know our company provides a free energy audit?” etc. Once they have you talking about their issue, they control the situation. Horses do the same thing, and it is very tempting for riders to take the bait. I have seen riders slowly coax horses into corners, feed them treats there, spend hours and hours trying to convince them “it’s okay” — or on the other hand, after getting frustrated at their stubbornness in spooking at nothing, yelling, kicking, circling over and over in the offending corner, and so on. All of these are ways that riders get drawn into a debate that can be avoided much in the same way that the salesperson can: by saying “thanks, I’m not interested” and closing the door. For the rider, this means not reacting to the horse’s preoccupation, and instead creating a program that will keep the horse occupied with the rider’s agenda.

To be a rider who is capable of engaging the horse in a productive conversation, there are certain skills one must develop. First of all, a stable position and independence of seat and aids are critical. The rider must be capable of eliminating the static that an insecure or stiff position can introduce into communications. Secondly, the rider must be aware of every aid they are giving, give each aid with clear intentions, evaluate the effect of each aid, and educate themselves and/or the horse when those aids are not having the desired effect. Finally, the rider must listen to their horse to determine how and when to introduce new conversational elements, while always building on the ones with which the horse is already familiar. Every rider may have their own unique “accent,” but with consistency and patience, the horse can learn to understand the language of dressage.