Communicating with Horses: A Global Perspective

by Darley Newman. Originally published in True West magazine.

Everywhere I travel, someone has a different and sometimes a remarkable take on how to ride and how to communicate with horses. I always listen to what each person has to say about their horses before I mount up. People train their horses in different ways. Whether they cluck to get their horse to change gears or give a slight nudge with their legs or both, they are communicating what they want to their equine partner. Some people use more subtle cues, but no matter how different they seem, they all center on the same principles.

Kelly Sigler, who teaches a form of natural horsemanship created by communication guru Pat Parelli, can command her horse to slow down while riding bareback by exhaling and can tell her horse to move away by jiggling the lead line. On a recent trip to Texas, I met another equestrian who cued her horse to speed up by breathing out and slow down by stiffening up a bit in the saddle. All of these small cues tell me just how sensitive horses are and how attuned to us they can be. But as regular trail riders, how can we learn to speak horse language?

Horses may be thousand pound animals, but they are attuned to the little movements that we execute on their back, even with a saddle. In my hunter jumper lessons at home, I can tell my horse that we are about to turn by looking in the direction of where I want to go. Many good school horses will stop if they feel that their rider is off balance, thus protecting the rider from falling off. All of this tells me that horses are truly smart, amazing animals with heightened senses.

During a week at a working ranch in Arizona, I was introduced to a horse whisperer. This is someone who has an exceptional ability, some say a gift, to communicate with horses. I was hoping that this guru could help me become a better riding partner. Standing in a round pen and attempting to get my horse to come to me without hooking it to a lead line and pulling, I realized just how hard this can be. I was trying to let my horse know that I was the leader through my own confidence and telepathically willing him to move my way. Perhaps I wasn’t focused enough or was letting a little stress of something from the day affect me. Horses can sense all of this. On a trail ride, if one horse and rider get stressed the other horses and riders can begin to get stressed as well. You can see how much a rider’s solution to a situation can affect the other horses and riders.

I had wondered before my own round pen experience if the people who were able to get their horses to pair up with them, seemingly easily, were using some sort of secret trick. It seemed like the horses were simply trained to walk to them, that there was some cue. Some may be. After a few minutes of standing still, my horse, who I had only just met that week, slowly walked over and nuzzled my back. I felt a surge of confidence and a sense that I was learning to understand the horse’s mentality and how I fit into his picture.

Across the nation, people and places offer guidance in getting better acquainted with horses. At the Biltmore Estate, Kelly Sigler helps people understand how to communicate through the Parelli program and Pat Parelli tours the country to give his take on training. People like Koelle Simpson in Scottsdale, work to help riders better themselves and become leaders through horses with The Gift of Equus program. In Quebec, Jacques Robidas focuses on integrating wellness and centered riding into his horse approach. While recently riding with him, the horses and I both ate organic foods, learned to be more balanced in the saddle and worked to get into a Zen like calm state. This ensured we would have a stress free ride on the trails. Robidas and many other communicators feel that horses are our mirrors and react they way that we show them to react.

There are places all over the nation and around the world where you can travel to ride and be around horses, while learning a lot about yourself and enhancing your riding and communication skills. Many people subscribe to different ideas about the best way to train and be in touch with horses. What I’ve learned from my travels is that you can learn a little something from them all. As I strive to understand horses a bit more, I’m also achieving a better understanding of myself.

Purchase Equitrekking DVDs, the Equitrekking Travel Adventures on Horseback book and more at Learn about horseback riding adventure travel and book a trip at