When a horse pulls back, the first thing someone does is yell “Whoa boy, whoa”. When a horse bucks or takes fright you hear the same thing, “Whoa, boy, whoa”. When a horse falls or becomes tangled in a fence, you hear it again, “Whoa, whoa, settle down”. You’ve probably heard this a thousand times. Maybe you’ve even said it yourself.
My father often told the story of a milk-cart horse from the Fresh Food and Ice Company. She was used to deliver milk around Sydney during World War 11. The mare had been in a couple of accidents, where cars collided with her and the cart. During the drama of these accidents, someone invariably yelled “Whoa girl, whoa”, while they tried to untangle the mess.
The mare was terrified of cars and became unreliable in traffic, so she was sent to the company’s dairy farm at Picton, where my grandfather was manager. Every time the mare heard someone say “Whoa girl, whoa”, she’d panic and bolt. No doubt she thought that yet another car was coming to collide with her. “Whoa girl” terrified the mare. She thought “Here we go again. Here comes another car to crash into me.”
Years ago, I was at a leading thoroughbred stud when the brood mares were run in to have their feet trimmed. One of the best bred mares was blind. She was confident and got along quite well out in the paddock with the other mares. When it came time to catch the blind mare, one of the grooms immediately started with “Whoa girl, whoa, we won’t hurt you.” The mare immediately panicked. Though she couldn’t see what was going on, the mare knew that something bad happened every time she heard that noise. The mare immediately panicked because she expected a drama.
In each of these situations, what the humans meant and what the horses heard were two completely different things. The humans thought they were being calming and reassuring during a stressful situation. The horses thought that the humans were warning of a traumatic event that was about to occur.
The humans thought they were telling the horses that everything was ok. The horses thought the humans were telling them that they were in for another frightening experience.
People often argue that the tone of your voice will calm a horse, in the same way that your voice calms a nervous child. I disagree. Horses aren’t children, they’re horses. The sound of your voice may calm a child but that’s got absolutely nothing to do with horses. When a horse is nervous and worried, your voice gives him something else to worry about.
When things go wrong, don’t ever say “Whoa boy”, “steady boy”, “easy now” or anything else. You must remain silent at all times when you work with your horse.
Yes, you can teach a horse verbal commands but that’s a totally different thing to working with a nervous, worried horse.
I often read of people who say they speak the language of the horse. Good luck to them, I guess. When you hear your horse speaking back to you however, I think it’s time to seek medical help.
Read more on this subject here: www.fearfreehorsetraining.com/blog/don-t-put-human-values-onto-horses