How to be a horse whisperer

There’s no mysticism involved. To build a beautiful friendship with your horse, you just need to know how to speak its language, writes Kim Dyson.

There is a wonderful process that Monty Roberts, the Californian horse trainer, calls Join Up. It’s the secret to creating a bond with your horse. In fact it allows you to become a “Horse Whisperer” by enabling you to “talk” to your horse. There’s nothing mystical about the process – you just apply simple rules to communicate with your horse in a way it understands. This language lets your horse know you are indeed worthy of trust and respect.

Many horses in this world live in fear, bullied into submission by cruel hands and gadgets. They’ll never reach their full potential as performance horses or companions. By using your body language to influence your horse’s movement, and to control it’s speed and direction, you’re setting up a firm foundation for how you’ll direct it later – under saddle in harness or in hand.Join up is a fantastic tool because the horse is free to make it’s own choice the whole time. You can’t force a horse to join up or stay with you – it’s with you because it wants to be.

The practice arena
To start this beautiful partnership, you need to find a suitable enclosure. It should be a safe round pen 15m in diameter. If you do not have a suitable area the corner of a field will do, but you’ll have to use poles to make it round. Horses tend to get “stuck” in the corners. It’s ideal if the pen is in a quiet place. This ensures that your horse will give you his undivided attention!

Sending away
The “sending away” is the most important part of join up. Horses will only trust and follow a strong leader – if the leader of the herd says we are moving then we are moving! If you can direct your horse’s movement then you are stronger and worth following. Your horse needs to move away from you without fear, but with purpose. It needs to take you seriously. Stare it square in the eyes when it’s moving away from you. Horses see this as aggressive behaviour. To make your horse move forward, raise your hands as if you are “rearing”. Sharp movements will tell your horse that you are serious. Just remember to always stay out of the kick zone.

Changing direction
Let your horse do about six rounds of the pen. Maintain aggressive eye contact, then jump in front of your horse and change its direction. This lets your horse know that you can control his speed and direction. By the time you change direction, the “flight distance” the horse would have in the wild would be used up, and your horse would either be free or a predator’s lunch. When you’ve put the pressure on, but the horse realises it has come to no harm, it will start to give you signs it wants to renegotiate the deal.

Invitation in
Step four is to invite the horse in. It’s essential that you adopt passive, friendly body language. Stand with one shoulder facing your horse and make yourself small quiet and kind. If your horse walks towards you, wait and let it come to you, then very gently rub his forehead. Once you’ve made contact you’ll find your horse may feel confident enough to follow you without the lead. The signal is ears locking in on you. If the ear closest to you is focused on you, it’s the equivalent of the horse putting out a hand for a handshake.

If the circles the horse is making around you get smaller, the horse is trying to get closer to you. Licking and chewing is a reversion to a behaviour foals use on their mothers or other more dominant horses – your horse is trying to say, “don’t hurt me”. Lowering of the head is a dramatic gesture saying “I submit.”You may now consider yourself a horse whisperer in training!