Blabbermouth voice commands should be used with care warns Clinton Anderson.

I don’t encourage people to use a lot of voice commands, especially when they first start working with horses. It’s far more important to develop an awareness of your body language and learn how to communicate with your horse though this.


As a general rule, people who use a lot of verbal cues with horses have a tendency to have pretty poor body language and tend to nag their horses. Let me give you an example. Often I’ll see people at a horse show trying to get their horses to canter on a lunge line. They’ll point and say, ‘Canter, canter now.’ The horse ignores them so they repeat the cue to him, ‘Come on, canter. Why won’t you canter? Canter, canter, canter!’ They say the word canter so many times that it means absolutely nothing to the horse. They basically wear the word out so much that it has no meaning.

It’s like the little boy who cried wolf. He cried wolf so many times that when a wolf finally did show up, nobody believed him. Well, that’s the same problem people have with voice commands. They use the command and water it down so that it has no effect.

If I were going to teach a horse to canter off a verbal command, I would say canter once in a very firm, clear voice. If he didn’t canter, I’d pick up my stick and string and spank the ground behind him. If he still didn’t canter, I’d flick his hindquarters with the stick and string. If he still didn’t canter, I’d continue to flick his hindquarters harder until I made him feel so uncomfortable that he decided to canter. I’d use the voice command as plan A, spanking the ground as plan B, flicking him as plan C and flicking him harder as plan D, E, F, etc. I would make it easy for the horse to do the right thing and then I would make it harder and harder for him to ignore me until he chose to respond.

It’s the same thing that a broodmare does out in the pasture. She doesn’t immediately start kicking the other horse as hard as she possibly can. She goes in with a plan and gradually makes it more uncomfortable for the other horse to ignore her. Most people who use voice commands have the same plan A, but they don’t have a plan B, C or D. Every time you say a voice command and you don’t get a reaction, but you continue to use it, you’re teaching the horse to ignore that command.

The only voice commands I use are ‘whoa’ to stop and ‘cluck’ to speed up. Clucking means whatever you’re doing, do it faster. If I’m backing the horse up and I start clucking, it means back up faster. If the horse is side passing and I start clucking, it means side pass faster. Clucking doesn’t necessarily mean go forward, it means whatever you’re doing now, do it a lot faster. Those are the only two voice commands I encourage people to use. That doesn’t mean that I have a problem with people wanting to talk to their horses to soothe them when they’re rubbing them as a reward. But I do have a problem with people talking to their horses constantly to try to get the horse to do something. I want you to effectively communicate with your horse so that you can accomplish your goals and stay safe while doing it.

Setting Boundaries

In 2005, I left a busy career on the trading floor of an investment bank and began training as a psychotherapist, helping human beings to increase their sense of choice in the world. Around the same time, I discovered the work of Monty Roberts, the internationally acclaimed ‘horse whisperer,’ famous for ‘joining-up’ with a wild Mustang in the Nevada desert. Setting BoundariesJust as in human psychotherapy, there are many forms of training in the horse world yet from the beginning I could see a connection between what I was learning in the psychotherapy training room and the Monty Roberts method of horsemanship. This made me think how the skills of horsemanship align with those of an effective psychotherapist. I start with a skill I believe is key to both professions - setting and maintaining boundaries.

Just as with human facilitators, good horse handlers know that negotiating the terms of the contract with their horse in the early stages of the relationship will mean an easier time in the long run. If we don’t do this consciously, then chances are a vacuum sets in and the horse may feel the need to fill it. With more challenging horses, just as with more challenging human clients, the terms of the contract are constantly being negotiated and boundaries are continuously being defined and redefined. Sometimes, this is the very essence of the work.

I recently worked with a horse called Bertie that didn’t like to stand at the mounting block. He would dart around, spinning his hind quarters away from it. There was no way you could mount him when he was in this state of mind; so I helped his owner to work with him on this problem. At first, she gave him the freedom to explore his options, which in this case was backing up. She allowed him to find out for himself where her boundaries were by making it uncomfortable when he backed up. She did this by taking the lead on the manoeuvre, backing him up further until she decided to stop. She also made it comfortable when he stood still by giving him a rub, slackening the lead rope and not asking anything else from him. Timing and consistency are everything.

Through these stages, they created a contract where they both win by fulfilling each of their obligations to each other. In three days, Bertie was mounting beautifully even in busy showlike environments.

For psychotherapeutic work with people, the skills required are very similar. I once worked with a young girl whose family was suffering from extreme financial hardship. To begin with she presented as a polite, socially well adjusted, intelligent little girl. I thought I had been sent the wrong client. About half way through the year long programme, I began to get another part of her. This was a part that hadn’t been given much airtime until then. So when it did surface, it was infused with rage and expressed itself with physical violence. Just as Bertie’s owner and I allowed him to express himself, my job with the little girl was to create a space where the enraged part of her could show up in the room. To do this, I had to maintain what Carl Rogers (a founder of the humanistic approach to psychology) refers to as an ‘unconditional positive regard.’ However, I also had to be very clear that certain behaviours were unacceptable while she was experiencing this part of herself. Just as with some horses, she didn’t like the feeling of crossing over a boundary, but to find out where the boundary was she had to behave in a way that would test it. Through testing it, she could also find out whether I was consistent and whether she was safe or not.

In my experience, many horse ‘problems’ come from insecurity. Take Bertie – he wasn’t moving because he was deliberately seeing what he could get away with. He was unsure. No one had ever been clear and consistent enough with him to show him what was expected. Once he understood his end of the contract both the owner and I heard him breathe out a huge sigh of relief. Being ‘boundaried’ sounds simple but it isn’t always easy in practice - I think any mother will agree. Deciding early on where our own personal boundaries are; giving the client (human and horse) the freedom to discover where they are; finding a way of communicating our boundary in a way that feels right for you; responding in a timely fashion; and being consistent in that communication - these are all important skills in their own right.

Stand Still

A horse that won’t stand still can be maddening and sometimes unnerving. He circles, invades, pulls, even rears up, and a restless, restive horse can be dangerous. Some people may turn to methods to restrain the horse with hobbles, ties or even drugs but none of these quick fixes will make a horse want to stand. The answer lies in doing the exact opposite of what most people want to do. Stand StillWhen your horse refuses to stand still, instead of holding him tight and jerking on the halter, give him more rope and get him to move more! It’s called reverse psychology and it works. Give your horse at least four feet of rope then play what I call the ‘Driving Game'. This is basically sending your horse quickly from one side to the other. When a horse is full of adrenaline, holding him close makes him feel claustrophobic and panicky. Think about him out in the field - he may run if he is panicked but then he stops, assesses the danger but stands still. By giving him more rope, you stop aggravating his nervous energy and allow him to make a choice.

When a horse needs to move his feet, the more you try to stop him the worse it gets. So do the opposite - get him to move his feet faster than he wants and pretty soon the adrenaline comes down and all he wants to do is stand still. Oh, and don’t let him go in circles. The fact that he has to go back and forth faster than he wants to is the secret to this exercise. This can take a little time if it’s an extreme horse, but even though a few minutes might feel like an eternity to you it’s a drop in the bucket of time where a horse is concerned.

One of the common mantras of my approach to horse training is, ‘take the time it takes.’ So many people don’t take the time it takes to do things right and end up spending so much more time dealing with the horse’s problem on an ongoing basis. If you invest the time it takes to understand why your horse refuses to stand still and then do what it takes to naturally discharge the underlying cause, you’ll have a horse that stands still with no problem.