Horse Whisperer Training: Why It’s Rubbish

Horse Whisperer Training graphicSo you want to be a horse whisperer? You’ve watched the movie and you’ve read all the emotional guff about how gentle and connected you can be with your horse.

You’re all excited and you’ve found some online horse whisperer training or even better a real life trainer who promises to teach you these wonderful techniques.

Let me tell you why it’s all rubbish!

First up let’s explore where you are coming from and why we all love the notion that whispering to our horses is the way to go when bonding and training our equine friends.

I know many of my readers are women, not to exclude all you men, but it seems we as women have such a strong desire to mother our horses, to create a sacred bond with them that we forget that there needs to be equal doses of love, language and leadership (thank you to the Parelli’s for this fantastic phrase).

We latch on to the romantic notion conjured up by the film The Horse Whisperer, where a handsome Robert Redford is so connected to the traumatised horse that his mere presence and aura are enough to calm the damaged horse and turn him into a wonderful partner for the likewise traumatised girl.

Don’t get me wrong it’s a great movie, give it a watch when you need an afternoon at home on the couch. It tugs at the heartstrings and speaks to our emotional intelligence that there must be a better way than brute force or breaking a horses spirit to enable us to work with them.

And there is …. but it’s not horse whispering.

Let’s Listen First

Horse listening quoteYou might have heard the quote, which goes like this “We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.”

Credited to Epictetus, this quote couldn’t be more relevant to horses than if he’d said it from horseback.

Far more important than horse whispering is horse listening.

This is a skill which can be developed and in my opinion is one which you should concentrate all your efforts on.

The quote in the image is a great one to remind us all to listen to what our horses are saying whenever we are with them. The more you practice this the easier it gets.

I want to share with you a little story about my Bill. We had only just started our horsemanship journey, we’d done a few clinics and I was starting to get a better understanding of his horsenality and how to work with him not against him.

We were in a private flatwork lesson when a little dog ran into the arena. Bill is a Right Brain Extrovert (if you are not sure of the term check out my other blog here). To Bill, this sort of fast moving, small object coming straight for him is cause for great concern and in his mind it is always better to flee, as fast as possible, and ask questions later.

Because of the work we had been doing, and because I was listening to my horse I felt his first, ever so slight, bit of tension and the initial hesitation in his movement. He was asking me as plain as if he had spoken the words out loud “should we be worried about this?”.

Rather than leave, he was starting to trust that I was a valuable leader and that he could look to me for guidance rather than taking it upon himself to resolve the problem. He had given me the greatest gift, an opportunity to reassure him that I would keep him safe and that the little dog was indeed nothing to worry about.

You can not get this when you do not listen to your horse.

Don’t get me wrong, to get to this point with Bill, took many months and a great deal of trial and error on my part as I was learning at the same time. I didn’t just get on that morning and start listening to my horse and all was well.

Many riders would not have felt that slight hesitation in that split-second, they would not have heard their horse whisper, and before you know it the horse has had to scream at them by shying or bolting. This is what it means to hear your horse speak.

So where do you start?

Horses – The Window to your Soul

Horses are the most transparent animal you will ever have the privilege to know. They live in the moment and they do not tell any lies. They will tell you the truth if you will only listen.

Horse looking out windowMy apologies for all the sayings and quotes today but another one which is so relevant comes to mind here.

“Horses don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care”. Once again I think this is a Parelli quote, thanks Pat.

When you look at your horse, when you really look, you will see yourself and your intentions mirrored back to you. When I was at my wit’s end with Bill, when he was at his spookiest and a complete bundle of nerves, I had no idea that I was causing it.

Bill does not want to be a leader, but because I was doing such a poor job of it, he felt he had to step up and fill in the gaps.

This was a reflection of my skills and knowledge at the time. I was allowing behaviours to creep into our everyday interactions that were setting us up for failure.

By allowing him to come uninvited into my space, allowing him to frisk me for treats ever so gently (oh isn’t that sweet we all think), by simply not listening and then taking control when he showed the small braces where he was asking for direction, I was unintentionally telling him it was OK for him to be the boss and for him to dictate what was acceptable.

So he became more nervous, which in turn made me more nervous and the vicious cycle began. At this point once his actions became unacceptable to me, it had progressed way further than I had the knowledge or skills to correct. Which thankfully brought me to my current mentor and coach and changed my life with horses completely.

Understand though that if you allow your horse to choose you may not like their choices but they will always tell you first and give you the opportunity to steer them in the right direction. They are very obliging if we listen.

They need to know you care, but this doesn’t mean allowing them to walk all over you and for you to abdicate your responsibilities as the leader of your heard of two. You show your horse how much you care for him by being that strong and capable leader. Horses wish to follow but they will not follow a poor example.


I have written an entire blog on mindfulness and horses with some great exercise you can try – check it out here.

After I had done some groundwork with Jon this morning I was spending some non-demanding time with him, hanging out in the paddock while I finished my coffee. I was simply sharing his space, without asking anything of him. It didn’t matter if he was up the far end of the paddock grazing or standing with me, I was enjoying his company and allowing him to choose the distance between us.

Now I know this is going to sound contradictory, as I just said above that it is you who need to make the choices, but sometimes your horses DO get to choose and this is one of those times.

I think of leadership with horses as more like mentorship – it’s a 51% to 49% partnership (going your way of course). A mentor is someone who you look up to, who you trust to teach you correctly and who you respect. Wouldn’t that be a great way for your horse to look at you?

Horse and human grazingIt’s not a dictatorship where you make all the decisions all the time and shut your horse down whenever he tries to suggest something. If you are listening to your horse, he might just suggest something really good that you are happy to agree too.

I do this often when we go hand grazing. My horse gets to chose where we go, as long as he doesn’t pull on me and is respectful of my space he can choose which bits of grass he’d like to go to next.

I am his partner, and I practice my mindfulness while he grazes. I try to rid my mind of any thoughts or plans on what I am going to do next, what needs to be done at home or events of the past.

Give it a try – just graze with your horse, be present and enjoy his company and the interaction with nature, space and your friend.

Again trust him to do the right thing and you might just be surprised at how often he will.

By practising mindfulness with your horse, you can open your heart and your mind and spend time at peace with your horse, instead of always demanding they do what you want, how you want and when you want.

Next time you are with your horse quiet your mind (and your mouth) and see just how connected you can be.

Use the Phases

You need to put aside your reservations and trust your horse to do the right thing.

By using the accepted 4 phases of teaching a horse you can have a polite, quiet conversation with your horse.

Without it you Lady hugging horses neckwill either have a horse who tunes out and does not respond to you unless you are at phase 4 or you may end up with one that flips their lid even when you ask at phase 1.

If you have had to go to phase 4 to get the correct response from your horse, you must always go back to phase 1 to re-test. Give your horse the benefit of the doubt, trust that he has learnt the lesson and try asking again quietly at phase 1 and see what you get.

If you always ask at phase 4 you will have a horse that does not speak to you, they will either become shut down or become so difficult to handle that they become dangerous.

Your horse will not whisper to you if you continue to shout at him.

All 4 phases have their place in training your horse and are required to get to a place of asking lightly and politely and having your horse respond in the manner you want.

Once you achieve this you might just “feel” like the horse whisperer.

Be a Horse Listener Instead

I think the founders, and current masters, of natural horsemanship may well appear to be horse whisperers, in the vein of the media hype, but they were and are more horse listeners than whisperers.

Don’t waste your time and money on gimmicks that promote teaching you how to be a horse whisperer. Focus on sound horsemanship principles and become a solid leader for your horse, listen to what he has to say and respond as a firm but fair mentor and your horse will thank you for it.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on horse whispering. Have you tried any of the horse whisperer training and what did you think of it? Share your comments in the box below and of course if you think others might benefit from this blog please feel free to share on your social media sites.

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Horses are my passion. And while not everything in horses is black and white, and there are many choices you will need to make for your horse, I hope to explain things in a way that helps you make informed decisions, so you can provide the very best life to your horse.

  • Madeleine says:

    nice article 🙂 I remember that movie Horse Whisperer from many years ago and I also remember my disappointment with the way ‘horse whispering’ was presented. Very hollywoodish. I was also annoyed by the ‘Rhinestone Cowboy’. I too would sooner call it “horse listener’ or horse mindfullness. I use the same approach with any animal, whether it be horse, dog, cat, chicken or rabbit. Always watch the animals reactions and learn from them. Animals are willing to communicate with us humans, but are we listening?

    • Heidi says:

      Thanks for your comment Madeleine. Mindfulness with our horses is such a wonderful thing, you might like my blog on that too, you can access it here

      I truly believe every animal appreciates our time and presence if we can still our thoughts and give them the very best of us.

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