Horses ways of communicating thru body language is often described in a very simple form, meaning that all they can tell us is to give vague clues about their present mood, like whether they are angry, challenging, satisfied, at rest, curious, expectant, fearful, submissive and uncertain.
Horses living in social structures close to those of free roaming wild horses depend on a very advanced language. The Nokota horses in North Dakota have been doing so for many, many generations. The interaction, not only within a band of wild horses in all of its complicated social structures, but also in their awareness of a natural environment of seasons, food and water resources, predators, shelter etcetera, draws the importance of communication to an edge. No horse is able to stay under the protection of a wild horse band for very long if she do not follow the common rules of behaviour set up by generations of free roaming horses.
Their language is precise, distinct and most often subtle and quietly, elusive to mankind and far beyond our present knowledge.
The average domesticated horses, whose past hundred generations have lived in captivity out of the social structure of a herd has, in the best of cases, developed another language adapted to the domesticated way of life. It is however not an unlikely scenario that their ability to use any language at all, is substantially lost. Many horses are restricted to stalls or boxes most of their time, sometimes given a few hours in small individual outdoor corrals. There is only a need for a very simple basic language among these horses. The communication between horse and rider is traditionally a one-way-communication and the horse quickly learns not to question their trainer’s orders.
The reason these horses are kept in individual stalls and corrals, according to their owners, is to avoid fights and injuries, which is perfectly logical and correct since these horses do not know how to communicate; the risk of horses misunderstanding each other’s actions is eminent. Just like medieval convicts kept in dungeons for decades, the domesticated horses eventually lose their language and become emotionless and traumatized, unable to function as individuals, much less within a social structure. Some call such a horse mean or evil, which is not entirely true.
Ever since the horse was first domesticated, several thousands of years ago, mankind has been breeding horses for its own purposes; meaning towards a horse that is submissive to our needs. But isn’t that what most horse owners still want; a horse who performs exactly as one wants, whenever one asks? What’s the use for a saddle horse to know the “wild horse lingo”, it only makes them confused when trying to learn their job, doesn’t it? For many horse trainers a wild horse is a nightmare to train; they seem stubborn and elusive!
A wild horse breed like the Nokota horse has kept its advanced language skills. They have an open mind, they are curious to figure you out, eager to learn. They want a two way communication. These horses are good at language; it’s as simple as that. Besides, they are strong and extremely agile. Maybe this is what the 21st century human ought to be looking for in a horse.
I think this is the most important lesson our very short but intense experience of Nokota horses has taught us. It is in good agreement with something said by Frank or Leo Kuntz, I’ve read or heard somewhere, which states that some very skilled horse trainers have failed with Nokota horses, just because they used a traditional but wrong approach.
A fundamental and common truth in horse training is that a horse must learn to submit to, or back away from, pressure. Once that is accepted a horse learns fast. It implies that the horse surrenders to your will.
(We must however acknowledge that in european culture once this wrongly seemed to be the only purpose of the horse; to serve us, as what we today might call a truck or a four wheeler. Today many of us have the privilege to own and work with horses by free choice, a gift we must nurture.)
Nokota horses do not like the concept of surrender and they do not react well to domination or abuse. A Nokota horse must be honestly convinced, fair enough.
They are perfectly aware of that their own social intelligence is not subordinate to ours and they can tell if a human is trying to fool them. The only true way to approach a Nokota horse is to be completely honest. Only then will they listen and together you can work towards a common goal. Take turns in being the leader, make a suggestion then let your horse show you an alternative, maybe she knows a better way than you do. Domination will not bring you to where you want to be.
Our three Nokota horses make up a very good team. Bluebell Star came to us as a three year old mare, very familiar with the Nokota language. Wild Prairie Rose, the filly who came to us freshly weaned from her mother, the extremely wild lead mare Lucky Dust. Windflower Dancer was the yearling to fill in the gap, she became a playmate for Rosie, as well as good friend for Bluebell when she felt a need to indulge in more grown up conversations, mare to mare. Together all three of them has grown into very good friends of ours and together we have learnt a lot.
The only problem is that when you reach this point you begin to dream of more Nokota horses and bigger pastures. You want to emphasize the importance of their language by providing a complete band for them, including stallions, mares with foals and yearlings. Let the young fillies and colts form alliances early in their childhood, let them learn the Nokota language by older mares and stallions to carry the Nokota traditions into the future. Dreams may come true if you really believe in them.
If you want to support wild horses and the efforts to preserve the Nokota horse and help them create a future reserve visit the non-profit organisation: The Nokota Horse Conservancy and consider becoming a member. The horses need you!