f you strive to better yourself and your relationship with horses, it’s important to be open-minded and never close yourself off to learning something new. While we often wish horses could talk to us, if we take the time to listen and learn how to speak their language, we can communicate with them on a deeper level.
No matter what breed or discipline you may ride, it all comes down to the very basic understanding of horses. Horses speak the same language regardless if they are wild Mustangs galloping the plains of Utah, Thoroughbreds on the track in Kentucky, or Warmbloods performing the piaffe at the Olympic Games. It’s people who make things difficult for horses, and that’s where this story begins.
Sitting in a tidy barn on a hot morning in Georgia, Zorik Michaeli takes a break from his chores to sit and reflect. You can tell he is comfortable in his own skin with his relaxed posture and trademark grin, not to the point of arrogance, but rather at peace with himself and his surroundings. “I love what I do,” he says with a thick Israeli accent, “and I believe the horses know this.”
Born in Jerusalem and growing up in Golan Heights, Zorik had an early fascination with horses. He loved to ride and observe the way horses use their body to communicate with other horses and riders of all types — in the competitive world, ranching, and pleasure riding. Zorik built a successful reining ranch with his family and had as many as 40 prospects in training. When he had the opportunity to move to the U.S. and work among the best reiners and cattlemen in the world to further his education, he jumped at the offer. Today, he has a horsemanship training facility in Georgia. He is also a farrier.
Since I’ve met Zorik, I’ve been impressed with his ability to “speak horse.” Working with him and observing him, I’ve improved my own horsemanship skills, and my horses are also happy to work and learn. Here are five ways Zorik breaks down the language barrier to better communicate with horses — and we can, too.
1. Hold a Quiet, Slow Space
My curiosity about Zorik piqued while watching him shoe my Thoroughbreds. He was quiet with his body movements and kept a constant touch on the horses without restricting or pulling against them. I liked the way he picked up a leg and then placed it softly back on the ground, careful not to drop it. If a youngster resisted, I appreciated the way Zorik would hold the lead and follow with the horse rather than yank and become tighter against the halter. This kept stress levels at a minimum and mitigated potential drama.
2. Your Mood Matters
While he’s working, Zorik hums in a low-pitch tone. The horses enjoy it and lower their heads down, physically showing trust and relaxation. A positive experience for young Thoroughbreds (or any other breed) with the farrier is extremely important for their future welfare. A good experience will carry throughout their lives no matter the owner, while a bad experience is not only dangerous for handlers, but can evolve into other negative vices the horse will inherit. He also whistles whimsically while tacking horses up, exuding a happy but relaxed energy to the horses and putting them in a receptive headspace for riding.
3. View Your Horse as a Blank Slate
Horses don’t know what they’re meant to be doing with their lives. Is it jumping? Is it playing polo? Is it racing? Or is it moving cattle on a ranch? No matter their job in the future, they’re all just horses and should be started in the same fashion — a systematic, steady program will guarantee them the chance of success and happiness for the rest of their lives, no matter their career.
“Some horses are naturally quiet and trusting while others require a soft touch and more time,” Zorik says. “I work a lot with Mustangs who have been caught, and they’re truly wild — but smart. At first they rely completely on their instincts from the prairie when they’re brought to me. There’s so much distrust and they look at me as a predator. So it’s my job to change the way they think, work from the ground, and earn their trust.
“If I do it correctly, I can get a lot accomplished in the first three days. There’s a lot of round pen work at first. This is how I would work with any breed, any age, and background.”
4. “Listen” to Your Horse
Young horses lack the mental capacity to focus and pay attention for extended periods. When working with a youngster, they need to build their concentration and learn to be in the moment. This is where horses resemble humans. Developing a focused and attentive horse will result in an animal that is less anxious. As riders, we must understand how a horse speaks through its body language.
“The ears, head carriage, breathing, and the eyes will all signal to you what the horse is feeling, and which side of the brain it is using. Sometimes it’s the left side and sometimes it’s the right side,” Zorik explains. “As riders, we want the horse to use 100% of it’s brain. I teach them with ground work on the lunge line, voice and body signals, and allowing them the chance to become familiar with each lesson through repetition.”
5. Create Confidence Through Repetition
Once in the saddle, practice upwards and downwards transitions while keeping the horse moving forward without restricting contact. “The only thing I want the horse to do is to focus and feel the position of my body weight, keeping a soft and following connection through the bridle and to be allowed to move freely forward at all gaits,” Zorik says.
Begin each session with a peaceful frame of mind. Keep the lesson quiet and simple so you encourage a positive response from the horse. Eventually, you’ll see and feel its body signals change with relaxed breathing. Increased focus and concentration grows from a positive experience and, therefore, since horses are creatures of habit, they will develop a more confident and peaceful mind.
“Riders should try to become more understanding of the horse they have. If they’d tune into what the horse is communicating, it would save a lot of time and aggravation,” Zorik says with a grin that never leaves his face.
“They want to please their human and horses want to be happy. With a quiet and calm mind, they will want to jump that fence or chase that cow. Yes, I come from far away and I ride in a Western saddle, but I speak their language. I speak horse.”
Photography by Leslie Threlkeld for NoelleFloyd.com.