Thank you for asking the question regarding horses and how they process words and or sounds. Please be aware that I am fully in favor of all of the statements made by our online student, Kiki, below who took the Monty’s Challenge and sent her answer in. She gives us a fairly comprehensive answer, and I agree with each of the elements outlined in her answer. The only comments I would make to expand upon that answer is that there was no reference to diaphragmatic breathing. Diaphragmatic breathing is that practice whereby we can use that diaphragm (flat muscle separating lungs from intestines) which can extend by dropping down, an act which causes the thoracic cavity to become significantly enlarged.
Causing the area of the lungs to be larger does more than just allow for a greater volume of air. When this occurs, it automatically lengthens our vocal chords. Any singing, acting or speech coach will tell you that diaphragmatic breathing will lengthen the vocal chords, consequently enriching the quality of voice. Breathing high or raising the diaphragm will cause it to take on a dome shape. This shortens the vocal chords and reduces the volume of air. Adrenaline will automatically tend to cause the human anatomy to elevate the diaphragm.
Conversely the reduction of adrenaline will tend to cause the human anatomy to power the center of the diaphragm, creating the desired affect. It seems clear to me that the earliest riders learned to cause their horse to relax, stop and also to stand still when they said the word ‘Whoa.’ Horses will habituate to virtually any sound, so you could teach a horse to stop when you say, “YIKES!” But the word Yikes tends to cause the human to breath high in the chest which does not allow for diaphragmatic breathing. Your horse will eventually stop when you say Yikes! but he will habituate more successfully when you say Whoa!
Recently, I met a man named Dr. Peter Levine. He took me one step further and said “Why don’t you try the word Voooooo (rhymes with Booooo).” Wow! When I tried it, I quickly learned that putting your lower lip behind your front teeth to make the V sets one up to more easily lengthen the vocal chords and you begin to use the letters OOOOO. I tried it by alternating the Whoas and Vooos. Surprisingly I discovered that the Vooo does cause a greater vibration within the chest cavity. Should one choose to school your horse with the Vooo it is my opinion that you will be more successful than using the word Whoa. Give this one a try on your own.
It is likely that I am the first person to ever write about what causes a horse to go faster when using a high squeak or cluck. Defining the act of causing a horse to go faster by using the kissing or clucking sound undoubtedly relates to a response to a predator breaking twigs in the bush, forest or chaparral. I learned it in a funny way by watching a David Attenborough documentary and realizing that the lioness moves her advancing foot sideways a few strokes to clear any twigs from the ground before pressing her weight down which would undoubtedly break the twigs signaling the prey animal to get the heck out of there.
As our student Kiki below suggests, one can train any action with any word depending on the number of times that you use the word and request the action. To enhance the learning process, if one uses the closest sound to what innately produces the desired action, the faster one can expect to get the desired results. If you want to take a long time to teach your horse to stop, run him fast and yell out Yikes! You will eventually get it but your horse might be very old and unable to run fast at that point. As horsemen each of us should be working hard to meet the needs of our horse by giving him the clearest possible communication.
From our student Kiki:
To me this is a two-fold question. Are you just “making friendly conversation, or are you teaching a command?
On the first situation, I would say that I do believe they appreciate – sometimes even need – that we talk to them, but words or language is of no importance since horses aren’t using words themselves, nor have a proper spoken language. The important thing is how you use your voice.
Let’s agree that you can influence a horse a lot with your voice, like you can soothe a horse by talking in soft, low tones. Contrary, I knew a lovely person once who made all animals jumpy and nervous simply because she had a very sharp, shrill voice and talked very fast.
(And here I could go into personalities and body language as well, since talking slowly and softly generally slows you down, making you appear calmer – and I’m sure your mental picture of the shrill voiced person is of someone with jerky, fast movements – but I digress.)
Now, if you angrily scold your horse with the words: “Good boy!”, or murmur loving praise by saying: “I’m gonna kill you, you dirty ape” (or whatever expletive that comes to mind) the horse will still react to your tone of voice, not the words because (I believe) they communicate more with emotions and body language than we do.
Mind you, repetition creates mindsets, so maybe not use “good boy” too much to berate your horse or it just might get an unintended reaction once you use it to praise…
And with that caveat in mind I am moving on to the other situation: teaching a command.
Some research has established that horses can be compared with 3-year old kids in intelligence when it comes to understanding and capability of learning, so they are supposed to be able to learn over a 100 different words.
And we do use a lot of word cues and various clicking of tongue sounds with our horses; Whoa, trot, lift the foot, stand still, no – and so on. So, obviously, they can learn and understand quite a lot of words and other cues/signals once we have repeated it enough times for them to understand.
The important thing here is not confusing a horse with different signals for the same thing or vice versa; same word for different things.
If you want him to trot at the word “Pie!” then you should always use that word for trot and nothing but trot.
Likewise, if you want him to stop at the word “Custard!” you can’t also use it to slow him down, or shout five other words at him until he actually stops.
So words are important then? Well, yes and no, just mind the difference!
General communication with your horse is based more on immediate emotions – like when we separate wanted and unwanted behavior by way of praising or scolding, calming or exciting noises. Or just “hang out”, being in each others company.
Commands/cues are clear and (preferably anyway) void of emotion, asking promptly for a specific reaction. For example, you don’t generally modulate your tone of voice to get either trot or canter, but you do when you reward the following effort.
Summary: Tone of voice is more important than what words you use in communication. But words repeated enough times to be connected to a specific event/reaction will eventually be understood by the horse. What words/sounds/cues you decide to teach him is up to you, so choose with care – and have fun communicating with your horse!