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Teaching Empathy: Clients, Customers & Students

Updated: Jun 13

teaching empathy horse and rider partnership

Horses, unlike humans, are non-verbal communicators. From an early age both their nature and their nurture response is to be attuned to all of the nonverbal cues in their surroundings, from other horses, to you as a horse professional, to their owners and the students in their care. While understanding this relationship comes naturally to some, for many horse-people awareness of their nonverbal communication and how it is interpreted by the horse they are interacting with may be minimal. 

As a result, I teach empathy by building the explanation of how and why behind horses’ actions into my interactions with students, clients, and customers and you can do the same. It will ultimately help support better relationships and understanding between your clients/customers and their horses and  between what you are doing with their horse and them. 

The foundation behind these explanations is:

Behavior + Message = Action

  • When X does Y they’re saying Z, so let’s do A

For example, when Cedar (one of my lesson horses) pulls on the reins when you ask for a turn he is telling you that you are putting too much pressure on his mouth and it’s uncomfortable. Let’s lighten our hands and use our legs and body more to ask for our turn. I then follow with instructions on how to do just that.

This concept is strengthened when your client, customer, or student is prompted to remember their own experiences. 

This may look like asking them: 

How does your body show other people you don’t want anyone close to you? 

It could be that they tense up, take a step away, turn away, etc. This is nonverbal communication in human form. Of course we often (and are encouraged to) use our words, too. Why is this? Because humans aren’t generally conditioned to see the micromovements horses are; the first signs our body gives of how we are feeling about a situation.

This type of communication may also come in the form of an owner or student showing submissiveness to a horse via stepping back and away when a horse gets into their space. Horses see this and, in their nonverbal and herd mindset, this indicates to them that they are higher up on the herd hierarchy than the human they are interacting with because they have moved that human’s feet. Repetition of this type of action, subconscious to the human, can often lead to behavioral challenges with horses who over time see themselves as the “boss” in their partnership with their owner, student, etc. They’re simply responding to the nonverbal communication we are giving to them over time.

This understanding - of the way a horse thinks and interprets - is empathy.

To help reinforce this mindset, we can also remind clients and students that there are many things horses and humans don’t have in common. 

For example, our horses can’t imagine trotting a circle like we can. They are depending on us to give them clear instructions the whole way. We must cue them that we will be asking, ask, keep the ask, and then release. 

Understanding this and putting it into practice when you share in your customers’, clients’, and students’ interactions with their horses will go a long way toward improved communication, partnership, and collaboration for all three of you.

Happy Riding!


If you have questions, want help with your business operations, or need help finding resources don’t hesitate to reach out. Little Bird Advising offers business coaching for equine business owners like you!

Blog posts from Little Bird Advising are not meant to replace individual professional legal advice.


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