There are plenty of researchers trying to fathom the language that horses use to one another. Measuring whinnies. Grading snorts. Tracking whickers. Whether we will ever have more than a primitive understanding of it or not is a question for philosophers, so perhaps it’s more interesting to look at some of the lexicons that humans have developed for interspecies communication (or at least one-way communication: we tell you what to do, you do it).
Of course, the different styles of riding and horse-handling we practice are all physical languages – however imperfect and potentially baffling to horses. But some equestrian communicators have sought to create a language of human words and sounds instead. When I spent time with people who farm with horses in the USA for The Age of the Horse I learned some of the teamster or farmer’s basic commands, apparently well known by trained working draught horses Stateside. There’s “gee” for right and “haw” for left. “Whoa” or “ho!” seems to do the trick for stopping.
It’s not a big vocabulary, but it gets the job done. The trouble is, it’s not universal – not even between English-speaking countries. In the US, the teamster stands on the left, in England, on the right. So an English driver says “haw” for right and “gee” for left, which must be confusing for any horses that make the transatlantic trip.
Perhaps the French veterinary surgeon Emile Decroix had something similar in mind when, in 1898, he proposed a “Volapük hippique”. Volapük was invented by a German priest divinely inspired to create an international language; it flourished briefly before being outstripped by Esperanto. Decroix, whose name you might recognise – he was one of the foremost advocates of hippophagy in France – came up with these commands:
Hi! for “go”
Ha! for “forward and to the right”
Hé! for “forward and to the left”
Ho! for “halt”
Hi! Hi! for “trot”
Ha! Ha! for “right about”
Hé! Hé! for “left about”
Ho! Ho! for “back”
He offered a medal to the first person to present a horse trained either under the saddle or in harness to respond to Volapük hippique, but sadly there were no contenders. If anyone fancies giving it a go now, I’d love to hear from you – although I’d understand if you wanted to train far, far from earshot of anyone else.
Source: Decroix, E. Projet de langage phonétique universel pour la conduite des animaux. Bulletin de la Société nationale d’Acclimatation de France, Paris, 1898, Forty-fourth Year, pp. 241 ff.