“It can take a life time to begin to understand the communications of horses, but your life will be richer if you try. To learn their language so you can listen to them is beautiful.” – Paul Belasik
Have you ever been frustrated when trying to have a conversation with someone who did not speak the same language as you did or tried to converse with someone in their language using only a few words of that language that you learned a long time ago? Or maybe you actually had a fairly successful conversation in that language with the person, but you knew that s/he knew that you were not a native speaker. Nevertheless, both of you communicated at some level and it all worked out fine.
Well, that’s the same problem that we have when trying to communicate with our horses. They speak one language and we, as horse owners or riders, speak another. Ours is generally verbal while theirs is totally non-verbal. They use body language to speak to us. But all is not lost! We can communicate with them if we just take a little time to learn what they are saying to us and how they are expressing it.
Before we get into the specificities of how horses speak to us, we need to know some details about the horse, which are critical regarding how we relate to one another. Horses live in the moment: right here, right now. They don’t rationalize and stand around waiting for us to be clear about what we want. They don’t like ambiguity. Horses are totally honest. They don’t lie. They always tell the truth with their bodies. There is no separation between what a horse thinks and what its body says. However; we, as humans, on the other hand, sometimes bluff and pretend and hide. We’ve gotten pretty good at it, and so, we try it on our horses. But we won’t fool our horses. They are finely and intensely attuned to their environment. They can spot a faker before we even open the gate.
How Horses Function
If we want to communicate with our horses and change some of the things that they are doing which we don’t like, then what we really need to change is our approach to the horse. To get to the root of the horse’s behavior, we need to learn to look at things as the horse sees them. We need an open mind and a willingness to change. There’s a good chance that the horse’s problem stems from something we are doing.
The central question in any herd is who is going to lead the dance and how that is going to be determined. In predator-land (and we are predators), challengers work out who’s going to be the leader by trying to immobilize each other. With prey animals, it’s completely different. The most natural and necessary thing to a horse is forward movement. Movement is a big part of their mating ritual. They need to move forward to eat. They need to move forward within the herd’s pecking order to establish breeding rights. The instinct to flee and run for their lives is never far from their thoughts. Everything about staying alive for a horse involves forward movement. So while predators establish leadership by seeing who’ll back down, prey animals do it by pushing each other forward.
How Humans Function
This has deep implications for how we handle our horses. Too often, when we want to control our horses, we attempt to stop them from moving. This violates their deepest nature. And to make matters worse, we usually try to stop our horses by attempting to control their head and neck. That may seem natural to us, but as far as the horse is concerned, predators most always go for the neck because that’s where they can make the quickest kill. Our entire approach to our horses has been to stop them, confine them, put them in a confined space, hobble them, and tie them up. Then we take them by the head and say, “You are mine.”
Influencing Horse Behavior
So how do we go about the process of controlling our horses in a way that’s natural to them? The same way that another horse would – by pushing them forward. Both people and horses like their personal space. We all have a personal “bubble” that surrounds us and we get uncomfortable when anything puts pressure on the bubble. So to get our horses to move forward, we should approach them from the rear (just off to the side and just to the rear of the hip) with enough energy to cause them to move forward. To control our horses’ mind we must first control their hindquarters. On most horses, there’s a spot right behind the rib cage that’s like a button that says, “GO.” To get a horse moving around the inner perimeter of a round pen, we should walk towards that spot on the horse and start to play “horse” with our horses. Conversely, if we want to slow a horse down or get him to stop or change direction, we should move towards the front of the horse (not at him, but in the direction of where his head is pointed and parallel to him) which will cause him to make a change in his movement. They understand this. Once this game has begun, it’s crucial to stay on top of it at all times. You always have to move with the horse and stay in position. We must remember that our horses are profoundly physiological beings, meaning that their minds and bodies are deeply linked to the point of being one thing. When we can read our horses’ body language, we can quite literally read their mind. But to gauge the right amount of pressure to use and to read the horse’s response takes experience, time and dedicated observation.
So how do we begin to see and listen to what our horses are trying to tell us. Here are some (not all) of the ways that our horses talk to us.
The Tail. If our horse’s tail is clamped down tight against the croup and the back of the legs, it means that the horse is apprehensive and nervous. You should be able to lift up the tail without effort. If you cannot do this and it remains clamped down, then maybe I would think twice about mounting up until you can accomplish this. If the tail is swishing it signals agitation (of course, it could also mean that insects are bothering him). Stiff and pointed up means excitement. Hanging light and loose means calm.
The Hindquarters. When our horse turns its hindquarters towards us, that’s a big insult and into the bargain it is dangerous. It signals a complete lack of respect, as well as defiance and possibly aggression. It’s like flipping us the finger. Same with the hind legs. If they’re kicking out, it’s like the horse is saying, “Screw you”. If we want our horses to respect us, we shouldn’t ignore these gestures. All kinds of behavior problems start here because the human hasn’t taken the time needed to properly teach the horse respect from the very beginning by setting behavior standards and boundaries.
The Barrel/Flank. If our horse leans against us on the ground (being “pushy”) or leans against our inside leg while we’re riding, he is invading our space and challenging our control. The horse will use its shoulder to do the same thing. A horse that doesn’t respect our leg cues is not a “broke” horse.
The Girth Area. Somewhere in front of the barrel right around the girth is an area that has great meaning to a horse. Behind that line or area we’re in control. Our horse knows where that line is also. An aggressive horse will try to keep us from getting behind it. They will keep turning in to us or push against us or be aggressive with their head to keep us from gaining control.
The Head. If our horse’s head is up, he is saying that something is wrong. He is worried or concerned about something or he is challenging another horse or even us. If his head is lowered and staying that way, that’s likely saying it’s submissive – out of fear, not trust. If his head is level with his back (and sometimes bobs it down and then back up) that’s saying that everything is O.K. Our horse will use its head to challenge us. Horses that try to nuzzle us without being invited into our space are deliberately invading our space. The horse needs to learn respect (but not by smacking him on the face or jerking the lead line or reins).
The Ears. Where our horse’s ears are is where he is looking. Ears that are turned back means that something has got its attention. Pinned down means that they are angry (but some, not many, horses put back their ears [not pinned down] as a form of greeting). Pricked forward means that something in the far distance has interested them. Ears that are constantly moving around are a sign of a relaxed horse.
The Face. If our horse has a frozen, stiff look, it means that he is scared. A relaxed horse will blink, roll its lips around, flex its nostrils and maybe blow with its nose. Look at the hollow above the eyes. If it is very deep, especially on a young horse, something is stressing him. The same is true with having a line of wrinkles around his eyes. Or a tight lip or tight nostrils. His eyes are also an excellent indicator of how he is feeling about something.
With all these little messages – and myriad others as well – our horse is telling us what he is thinking and therefore, what our attitude should be towards him. To understand what our horse is telling us and how strong the message is, we need to consider all the signals together and respond appropriately.
Equine body language has a subtle vocabulary of great range. There are only a few very gifted individuals who have learned to read a horse’s body language almost as well as another horse. But we can learn it well enough to gain a better understanding of what our horses are telling us. It will help us in having a better and more satisfying relationship with them. So let’s all listen to our horses – they are trying, in every way that they know how, to communicate with us.