When we interact with our horses there is a dialog between us. Because horses have a physical language it is sometimes difficult to understand how our horse is communicating with us. When we handle a horse it is important to take their gestures into consideration. When and how they make their gestures will play a major role in how we interpret these gestures.
The horses’ physical language includes many different actions and expressions. They push and chase each other around, they pin their ears and bare their teeth. They threaten to kick, strike and paw and will follow through if they don’t get the desired response from the object of their attention. They snort, squeal, whinny and nicker to relay emotions. They will bolt, rear up and buck. They will drop their head in aggression and submission and as a sign of acknowledgement. They will toss their heads and puff themselves up. They will lick their lips and chew, yawn and give themselves a shake. They can clamp, swish and wring their tails. These are but a few of the things that horses do to communicate. Essentially everything the horse does means something.
Once we see the signs it comes down to interpretation. We have a pretty good idea what most of their actions mean. When and how they respond to us is just as important as what they are doing physically. A simple gesture can mean several different things depending on when and how they do it. For example, when round penning a horse he will often lower his head. This may be taken as a sign of submission and it can be, but there are other factors I want to consider before I decide what it means. If he lowers his head right to the ground and keeps it there for a stride or two he might just smell something on the ground. He is saying that he is more interested in the smell than he is in me. If he lowers his head with his ears back and his head snaking from side to side he is doing some serious posturing and is thinking about charging me.
When his head is low, his neck level and he has a soft look in his eye he being respectful.
There are a few subtle things that I look for before deciding what something may or may not mean. I think his facial expression and his general posture are very important. It is partly the look in his eye and partly the position of his ears. A horse can look mad or playful or scared and it is often a reflection of how he feels and should not be brushed off as unimportant. When his head is up with a large wild eye and he is doing a lot of very blatant posturing he is certainly relaying a challenge. When his head is up and he bolts with a frightened look in his eye, this is often a scared reaction not a challenge. When his head is down with a soft kind eye and his movements more comfortable and deliberate he is telling me that he is relaxed and willing to try.
When we have an idea about how the horse feels towards us we can use this information to help us respond accordingly in our training methods. If he is doing a lot of posturing we need to work on developing respect before he will be prepared to learn efficiently from us. If he is scared we may need to slow down or change what we are doing to be less intimidating before he starts to lose ground. If he is comfortable and learning what we ask then we can reward him for doing so and carry on.
The next time you work with your horse take a few minutes to see what he is feeling. Try not to overlook anything he does. Does he look happy, bored or confused? When you ride him does he swish his tail because of the flies or because you are bothering him? Watch his ears as you ride. Are they forward and alert, cocked toward you in concern or flat back in anger? When you are aware of what your horse is saying to you, you are more capable of diffusing a potential wreck or offering a comforting hand when it is needed and not resented. If you are not sure what something means try to see a bigger picture. Watch his eyes, ears and tail, if the eyes are scared and the ears half back and the tail clamped he is probably scared. Putting his signals together will help form a clearer vision of how he feels. Individually the eyes, ears or tail may be inconclusive.
Acknowledge the things your horse does, they often need neither reward or reprimand he just needs to know you noticed.