Updated: Jan 25, 2022
If horses had a currency it would be space. If they have a desire, it would be a way out and when they speak they use body language, not words. Which is more or less completely opposite of how humans work.
We tend to shake hands, kiss and hug to show affection. We mainly use sounds when communicating and we are more concerned about having a warm and safe place protected from the elements, than a way out.
It`s a mans world and humans own horses, which means that a great number of equines are handled in tune with our nature, not theirs. This can make many horses numb and some horse behave badly.
Good news is that the moment we realize the nature of horses is different from ours and start communicating with them accordingly, the horse will notice. The aim of this blog is to give 3 tips to things we can be more aware of when handling horses, that will instantly improve our partnership with them, as well as how they feel and behave.
1. Approach and Retreat
Horses are less afraid of objects retreating from them than objects that are approaching them. They are also more comfortable with things they initiate to touch themselves, than things that are forced upon them (including our hugs and kisses).
When desensitizing horses to, for instance, plastic bags, approach and retreat can be used to reward and motivate the horse to be brave. By removing the plastic bag when the horse is calm, the horse is rewarded and motivated to stay calm, because being calm makes the plastic bag go away. Approach and retreat motivates horses to be brave and makes them feel like they are in control, as opposed to flooding where the horse has no choice but to accept the circumstances.
Approach and retreat also goes for the way we walk. Approaching would be walking forwards and is a drive, while walking backwards is retreating is a draw. If we get this right and know where a horses drive line is, catching horses and lunging them at liberty becomes very easy. Because we communicate with them in a language they understand and use the same currency they use, aka giving or asking for space.
2. Reading the horse
I am first to admit that horses are difficult to read, but there are some common signs a horse is feeling uncomfortable. Such as; a stiff slightly elevated neck, slightly lowered back, pointed eras and tense jaws, a horse can stand perfectly still in this position and look picture perfect. In fact most pictures of horses are of them in this state, cause they tend to look very good when holding on to a bit of tension. Their relaxed calm posture with a soft neck, moving ears and rounded back, just isn`t as sexy.
I could probably go on for quite a bit on how to spot signs of tension in horses and all horses, domesticated or not, will show signs of anxiety from time to time. Horses are after all flight animals and being scared is part of life. Plus what we focus on and look for we tend to get more of, and looking for signs of tension will put us in a predatory staring state, which will not benefit the aim of getting our horse relaxed in our presence. Therefore I have found that waiting for signs of relaxation is a great way to make sure our horse feels comfortable in our presence.
Signs of relaxation are
Horses scratching themselves
A deep sigh
Relaxed and deeper breathing
Licks and chews
Laying down and/or sleeping in our presence
These behaviors resets the nervous system from the sympathetic flighty one to the relaxed parasympathetic one. Some of these behaviors are often referred to as calming signals in dog training, and associated with being a bad thing. Aka the handler has stepped over the dogs tres hold when training or communicating with the dog.
Need I remind you that dogs are predators who live in the parasympathetic nervous system, while horses are flight animals who live in the sympathetic one? Horses showing calming signals is not a bad thing, as their tendency is to hold tension and be ready for flight, even when standing seemingly relaxed and still. Let`s be happy we have helped our horse find a way to release the tension they are holding on to.
Things may look great although the horse isn`t feeling great. Which of the horses below do you think is most comfortable and relaxed?
Putting a horse in cross ties or holding tight reins when mounting is acting in untune with a horses nature of being a flight animal who needs a way out. And it`s not like it doesn`t work, cause the majority of horses will tolerate this type of handling, but our aim is a great relationship with our horse, not just a good one right?
Which reminds me of the last but not least important thing to be able to do when around horses, that will make horses feel safe and comfortable in our presence.
3. Take the guard
Horses are prey and flight animals and spend a lot of their time taking the guard for each other, that`s why we often see one horse standing while others lay down and rest. Becoming the standing horse and the one taking the guard, is the best reward we can give any horse.
Taking the guard is a combination of being aware of
1. What we are communicating to the horse, are we stepping forwards or backwards, are we grabbing the horse, is there a way out...etc
2. What the horse`s body language is telling us
3. Waiting for signs of relaxation
When connecting with horses, by allowing them to let us to take the guard, everything else becomes so much easier, because we have taken the time to give the horse a reason to trust us and feel safe in our company.
I dare say that taking the guard is the one thing most horse trainers and owners skip doing and therefore need to rely heavily on treats, pressure, reins or ropes when training and handling horses.
A foundation for being able to take the guard is to spot what I call the cold shoulder. You can get more insight into this by watching the video below:
If you are curious on what happened next I have another great video for you to watch, featuring the mare talked about in the Q&A:
Thank you so much for watching!
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