Equine Body Language

The following is a guest post from Birgit Stutz of  Falling Star Ranch in Dunster, BC, Canada.  As well as being a fellow certified Chris Irwin trainer, Birgit is also co-author of  the book “Miracle on Mount Renshaw: The Rescue of Belle and Sundance” (now available in paperback).  

Horses are social animals. As herd members, they interact with other horses continually and use a system of communication including sounds, body positions, movements and odours, to let herd mates know what they want and don’t want.

Horses obviously don’t use words. They don’t even use sounds to any great extent. But if you watch horses as they interact with one another and with people, you will notice that body positions and movements are their main mode of speaking to one another.

During the first training session with a new horse, be it one of mine or one that is sent to me for training, I turn him lose in the round pen. Having the horse lose, without any ropes or lines attached to him, gives me a chance to read him and find out what the horse is all about. Is he a passive horse, an aggressive horse, or more something in between, passive-aggressive? Is he friendly towards people? Does he respect people? Is he fearful of humans or disrespectful and pushy? Each type of horse requires a different kind of approach. You may be saying that you are not training horses and wonder why you should bother learning how to read horses, but the truth is, every time you are with a horse, be it your own or somebody else’s, you are training the horse, for better or for worse. Learning what your horse is saying and responding accordingly will greatly improve your partnership with him.

Most obvious is the horse’s overall body outline, also called his frame or topline. The topline of a horse is defined by the position of the horse’s head and neck, together with the upper curvature of a horse’s withers, back and loin. It’s easy to tell the difference between the high-headed frame of an excited horse and the level or low topline of a relaxed, calm horse.

I read the horse from back to front, from his tail, to his hip, barrel, shoulder, neck and last, but not least, his head.

Starting with the tail, a horse’s tail can express six different messages. A curled tail means the horse is calm and relaxed. A swishing tail means the horse is annoyed. A horse with a wringing or twirling tail shows signs of aggression. A tail that sticks straight out or up (‘high-tailing’) means the horse is excited and feels good (“Let’s play”). You can see that a lot in high-spirited horses. A tail pointed straight down means the horse is apprehensive. And a tail tucked tight between a horse’s hindquarters is a sign of fear.

Next I look at the horse’s hip. Is it cocked in at me in a disrespectful manner or is it politely away from me? What about the horse’s barrel (middle part)? Is it bent into me, with his ribs pushing towards me, or is it bent away from me in a polite manner? Is the horse being pushy by dropping his shoulder into my space?

From most people’s perspective, the most easily analyzed part of the horse (besides the tail) is the head. If you want to read what’s going on in the mind of any horse just look at the position of and gestures coming from his head.

If he flips his nose up, he is challenging my leadership and doesn’t accept me (yet) as being the one pushing him. A twirling head means aggression. If a horse shakes his neck laterally, that is actually a good sign. It is a release of muscular stress, like shaking off a writer’s cramp. The same goes for a yawn, which is a release of anxiety. A horse may also bow to me. However, there are different types of bows, and not all of them are based on trust and respect. If a horse bows to you, but his head immediately comes back up high-headed, the respect for your push comes from fear. If the horse bows to you with his head going down to the ground low and staying down with eyes blinking, lips licking, and ears moving, or if he bows to you and then his head comes back up level-headed, he accepts your leadership out of trust and respect. However, if his head goes down and stays down, with his eyes open staring wide, his mouth closed tight, and his ears stiff, the horse is sullen and pouty and has most likely been pushed too hard.

Ears are good indicators of your horse’s mood as well. A horse has 16 muscles in his ear so he can move them all over the place. A horse has excellent hearing, and the ears point in the direction of the horse’s attention. A horse with his ears pricked forward is curious and paying attention. Ears moving back and forth often indicate uncertainty. Floppy ears are a sign of sleepiness or feeling sick. Ears pinned back (put flat back on his head) indicate anger or fear, which are closely related. If you are handling a horse that puts his ears back, you need to be careful. He could be angry or frightened about something and may kick or bite or strike. Ears back can also be a warning that another horse is getting too close to him and he doesn’t like it.

Ears put back is a sign of resistance. If you are riding your horse and notice him putting his ears back, it could mean several things. He may be doing something he doesn’t want to do or something he finds difficult. He could also be uncomfortable due to a badly fitting saddle, bridle or bit, hard rider hands pulling on the bit, or a rider with an unbalanced, bouncy seat. He could also have some pain in his back or maybe his teeth are bothering him. Pinned ears should not be confused with ears pointed in the direction of the rider, as some horses will do that when they concentrate very hard and focus on their rider.

More subtle for us humans are a horse’s facial signals. A tight mouth shows anxiety and fear. A mouth that is chewing with lips licking means the horse is thinking, calm and relaxed. However, it doesn’t mean that the horse respects you.

A wrinkled nose indicates annoyance and disgust. A horse threatening to bite has an open mouth and possibly bared teeth. Note that this is not the same as ‘mouthing’ in foals which is a submissive gesture. A long nose with a slightly open mouth shows the horse wants to mutual groom, a gesture you may have seen while grooming your horse. It becomes the characteristic long nose, drawn-back lower lip and extended neck when you find the itchy spot.

While it is important to correctly read each individual sign the horse sends to you, in order to understand what the horse is telling you and how strong his message is, you need to consider all the signs, from head to tail, together.

Just as important as reading and understanding your horse’s body language is your appropriate response to the message. If you want your horse to both respect and trust you, don’t ignore any of his “messages.” Horses are experts at constantly testing each other to find out where they stand in the herd hierarchy, and that includes humans.

Most people know that they have to respond to the message immediately in order for their response to be effective. However, what is equally important is where they apply their response (push) and how hard. If you push your horse too much, he won’t trust you. If you don’t push him enough, he won’t respect you. To find the perfect amount of push (herding pressure) with each individual horse is the tricky part. To know how much push to apply to the appropriate body part at any given moment with each horse takes a lot of observation and experience.

For example, if your horse turns his hind end to you, which is a complete lack of respect, and shows defiance and aggression, and you disregard the message and don’t push him, he won’t respect you. If your horse cocks a hip at you, the hip needs to be pushed. However, in order to know how hard of a push is needed for that particular horse, you need to look at his tail. If his tail is clamped tight between his hindlegs, which means he is frightened, don’t push him too hard or he won’t trust you. On the other hand, if his tail is wringing, which means he is showing aggression, you’d better push him hard, or he won’t respect you.

Another good example is a horse’s head. If he flips his head indignantly into the air, he challenges your authority and needs to be pushed away. The push should be aimed at the horse’s body though, not at his head. Sending impulsive, pushing energy into the horse’s head or neck would be bullish behaviour. If the horse’s head is twirling, which is a sign of aggression, a strong push from you is needed to let him know that you don’t put up with his ignorant attitude.

Depending on your horse’s character, passive, passive-aggressive or aggressive, he may challenge your authority in several ways. An aggressive horse can fight you by kicking, biting, striking, rearing or pressing in against you to push you, while a passive horse may be stubborn, evasive or lazy. A passive horse may also just run away.

A word of caution: if your horse is being disrespectful, make sure his rude behaviour wasn’t caused by you in the first place. Often a horse’s unwanted behaviour is in fact a re-action to our own body language and how we are working with the horse. So if you are trying to fix what the horse sees you as causing in the first place, it will be difficult to earn his trust and respect. Horses are a mirror of ourselves, and once they start seeing positive changes in us, they can and do change for the better.

If you have ever watched a great horseman (or horsewoman) communicating with a horse, you were most likely amazed at the subtle, almost unnoticeable human body language. We have to remember, however, that, in order to achieve this high level of communication, it takes a lot of awareness and observation on the human part, and an absolute willingness to listen to and focus on the human on the horse’s part. This, again, means having earned the horse’s trust and respect first. It may also mean that at first we have to “shout” with our body language in order to get the horse to focus and listen.

If you learn to consistently push at the right time, at the right spot (body part), with the right amount of pressure, your horse will soon respect and trust you and be willing to focus on and listen to you. This requires consistency in your actions and body language and awareness of your horse’s body language and responding to it appropriately and immediately.

Remember, what you see is what you get. A horse’s body and mind are linked to the point of being one. Horses don’t pretend or lie. So if you are able to read a horse’s body language, you are actually reading his mind and know what he feels. Frame of body is frame of mind.

Learning to understand what our horses are telling us – and responding appropriately – makes a huge difference in our relationship with them. The ability to understand equine body language makes our partnership with horses more rewarding and safer.

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