Are You Really Listening to What Your Horse is Saying?

I read the following thread on a forum in the ‘horse training’ section. 

I’ve started working with one of the horses at the barn and I’ve noticed that when I ask him to do a game such as “Hide the Hiney”, he pins his ears back but shows absolutely no aggression towards me. With all the other ground work we do this is the only game in which he does this. He is a very gentle horse and always does what I ask. I was just wondering why he is pinning his ears back and is it something I need to be concerned about? Also if it is a concern how can I teach him to not pin his ears back when playing games? Thanks for all your help!

I admit that I am not familiar with this game of “Hide the Hiney” and had to do a Google search.  It’s one of the games taught by Parelli to get the horse to move his hindquarters.  If you (like me) haven’t seen it before, here’s a short video showing someone doing it with her horse.

There were 3 comments in this post that really caught my attention:

1) he pins his ears back but shows absolutely no aggression towards me

Horses’ ears are an important part of their body language and the messages they give should not be ignored.  Ears that are pinned flat back are a sign that the horse is annoyed.  Not every horse that is annoyed will act aggressively, but it should always be seen that the horse is giving a warning.  Pay attention to it.

2) this is the only game in which he does this

At the very least, it means the horse does not like what you are doing.  So something about this particular ‘game’ is annoying this horse.  The horse in the video also seems to be annoyed by it.  Watch for the spots in the video where he pins his ears back (there are a few). And watch the expression on his face.  Not happy.

Remember ‘show and tell’ from kindergarten?  Horses show and tell us how they are feeling through their posture and body movements.  The raised head and pinned ears of the horse in this video tell that he is not happy about something that is going on.  An empathetic trainer (yes, that means you whenever you work with your horse), pays attention to the horses signals and does her best to figure out what is causing that behaviour.

Is the horse just challenging because he doesn’t want to do that movement?  Then how can you break it down to make it simpler and easier for him?

Is the horse confused by something you are doing? How can you adjust your body language – position, posture and energy – to make it more clear to him?

Is he being affected by something else in the environment?  How can you bring his focus and attention back to you while keeping him feeling calm, safe and secure?

3) how can I teach him to not pin his ears back when playing games

Now this question really concerned me!  Even if you can, you shouldn’t teach a horse to not pin his ears back.  That would be like putting duct tape over your mouth.  If you want to really have a true bond with your horse, he must be allowed to express how he is feeling.  And he does that by showing it with his body language.  It may be a game for you, but it’s not a game your horse enjoys.  Ask yourself what the point of the ‘game’ is and look for another way that will get the same result, but that your horse doesn’t get annoyed about.

We use body language cues as a large part of our communication, too.  Many years ago, I used to not like being hugged by friends and had a friend who was unrelenting ‘hugger’.  I knew every time I met her, she was going to hug me.  I didn’t like it, but I did like my friend.  So, I would think ‘uh oh, here it comes’ and brace my entire body.  She would give me a hug and I would stand like a rock enduring it until it was over.  Now, my friend knew I didn’t like her hugs, but she was convinced that she was going to change how I felt by forcing her hugs on me.  I tolerated it, but didn’t enjoy it.  Your horse can feel the same way about some things that you are doing.  Pay attention to his body language and respect how he is feeling.  Try changing your approach.  Change how you are asking – your position, your posture, your energy.

Your horse’s body language will tell you when you’ve got it right for him.  And then you can both enjoy the game together.

Pay attention to his cues.  Don’t try to turn them off because they ‘bother’ or ‘concern’ you.  Honest, direct communication is a key part of any healthy relationship.  Respect and honour your horse’s right to express his feelings so you know what he needs.  This will strengthen your bond with him.

Watch for my book coming soon – “Confident Rider, Confident Horse: Build Your Confidence While Improving Your Partnership with Your Horse from the Ground to the Saddle”


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Anne Gage ~ Confident Horsemanship
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4 thoughts on “Are You Really Listening to What Your Horse is Saying?

  1. “Is the horse just challenging because he doesn’t want to do that movement? Then how can you break it down to make it simpler and easier for him?”
    I’m afraid this is one of the biggest problems with the natural horsemanship courses that attempt to use books and DVDs in place of people. They generally don’t offer another way to do things. I, personally, took a few groundschool lessons with someone proficient in one of these courses. My horse was not happy with what we were trying to accomplish and, even though I had only slightly more of an idea what we were doing than she did, I was just told to keep asking and ask harder and harder. The result was pinned ears and half rears from my mare. The instructor’s solution? Clearly I should spend over a thousand dollars on the full course of DVDs.

  2. Hi, Maremother … I agree that some horsemanship programs seem to teach people to work with horses as if they are machines. Push this button and you’ll get this response. Keep pushing the button UNTIL you get the response. Obviously, horses aren’t machines. They are sentient beings and, just like with people, one approach does not fit all. We need to be creative and inquisitive to figure out what the horse needs from us to be able to give us what we want.

    Enjoy the journey.


  3. Anne,
    I have a 4 yo Arabian mare that I have owned for 6 months she pins her ears at me when I try to pet her, touch her, feed her, have her run with me on a lead rope, and when we are trotting/cantering when in an arena but not if we are on a trail or in a open pasture. She has never tried to bite, kick, or buck me she just pins her ears. What can I do to help this problem in your article your saying for her to just not play that game but if I don’t do what is causing her to pin her ears I cant even touch her.
    Thank you,

    • Hi Audrey,
      I have a 3 year old arabian stallion that I bought since he was 2 years old
      He has the same issue pinning ears till this day never bite/kick or harm in any way.

      So I asked lots of people and did lots of research couldn’t get a straight answer or all gave me this random answer try to change him .

      However, my personal opinion, if she never tried to hurt you, just live with it.
      After studying my stallion it’s very similar to people if you really think about it.
      For example; some people when they talk they tend to rise their eyebrows on one side,
      To some people this is a sign of anger or not liking the situation but to the person with high eyebrow is normal, why because that’s an expression he/she makes when they talk
      It’s a habit more than a threat .
      Its all common sense some people say good morning with big smile on their faces and others like they have been pushed out of bed

      Anyway, I hope that would answer your question

      Cheers!! Be safe and ride through the wind

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