This is sooooooooo true! As horse riders/owners/handlers we must be in the moment when we are engaging with our horses, especially those who are young and inexperienced because their anxiety, although often present, is sometimes not obvious so we need to be vigilant for safety reasons. Only by being truly in the moment, are we aware enough to watch their body language, the way their ears flick, their mouth sets, head and neck position changes, softness of their body and tail, and then listen to their breathing, their snorting, sniffing and any other noises they use to tell you how they feel. Being in the moment is giving our horse’s communication signals our full attention, to try and decode what they are saying prior to them escalating their behaviour into something unexpected. Once we can decode their communication signals, we can then use that information positively to reshape their thoughts and actions.
I have a young WB, who is very loud. I think this may have developed as a yearling and into his second year, when perhaps he felt wasn’t ever listened to with his previous owner (regardless of the truth of that or not!) and it’s become a habit. He likes to tell you, very often, exactly how he is feeling about any given situation and he shouts before he whispers just to make sure he have heard him. In his communication language there was very little time between his loud signals of disapproval and explosive action or outright objection to a situation or an event. But after about eighteen months, he has toned down his shouting and I’ve learned to decode many of his more subtle signals which allow me to change the topic of conversation before he can take it further and he’s learned to listen better too. He is a smart but determined horse and this has taken some time and lots of work for us to come to an agreement on how his should handle himself politely and patiently and for him to know that he is rarely ignored, despite his original anxiety that he would be pushed beyond his capabilities.
The other horse is also young but a TB. His communication is more subtle, he asks politely and asks only once, he doesn’t shout instead he whispers and very quietly. He is relatively anxious but it’s harder to pick because he will internalise much of it until something finally makes his worry cup overflow, and then he can also get explosive. Like many horses, the fact that he is a basically quiet, trusting, calm and a sweet-natured horse who whispers his feelings, masks many of the situations that can add to his anxiety so he also requires ongoing attention to determine where’s he’s at mentally at any given moment.
As riders, our communication not only has to be open to the horse’s language but we also have to be present, we cannot take our daily concerns and worries into the horse’s space as it will detract from his communication – he will mirror you totally – and there will be no real learning or confidence building on that day. And it is no easy skill, it takes time and practice but like all things if you are determined, it will eventually work for you. You can give your horse a great gift by really listening to him and then in turn he will listen to you and then you have the beginnings of a real partnership.
This following video speaks of much of this stuff and is excellent with two brilliant equine practitioners who really know their stuff. It’s well worth a listen.
Elizabeth Alexander is a horse lover, rider, competitor, coach, trainer, professional business teacher, writer, blogger and author of Team Up, The Druidess of Connacht and soon-to-be-released chic/lit comic/crime novel ZIPPED! featuring detective dill extraordinaire Easter Lilley and her mates, in a mad-cap rescue of her racehorse from very unpleasant villains.