Did you know that blinking equals thinking for Horses?
It does. So does ear twitching, trembling lips, and faster breathing.
Horses can’t speak to us in words so they use body language, and you can read a horse like a book if you know their language. There are lots of horse training manuals out there by big-name horse trainers who detail all of this, and yet it’s always so much clearer when it happens to you and your horse.
A little story about Freya
When I got Freya in June last year, she was fearful, wary and did not trust humans at all and she came to me because the next stop for her was dog meat. Me being the softie that I am, saw something in this horse that was hopeful, not dangerous and hopeless.
So I set about preparing my new Lippizzaner mare, Freya, to accept and relax around humans and then possibly start some ground work training.
Years of training horses has taught me that most manuals, provided by the big gun clinicians, offers step by step instructions on how to do training things with your horse.
Most manuals feature simple instructions, big pictures, and lots of explanation. All of this could be easy to implement, except for one vital thing: Horses like Freya and many others that I have helped have suffered either traumatic events that have caused the horse to be frightened of certain things or there were gaps in the horses foundational training. Following an orderly sequence of training in these scenarios has never worked for me!
The secret to ALL horse training interactions is knowing where to start with the training as a general rule. Is the horse at ground zero (has maybe some basic things like leading, picking up feet), or like Freya, minus ground zero? When you know where your horse is at, then and only then can you apply some training strategies with the horse.
Well, with Freya I had to get her to START to think about trusting me. Trust is something we earn with another. If we know and believe that we are trustworthy, and do trust ourselves, this will ooze out in everything we do with the horse. The horse really does know the difference! So trusting ourselves just has to be there with horses.
Freya had problems, the slightest sudden lift of my arm, or step toward her, she would freeze, waiting for what she imagined might be coming next. This is not a great place for her to be in as she was unpredictable, explosive and hyper sensitive.
So what activities could I offer her from this minus ground zero place?
I knew it had to be around getting her to not worry about those sudden movements from me and if she could see I was relaxed and not buying into her freeze/freak pattern then maybe she would START to open her mind to thinking that she was ok.
This is where we began, I would rub her all over with my hand in large exaggerated (not tiptoeing around, or sneaking!) soft strokes a few times then stop and do nothing for a couple of minutes. Then I would begin again. If she freaked, I couldn’t freak, things would escalate horribly if I did. I had to control myself 100% because this horse knew when my stomach was clenched or I was holding my breath!
Little by little she offered signs her mind was opening by lowering her head, letting out her breath, licking and chewing when I had quit. Pretty soon I had progressed to using my communication tool to rub her all over, then swing a rope, string, flag all over her.
This activity had to be first on the list because if I wanted to do some ground work with her it was IMPERATIVE that she be comfortable, not terrified of my arms moving, stick waving etc,.
The subtle signals and behaviours from horses
These are the first baby step ‘signs’ I got from Freya, when I was rubbing her, swinging the rope or string rhythmically over her body when I knew Freya was thinking and her mind was opening:
twitching his ears
Whenever Freya showed these signs of thinking, I would stop swinging the rope or rubbing and simply quit for a minute or two. Take all the pressure off and even when I got really excited that she had accepted so much, I didn’t go up and pat her or give her a celebratory hug, this is not much of a reward for a horse! I would instead, stand still at her side a few feet away to give her lots of thinking and breathing room.
Within a few cycles of thinking, stopping, and resuming my exercises, Freya would offer a release, which included any of the following behaviours:
moving her feet
licking and chewing
taking a deep breath
shaking his head and/or whole body
dropping his head
The whole process is fascinating. When I tuned into these signs of thinking and released the pressure (rubbing) as soon as I saw one of the signs, she would process the information much more quickly and give a “release.” A release indicated that she had accepted the exercise and was ready for me to either repeat it or move on to another exercise. If I repeated the exercise, Freya would offer a release more quickly than the previous time.
Using this approach, we proceeded from groundwork to riding work, starting Freya under saddle in nine months, not bad for a horse destined for death at only 4 years old.
Because of finding the right place to start and simply building on it, Freya accepted the saddle and riding without any hiccup, buck, freak out, absolutely NOTHING!
Make sure you always pay attention to those signals of “thinking”, yes it will require effort on your part to focus attention to see those signals. Once you can, though, your horse will reward you with a lot of fast learning, releases and of course your horse’s trust.
Without a doubt tuning into the horse’s body language gives us the ability to help the horse quickly overcome negative issues and situations and also enhance what can be accomplished positively together.