I had a moment of confuzzlement recently. Reading equine body language does not come from watching several horse videos or from owning horses for many years. It comes from watching domestic and wild horses in person, online, studying images and experiencing a million moments on yards and often, observing how humans respond to horses, and vice versa. It takes all those things, and over a lifetime.
The stable had been prepared for the new livery with a thick bed of fresh straw and a hay net hung in the corner. The horse came off the lorry and walked into the barn filled with anxiety, he was head-high with flaring nostrils and eyes as round as dinner plates. Even after a good 45 minutes the horse was still extremely anxious. The once neat bed of straw was tossed to the side of the stable walls as the horse frantically circled the stable, the circuit was only broken when he rushed to the stable door to whinny and rear. Sweat made his bay coat glisten as steam started to rise from him. Continue reading “The Equine Mind Map”
Mel had left the stable block to take the ten minute walk down to the paddocks. My horse was already in and we had been chatting for some time while I groomed. I didn’t know this woman very well which didn’t matter as horse women generally only talk about subjects pertaining to equines. Continue reading “Equi-Vision”
The only reason I looked up from the very important task of minding my own business was because I heard someone shout. You find yourself already looking in the general direction of the noise before it even occurs to you the golden rule of minding your own business has just been broken. The horse tentatively drifting about in what I assume was intended to be a 10 metre circle was wearing what is potentially a nightmare contraption in uneducated hands – a Pessoa. Fortunately it was apparent the horse was completely desensitised to the lunging whip that for some reason was been held high in the air gently swaying. If you had seen the same action from a distance while standing on a beach this person would have resembled a talented kite flyer. Being desensitised to a whip waving about is generally a good thing for horses, but they should also recognise when you are attempting to apply pressure.
From the ground the stick can be thought of as an extension of your arm to communicate with the horse. There is all types of pressure everyone should be aware of which will include your own body language and even the direction of where one is looking. I’m aware of what my feet are doing, my eyes, hands and the stick, and this is perhaps just 10% of what I could actually include in this article, but it’s not possible. This is the reason I hardly ever lunge, I see it as such a fine art to get everything correct that I don’t believe I am good enough. I accept it takes 100% concentration and only a skilled professional can properly lunge a horse. So take on board that if someone can say they have been around horses for nearly 40 years and feels they cannot expertly lunge a horse, then why are people doing it when they have owned a horse for the last 2 years?
They lunge because they are unaware of the fundamental errors they are making, the horse is going in a circle and that is all lunging means…apparently.
I am in something of a unique position having owned one of my horses for over 20 years. I can look back and somewhat painfully recall the mistakes I have made with this mare. Yet when I had professional training my horse transformed before my eyes, my horse didn’t become good as she was always a good horse. Unfortunately she was owned by an ignorant human that could not correctly communicate with her. She has taught me that horses are very forgiving creatures, because even after all my fundamental errors this mare is gracious enough to still have a ground and ridden relationship with me.
As I continued to look toward the horse in the Pessoa the owner brought that stick down and thumped it on the ground behind the horse, the horse took two steps forward and for reasons I don’t understand the person made snapping motions on the line causing the horse to stop. Again the lunge whip came crashing down, and the hapless horse took a tentative step forward. Nope, that wasn’t correct either as the line was again used in the snapping motion. I was confused as the horse! My eyes were darting between the horse and the person’s hands to attempt to understand what they were trying to achieve. I am of a species that is allegedly the apex predator, the most intelligent of this entire planets numerous species, yet I couldn’t understand…so what chance did this horse have!?
Well the horse had no chance of understanding. He’d tried forward and back none of which seemed correct. He did the only other thing that seemed an option, he gave up trying. This is the point I was rewarded for breaking my golden rule of not staring. The horse turned to the owner, sighed and planted himself. The human equivalent of this body language would be a human turning toward someone else, shrugging their shoulders and say ‘What?’ I have termed this the EquiShrug. The owner was quick to shout and call the horse stupid. I wish I could have told her the horse was a kind-natured animal that had done its best to understand the human. He didn’t rear out of frustration, he didn’t buck in anger, and he didn’t gallop in a circle with anxiety. No, he’d done his best to understand and his kind soul had responded with an EquiShrug.
Another example of this was again witnessed as I patiently waited for someone to turn their horse into the paddock. I was holding my own horse 15 feet away waiting to use the same paddock. The horse was asked to walk through the opening, which it attempted to do, but again the lead rope was banged under the chin. Different owner, different horse, it was even a different yard! The horse stopped, even backed up which I saw was a completely correct response after receiving such halter pressure. Unfortunately this isn’t what the owner wanted, and the horse was pulled forward again. I turned my back as the horse went through the gate to resume minding my own business. I had to turn back when I heard shouting and for some unknown reason the horse was back outside the gate! I can’t even imagine how this came about, I should have kept watching. The rope was pulled again to indicate to the horse to walk forward, at this point the horse planted himself with the EquiShrug response, to which I simultaneously burst out laughing.
Laura considers herself an experienced horse owner and rider. Laura is the person you go to if you require something from her extensive and always stocked first aid kit. She is the one with 27 rugs in her stable and every type of equine boot that was ever invented. The knee boots admittedly hang on a hook in the corner as they fell out of favour in 2011. Laura has rented her stable at this particular yard for the last 17 years and in that time has owned 3 horses. Every yard has a Laura, they become part of the woodwork. As a new livery you soon learn no-one upsets Laura because of the sometimes fraught, but mostly amicable relationship she has built up with the owners of the establishment, she has reached the status of ‘I’ve been here longer than anyone’. This gives the impression that if you do not like Laura, her 17 years makes it apparent that if you fall out with her, you will be the one that leaves. There-fore even if you dislike Laura, it’s beneficial to always greet her with a heart-warming ‘Good morning!’ while continuing to raid her extensive first aid kit as and when required.
Everyday at 9 a.m Laura breezes onto the yard clutching a bag of apples, flap-jacks and sometimes the latest copy of Your Horse. You duck down in your stable because you are terrified Laura will insist on feeding your horse 7 or 8 flapjacks while pointing out why your horse must have gastric ulcers because he is showing all the symptoms that are listed in the magazine. You breathe a sigh of relief only when said magazine and flapjacks are safely in her storage cupboard and only then emit a totally fake, and an overly high pitched ‘Good morning!’
After 2 hours of coffee drinking and educating the obviously grateful liveries that all their horses have gastric ulcers Laura decides it’s high time she gave her horse some much needed schooling. After-all, her horse has spent 2 hours kicking the stable door and throwing his head about, which has nothing to do with the fact his stable is an oxygen-deprived stink-hole or that he’s fetlock deep in poop and hasn’t had his hay-net filled since last night. No, it’s because he’s an attention freak.
Laura leads her horse out of the stable, puts his bridle on and ties him up to get her saddle. At this point Sarah the yard owner strides across the yard and Laura must tell her how some of the riding school ponies must, yes you guessed it, could have gastric ulcers, and rushes to retrieve the now battered, somewhat soiled copy of Your Horse. After yet another coffee, 3 cigarettes, a pair of snapped reins, and finding spare reins, Laura finally gets the saddle on the horse.
Been somewhat rushed for time now Laura enters the school and does 2 laps of walk around the arena. The horse is lazy this morning and chooses to ignore Laura’s constant tap tap tap of her heel. This does not deter Laura however as perhaps the horse will choose to listen on the 800th tap. She doesn’t count, but she stays optimistic that although her horse ignored the first 2 taps he might miraculously pay attention when the tapping gets in the high hundreds. Laura decides a trot will wake him up so kicks just that little bit harder, unfortunately the horse has already squirreled this particular type of pressure away into his brain under the file name ‘ignore’.
All is not lost however, Laura has a special friend she can rely on called ‘Mr Schooling Whip’. 2 or 3 asks on the flank of her horse and the lazy walk becomes something of a lethargic trot. After one lap consisting of a lethargic trot, breaking back into a lazy walk, then back into a lethargic trot Laura is exhausted and decides it must surely be time for a coffee break. On dismounting, her horse gets the most gloriously grateful pat and 4 flapjacks for being such a good boy. Laura, now feeling ecstatic that she has finished riding for the day, can resume breezing around the yard telling everyone else how to look after their horse, and if you are especially lucky, she may help you with transitions in the arena while sipping her coffee and pointing out why your position is incorrect.
There are many Laura’s probably on every livery yard the world over. Not much is asked of the horse, in-fact it’s the horse that is in control. This supposedly ‘dumb’ animal has trained the human. It’s an advantageous situation on the whole. The stable isn’t much fun, but no energy is been expended while being supplied with hay, and he does eventually get turned out to pasture some 47 coffee’s later. The situation becomes serious however when you have a dominant horse that in time learns to ignore the owner completely when in the saddle, when leading, when loading and all manner of handling.
But for now, let’s just address the riding. Riders make the fundamental mistake of changing gait when the gait they were in remains far from perfect. No-one should be asking for trot when the walk is not perfect, and at all speeds i.e. slow, medium, fast walk. No-one should be asking for canter when the trot is not perfect, and again at all speeds. People need to just slow down the rate at which they train their horses. If your horse is ignoring your leg aid at walk, you are not ready to trot. Take an hour or take 2 hours concentrating on keeping your lower leg still and when you do use it make sure the horse knows it means something. It doesn’t matter if it takes 3 weeks to achieve walking around the arena in a medium walk, this is hands down better than the flappy whip yielding exhausting way that Laura rides. Laura is a passenger because her horse ignores her and this is potentially a dangerous situation. Far better to develop a partnership with your horse and this can only be done with patience and understanding. Fitting in a quick ride between Tesco and the school run should not exist in your brain. Have a monthly plan on what you would like to achieve and make time to make every schooling session count for something. Forget the coffee and chitter-chatter, attend to your horse. Lastly, unless you brush your horse’s teeth, leave the flap-jacks at home.
The advert will nearly always start with how the owner is full of regret, they nearly always have a sad heart, sometimes family circumstances forces a heart-breaking sale, and apparently it’s time to let this amazing horse go to his forever home. This horse is incredible and will ensure the next owner can compete to a high standard. Next comes the parentage, and there will be some long-winded name the writer assumes everyone will have heard of. I believe some people may be interested in blood-lines but I also believe those buyers won’t be on Facebook looking for a ‘good-do’er’. Moving on, this horse will have hunted, competed at both show-jumping and dressage, is good in all traffic, good to shoe, box, load, travel, clip, catch and is 100% bombproof with 3 good paces and ‘easy’ in all ways. There it is, in black and white, the generic horse selling advert.
The writer will not tell you they hunted just the once because during the meet when the farmer’s wife was handing out sausage rolls and mulled wine the horse reared 97 times and kicked out at the hounds running around its hooves. The first jump was negotiated at a heart-stopping flat out gallop but in the last stride the horse did a gravity defying 30 mph to 0 mph sliding halt. But hey, all was not lost, the rider at least made the jump while the horse followed the hunt on the other side of the hedge leaving them quickly alone with just the sound of the wind for company and the ever fading bark of the hounds.
Competing at both jumping and dressage is true enough (probably). The advert would be too long if it actually included that while the rider was performing the part of the test that required ‘a medium walk on a loose rein’ the horse actually napped out of the arena door. Or that a relative/friend was drafted in to stand with a whip and a ready click of the tongue at the scary looking upright. This doesn’t matter because after the second attempt of the course it went ok-ish and they were pleased with the clear round rosette that now proudly adorns the fridge. Plus they did win occasionally, the year the horse and rider dressed up as Santa and Rudolf at the yard Christmas Show was a resounding success and over the years the story may become a little embellished to where it wasn’t a Christmas Show, no they actually won the Working Hunter class.
The horse was obviously good in traffic some 3 years ago when a group from the yard went for a hack around the village on a quiet Sunday afternoon. They met at least 4 cars and even John on his bicycle that was off to visit his Aunty Mavis who lived ‘down the way’. The horse wasn’t too sure about John and his bicycle, but going past this nightmare contraption sideways while snorting with a clattering of hooves still counted as been quite good, mainly because no-one died.
No-one ever seems to question why a 12 year old horse wouldn’t be good to shoe and box, but these details seem to add some padding to the already outstanding achievements of this amazing horse. As is the 3 good paces, I should hope so! I have to reach back, way back, in my memory to try to recall a sound horse that is missing a good pace, but I’m struggling to recollect a horse that can cope with both walk and canter, but is unable to execute a reasonable trot. Clipping always goes swimmingly well although it can be somewhat of a hurried affair to get it completed before the Sedalin wears off. Loading is also entirely possible, but the advert omits minor details such as it takes 3 hours, 46 carrots, a lunge line, 4 people and a bucket of feed to actually complete the mission of getting the horse on the trailer. But getting to a show on time is entirely possible if you start attempting the load at 4 a.m.
The ‘good to catch’ is somewhat worrying and things have not gone well if you have a horse that does not trust a human approaching it with a head-collar. There could be various reasons why, too many to include here, but all those reasons add up to a whole. This whole has produced an animal that wants nothing to do with you at all. Logic defies me why people then think it’s acceptable to tack such an animal up to ride. There is some work to do here and it does not involve riding.
Many adverts contain the same generic information yet no two horses have had exactly the same training and experiences. Never assume an 8 year or 12 year old horse has seen everything, or is experienced in all manner of environments and situations. You may just end up with an equine brain full of incorrect training and faced with undoing 12 years of miscommunication and unpleasant experiences. If all of these adverts contain the same generic information, then what aren’t they telling you? The adverts won’t contain information that includes intermittent lameness and bouts of colic. Or that yes, the horse is great on the road, but avoid garbage collection days, the horse cannot tolerate wheelie bins.
Lastly…100% bombproof? There is no such thing.
They don’t hate or love us either they merely tolerate us because they have no choice. This is the equine version of Stockholm Syndrome. Those horses that can no longer cope with pain, fear or confusion will react in a way that earns them the label ‘Dangerous’. Unfortunately it is always viewed as the horses fault and his bad character.
Usually when a novice purchases a horse things can go well for a while, things are not going well for you in the eyes of a professional horseman, but you are blissfully unaware of this, as far as you are concerned everything is super. The horse greets you every morning at the yard and you think this is cute. The horse whinnies at you because you may provide food, he comes to you in the paddock because you may provide food. Everything else you do around or on him is merely tolerated. What the horse ideally wants is to be left alone by humans and to graze with his herd. From getting the horse in from the field to putting him out again, everything in between is him merely tolerating the situation.
The worst case scenario in my eyes happens every day all over the world. It’s the novice parents that buy their child a pony. It’s just all wonderful in the parents eyes, the child is so happy running up to the pony with a carrot, giving it cuddles, hanging off the neck and playing with it like it’s a 4 legged flesh and blood version of Barbie. On searching for suitable images I actually struggled to find a pony that wasn’t pinning its ears, the worst I saw is too unsuitable to even show. But through the smiles and laughter of a happy child, pause for a while and take note of the pony’s ears, be responsible parents and ask your child to show the pony some respect.
Riding schools are particularly stressful places, there’s a lot of human traffic and noise, the ponies can all be tied up too close together when ready for lessons. They tolerate uneducated hands pulling on their mouths, flapping legs and constant chatter from the children, they can be hot and sweaty from the previous lesson, I think at this point the level of tolerance can vastly decrease. While a professional horseman can at least help his horse to have a high level of toleration during training by communicating properly, many other owners are handling animals that have an ever decreasing level of tolerance. There is definitely a scale and when a horse reaches zero tolerance the manure hits the fan and unfortunately the horse gets the blame.
A horse doesn’t love or hate, like or dislike or favour one person over another. A horse is aware of its resources and its surroundings, pain, discomfort, hunger, feeling cold/hot, thirsty, other horses and its own instincts. Your horse has no concept of been naughty, bad, silly or good. The level of tolerance a horse can obtain can also be negative or positive. That horse you see in the barn standing alone, head down and ignoring the world has a high level of negative tolerance, he’s so tolerating of people and his surroundings that he’s switched off. He’s not deaf or old, he’s not sulking, anti-social, or a ‘funny old boy’, what he wants is for you to go away with your bad communication, screaming kids and terrible riders and to be turned out in a field where he can finally feel some comfort with his own kind.
The top dressage horse you have just seen perform perfectly on the tv has a high level of positive tolerance. But achieved by someone of Carl Hester standard, who has communicated well, the horse is not confused and understands what is being asked of him. However, this horse is not enjoying himself, he’s merely tolerating been ridden and would without a doubt rather be grazing in a quiet pasture.
Be mindful of your actions on and around horses, strive to communicate effectively in a way the horse can understand, and while we are all very busy exploiting these magnificent animals aim for your horse to have a high level of positive tolerance.
If I was to suggest to a non-equine friend of mine to come and hang wall-paper for me I already know she would be horrified and she would insist she knows nothing about house decorating. This is wall- paper people. Yet the same friend and many like her will wake up one day and decide to buy a horse. They imagine long rides across the British country-side, the birds are singing and the sun is setting turning the sky a beautiful orange.
Usually this decision comes from child-hood memories that contain 5 or 6 riding lessons, and now they are in their mid-thirties with disposable income they seize the opportunity to ride a horse again. No consideration is given to the fact that they are now 6 stone heavier and 25 years older. No consideration is given to the fact they really hadn’t mastered rising trot before they quit, and are not equipped with horsemanship skills or knowledge. Further-more the riding school pony she rode was 28 years old and was used to riding in circles every darn day in the same dusty arena.
So what does my friend do? She will go out and buy something ‘beautiful’. It must be chestnut, or all black with a flowing mane. It needs to be 8 years old because for reasons that escape me, that’s the golden age apparently. This horse has done dressage, it’s hunted, it’s done road work, it carried a 12 year old, it’s worth a lot of money…therefore it must be good, it’s the perfect horse.
It’s an exciting time, there’s a new hat to buy, a body protector, jodphurs and an Ariat riding jacket…and the long leather Tattini Breton boots are just to die for? Of course to complete the professional look she needs to carry a whip, she is not sure why, but its long, it’s black and the model in Horse and Hound was holding one, so why not?
Things go well for a while, mainly because she just sits there and goes for gentle walks around the arena. People at the yard tell her it’s a beautiful horse and she feels very professional and blessed. Slowly but surely little things start to happen that she completely ignores because she loved him by then, and anyway these little things are part of his character. He turns his back on her in the stable, he pins his ears when tightening the girth, he refuses to stand close enough to the mounting block or starts to get strong when leading to the paddock. The brand new tin of hoof oil remains untouched as apparently he’s funny about having his feet picked up.
The new friends she has made at the yard will tell her it’s the spring grass, or she needs to change his feed, perhaps get a new saddle, or to get his teeth checked, the list is endless as are the opinions. Unfortunately no-one has the knowledge to know whether this behaviour is physical or psychological. My friend lacks the skills to see if he is being dominant, or it is in-fact a pain issue. She missed seeing the small issues develop, and only noticed them when the problems became detrimental to her own well-being.
It’s never going to occur to my friend, not in a thousand years that while she was walking gently around the arena she never loosened those reigns, she never stopped that pressure on his mouth, it’s never going to occur to her that she inadvertently retrained the horse to ignore that pressure. What did she think would happen when she tried applying the same pressure at trot and canter, any guesses? Her balance was off and she was not aware of her own body language so in this scary moment she unwittingly clamped her legs on, basically signalling to the horse to go faster.
But she does not realise why this situation developed as it’s obvious the horse ignored her brakes because he’s dangerous, he’s strong and wants to bolt. Of course she fell, she hurt herself and needed 6 weeks off work. Her yard buddies blamed the dealer that sold him to her, some said he’s quirky or he has a screw loose. Because she is inundated with all of this fabulous advice she doesn’t actually call a professional to ride the horse, no one calls a trainer to get their expert opinion.
It doesn’t matter now because now he’s got that label. My friend decides to sell the horse, unfortunately all her new friends are keen to let everyone on the horsey grapevine know that ‘that horse put his last owner in hospital’. Not one person will say the owner was completely incompetent and had no business buying a horse, let alone sitting on one. No-one will tell my friend this because us equestrians get called busy-bodies and apparently a know it all, so we keep quiet.
If I were to ask Monty Roberts, Clinton Anderson or Pat Parelli if they considered a horse dangerous I would hope and pray they would answer yes. I am aware even the professionals have to be conscious of their own body language around horses 100% of the time, 100% alert when reading signals from the horse and to be 100% precise when communicating with the animal. Consider the concentration, the years of training, the commitment it takes to get to the professional level of horse expert. There is no room for error with these guys, but even then, with all that knowledge they can never rule out the risk of a freak accident. It happens. Consider that risk for a novice then, the risk of injury becomes highly likely.
After 2 years of falls, being trampled, dragged, bitten and owning a now worthless horse I should ask my friend what she would prefer, wallpapering my wall or buying a horse? I’m guessing she will supply the paste and avoid patterns depicting sunsets.
The Horse Industry
My Experience: I consider myself proficient in reading horse body language, although I believe there is always more to learn so do not consider myself an expert in horsemanship, I just strive to understand them better. Having worked in the horse industry and owned horses for nearly 40 years I have seen many changes in respect to training, owning, keeping and handling of horses. I have seen a decline in owners mastering horse skills and horsemanship knowledge. A rapid decline in-fact, 30 years ago it was rare for someone from an average income household to purchase a horse, when I was a child only one other person owned a pony out of the entire school. Now my hair-dresser has a horse, the cashier in Tesco has a horse, actually so does my dentist. This is all well and good, and why not you may ask yourself. It’s not good because horses are now so easily accessible the practice of irresponsible breeding is occurring, there are too many horses that don’t sell. These animals get left neglected in fields across Britain, they die and their bodies get dumped along a road side.
Modern Owners: So many potential owners see a horse as something you sit on, no really, that’s what they think. It’s that easy, you buy a horse, saddle it up and you sit on it. Now consider the accidents that are happening from falls, kicks and when riding on the road. We can blame the horse, we can blame the car driver, heck we can blame that plastic bag that blew under the horse. Everybody else is responsible apart from the rider/owner. No-one thought to train that horse to disregard plastic bags, pheasants, speeding cars, barking dogs, tractors and a hundred other things. Please don’t blame that lady with the umbrella either, you should have been in the school showing your horse an umbrella. People aren’t training their horses because they do not have the time or knowledge and after all, it’s just a horse that you sit on, right? On a positive note occasionally I do see a new owner get professional tuition straight away, and no, I don’t mean off a 25 year old ‘riding instructor’. I mean from a professional horseman that understands horse psychology and is a clinician and trainer and has been in the industry at least 30 years. Anyway, considering all the things horses are likely to spook at I’m incredulous why these people ‘sit on them’ without any preparation (see my umbrella comment). My riding instructor was a complete dragon in my 8 year old mind, and she made me trot for two years before moving onto canter. These days I see people cantering on their 3rd lesson! A review I read recently on a riding yard said ‘Don’t go there my child wasn’t cantering after 2 lessons’. That riding school was avoiding serious injury to your child, my dear.
Grooms: At least 20 years ago being a groom was a skilled job, tasks would involve clipping, bandaging, treating minor injuries, managing ailments and conditions, taking care of tack, training, riding and lunging, grooming to a high standard, plaiting, rasping feet, the list was endless. Now with this growing tide of horse ownership the standard of grooming has fallen into decline as owners themselves are in no need of a good groom because surely all one does is brush off the horse before sitting on it. Groom’s wages fell, and good grooms left the industry. Grooms can now be as young as 15 with about as much knowledge as the owner that has had 4 riding lessons.
Management: Horse knowledge used to be passed down through the generations, it was a subject one would continually study, one would strive to understand these animals better. This rarely happens now, and it can’t happen, as much as some people will not like my views if an owner is working a 40 hour week, when would they have time to increase their horse knowledge and to train their horse? They simply just don’t have the time. Livery yards are becoming bigger, the stables are wall to wall, often 30, 40 + horses under one roof in a converted barn.
Full year turn out is becoming impossible as while yards can build more stables, they do not have enough land to offer much grass so the horses stay in most of the time. Colic and gastric ulcer cases are on the increase, and of course they are. Too much feed, too much hay with lots of standing around, any animal on the planet including us will suffer the consequences of eating and not moving. Every topic I have covered here could be its own subject and a thousand words long, and it will be. I can’t change the horse industry, and it’s not all bad. The horse is an incredibly forgiving and tolerant creature and I wish to write about my own experiences which span 40 years.