One of the challenges of working with horses is that we don’t inherently speak the same language. With practice we can learn a lot about equine body language and can train ourselves to listen to actions and behaviors. With many of our rescue horses coming from unknown backgrounds, we often have to make our best guess as to what exactly is going on in their body and mind.
As humans we can simply ask each other how we’re feeling or whether something is wrong. When you go to the doctor the question is always, “where does it hurt?” Unfortunately, we can’t ask our horses these questions so easily. What we can do is pay close attention to our horses’ actions and reactions, so that we can notice if they’re trying to ‘tell’ us something. One way that we can accomplish this here, is with the amount of hands on time we spend with the rescue horses each day. In addition, we have multiple training logs where we can make note of what we did with each horse that day, and any feed, medical or behavioral changes.
Horses are always communicating in ways both large and small, and it’s our job to notice even the subtlest signs. We can then play detective to determine what the horse may be trying to say. Seemingly small signals such as tight muscles, a worried eye or ears back could indicate larger physical issues. When minor displays of body language are overlooked, the situation could escalate into larger forms of ‘communication’ such as bucking, bolting, or biting. This is one reason why it is so important to notice smaller changes before they become big problems.
It can be easy to label a horse in a negative way based on ‘undesirable’ behavior. The bucker, the bolter, the horse that’s always grumpy, etc. However, any behavior we might observe shouldn’t be thought of as good or bad, but simply as information: horses react how they think they need to in the moment. When observing ‘undesirable’ behaviors, always look for a physical cause first. For example, the ‘bucker’ could have an ill fitting saddle, a sore back, kissing spine, etc, while the “grumpy” horse could have Lyme, ulcers, arthritis… the list of physical possibilities is long.
A good example of this would be Shadow. He was said to be a bucker, and initially we were unable to pick up his feet without him kicking out. At times during groundwork when asked to circle left, he would pin his ears and show clear resistance. We immediately considered physical issues, and a veterinary and chiropractic evaluation revealed that he had significant arthritis in his neck and very limited range of motion in his shoulders and hocks. Certain movements caused pain, and Shadow was doing his best to let us know. He was not being ‘naughty,’ just reacting when something hurt.
Most equine behaviors are directly cause and effect. The majority of these undesirable signs can have a direct correlation to a problem, misunderstanding, or pain that the horse is trying to get across. When we notice signs that a horse is trying to tell us something, we can acknowledge them and respond by taking action to help them feel better. When working with any animal it’s our job to have empathy, and to communicate as clearly as possible despite the language barrier. Listening to our horses, recognizing behavioral changes, and addressing them allows for communication between horse and human and makes for a happier horse and rider.