Horses are a naturally intuitive and expressive creature, part of what draws us to them is how deeply emotive they are and how rewarding it can be to use body language to develop a dialogue between horse and human. The majority of us know basic equine behavior, even a non-horse person might be able to tell that pinned ears means the horse is angry, so approach with caution. A horse that is obviously scared may flee from human touch, or exhibit defensive behaviors. However, there are many more subtle displays of behavior that can easily be overlooked. Not all horses are outwardly expressive, many horses, especially ones that have suffered a trauma, can be harder to read. It can be difficult when working with introverted horses not to inadvertently “run over” their emotions, because their behaviors can be so easy to miss.
Two great examples of this are the miniature horses that we currently have in our training program, Mary and Holly. Mary came into our program terrified of people, and at first her behavior was very defined, she would physically shake with fear when a human approached her. However, once she was caught, and haltered Mary would walk with her handler on a line and stand to be groomed. Even though Mary was compliant, it didn’t mean she was no longer scare, if you examined her behavior more closely, she was very shut down, and in a state we call “learned helplessness.” Her eyes would be wide, her body would be tense, her head would be up, and it would appear that she was almost holding her breath. So even though she was following along, she was not truly comfortable with what we were asking of her.
Had these subtle signs gone unnoticed, we would have caused her to further backslide instead of progress in her relationship with humans. In order to “listen” to what Mary was trying to tell us we took a giant step back and started with the absolute basics. We didn’t halter her for at least a month, instead we worked on her just being accepting of us in her space. We used clicker training and positive reinforcement to help bridge the gap for her and we had great success. After some time, Mary started to willingly come up to us and let us scratch her, which was a huge change. This would not have been possible if we hadn’t been watching and listening to what she was trying to tell us in her own quiet way.
Holly is another great example of the importance of noticing subtle signs in equine behavior. On first impressions Holly seemed friendly, and playful, so we progressed with her as normal. Due to Holly’s outgoing nature and curiosity we missed the more discreet signs of discomfort and fear. Because we missed the subtle signs, Holly needed to resort to more drastic behaviors. She started bolting away from us, and not wanting to be caught. It was then that we realized we had missed the small signs of fear that she had been displaying.
Even experienced horse people can make mistakes and misread a horse, but if we can be more aware of these things then we can better understand our horses and how to help them. So next time you approach your horse see how they react when you walk up to them. Do they turn their head away from you or toward you? If you are walking with your horse are they tense or relaxed? When you are brushing your horse are their eyes soft, or wide and worried? These are important things to keep in mind when working with your horse. By being on the lookout for these very subtle signs of discomfort, anxiety, or fear we can better understand how to help our horses and acknowledge their feelings.