Horses have walked this Earth for more than 54 million years. While some do not consider them among the brightest of the animal kingdom, most are unaware that through their lengthy tenure on this planet they have created an effective non-verbal language that some have coined “the language of Equus.” This is a language that goes well beyond the unspoken. Through careful observation, humans have been able to interpret and adopt this method of communication.
Originating from the horses’ body language, behavior, interaction and herd hierarchy, humans can now speak with them through our own body language, gestures and even our intentions. This language, like any, requires patience and practice. It can be taught to anyone but fluency only comes from time spent observing and communicating with the native speakers.
Not only can horses read the body language of every member of their species they can read humans just as easily. They can, almost immediately, see your agenda and how you are feeling. They will highlight your strengths and weaknesses. In effect, they know who you are and what that means to them in a very short period of time. You can lie to yourself but you can’t lie to a horse. Therefore it’s important that you begin every interaction with a clear mind, leaving “all your baggage” at the gate. What we are dealing with here is a new approach to horsemanship.
One place to start the conversation with your horse is the round pen. Using the round pen as your classroom can be very helpful in creating a trust-based relationship. This type of conversation is the foundation to all interaction, every ground session, ridden work and ultimately your success. A 50-foot round pen is suggested as it allows free motion for horses of most sizes. It’s also important to make sure you have appropriate footing which is essential to maintaining health and fitness.
This is an example of a typical session in the round pen. It’s important to note that this is an overview and is not intended to be a formula or a “quick fix” to solve behavioral issues and requires dedication and commitment to learn and apply. Remember that communication takes place whenever you are together. Each gesture and motion you make says something to your 4-legged partner.
Familiarization: Horses need the chance to explore the round pen at liberty. They naturally check out their perimeters, take time to settle and to explore the vicinity through their senses. Each horse is an individual and as such will react in different ways to different circumstances. This 15-20 minute period is an ideal time to observe its character and learn to read its personality.
Orientation: This is the official introduction and there are many important steps in this portion which include:
• The introduction to the four directions (N, S, E & W) of the round pen
• Introduction of body language
• The opportunity for handler to read horse and horse to read handler
• The time for the adrenaline of horse and handler to subside
• Creation of a comfort zone in the center of the round pen
• Creation of a safe distance between horse and handler
• Manipulation of speed and direction by the handler to gain leadership
Communication: In a natural herd environment hierarchy is determined through many factors, one being the manipulation of speed and direction. As mentioned in the Orientation process the handler adopts this practice in the round pen environment. The connection between horse and handler takes place before or during the orientation, with a herd of 2 being formed. Once the herd has been formed and the orientation has been completed the handler asks the horse to leave by driving them away using body language. This is the time to make character assessments, to complete a health check and to begin forming the partnership with the horse.
A higher ranking horse will use his body language to communicate or punish another by sending it out of the herd. This gives a strong message as banishment is a grave risk to their survival. Through the position the handler takes of driving the horse forward, he will retreat. This is a form of advance and retreat, also known as pressure release and has been used by horsemen for centuries. The handler then adopts equine body language by squaring her shoulders, placing her eyes on the horse’s eyes, and advancing forward in an assertive manner. The combination of proximity, speed, movements, and eye contact can mean a number of different things.
As prey animals, horses naturally run for ¼ to 3/8th of a mile before they stop to assess what made them flee. This distance is roughly translated to 7-8 revolutions in the round pen. The fleeing that is induced should not be through fear, but rather a request for forward motion. The trainer takes possession of any area the horse stands in at any given moment gaining leadership. A speed slightly beyond their natural gait is best and will often be in the form of a canter.
When it feels like the right time to change direction, the horse is asked to change direction towards the round pen wall through the trainer’s body positioning. The same process of asking the horse to leave is repeated in this direction. Unlike humans, horses only transfer about 20-50% of all information from the left to the right side of the brain and as such they consider this to be new ground that they are exploring.
Once the horse has explored both directions he is then asked to return to familiar ground, pressure is reduced but an active involvement is maintained. An assertive walk forward is continued, while allowing the horse to reduce his speed and maintain focus and attention. The trainer’s body language becomes a little softer as his intention changes. This procedure is also helpful because the horse will often reveal his history during this time.
The horse will begin to communicate his desire to return to the herd of two. He will relay very clears signs, such as reducing the size of his circle, relaxing his jaw and neck and many other gestures that require some study for the handler to recognize. These are all desired responses which need acknowledgement through a release of pressure resembling a drop of the eyes, a relaxing of shoulders, slowing of the walk, or a hesitating in the line throwing. This is what makes it a conversation, rather than a demand or a talking at the horse. Each try by the horse should be acknowledged in this manner. Overall, the handler is looking for a complete feeling of unity and a commitment from the horse prior to inviting it back to the herd. This will come with experience and the whole of the “Reach Out” process generally should take no longer than 15-20 minutes.
Reach Out to Horses: A suitable moment is identified to invite the horse to become part of the team again. The invitation takes the form of a sweeping motion in front of the horse and is similar to the natural gesture of displaying ones flank, while eating. The passive nature of the maneuver asks the horse to slow down and step closer. He will choose to stay close to the wall, come part of the way or all the way to the handler. If the communication is done correctly but the horse does not return to the handler this may possibly point to a problem, issue or habit the horse developed before the session. Ultimately the greatest compliment is that the horse comes up to the handler and reaches out towards her with his nose!
Close Connection: An invitation to the horse is given to come into the heart space where he receives lots of reward and reassurance – creating a close connection. A rub on the forehead will reinforce his positive behavior. The ultimate reward for a horse is the release of pressure… which translates to walking away. Horses naturally move in arcs and angles so, when the time is right, the handler walks away in a clockwise direction to perform a figure of 8. The qualities of a leader are displayed to bring the horse back to the centre of the round pen, which becomes a familiar comfort zone.
Reaching out to your horse is the foundation to all communication. It can take on many forms and will allow you to learn to read and communicate with your horse, while building a trust-based relationship. It is the beginning to all success and will aid in improving existing relationships, embarking on new partnerships, and assessing character and health. From here you can lead into starting young horses, problem solving, improving ground manners, teaching to lead & load, eliminate kicking, biting, and rearing, just to name a few. Creating this trust-based relationship with your horse can be a magical experience and the moment you feel that true partnership is a moment you will never forget.