The first thing I teach a horse is that he isn’t the center of my world and that it’s perfectly fine to ignore me. I see hands going up all over the place, “You WANT your horse to ignore you? That doesn’t make sense.”
Some folks believe horses touch them to connect, perhaps an invitation to hug or play. Like art and love, context is king when it comes to interpreting horse behavior. No single element tells the whole story. A cocked hind leg may be a warning or show relaxation. Ears, legs, neck position, or facial expression alone isn’t sufficient to get the whole picture and draw a reliable conclusion.
Touch can be a gesture of affection or agitation, offering rigid connection hoping it’s the right answer. Horses who touch, touch, touch are often nervous. But if you have a carrot in your right back pocket, your horse may offer whatever she thinks will get the goodie. Even then, how your horse chooses to ask is important.
“Say Mom, I notice you have a carrot. In case you’re looking for a place to put that, I’d like to register my interest.”
“Please, please, pretty please – I gotta have the carrot. What do I have to do?”
“Carrot! Gimme the goods before I hurt you.”
If you’ve been around horses and owners long enough, you’ve seen examples of balanced horses clearly communicating a request, desperate horses getting pushy with their muzzles, maybe dancing around vulnerable feet, or little darlin’s that become alligators when there’s food within twenty paces.
Relaxed Horses are the Best Students
Tense horses make poor students and establishing a relationship with someone who’s afraid of you seldom ends well. I want horses to be comfortable around me, able to nibble, wander, or watch the calves in the neighbor’s pasture without worrying about what I might do if they disconnect. I also want to command a horse’s focus in a split-second. That doesn’t happen in a day or week – but it’s my goal.
The best way to get a horse’s attention is by earning it. Demanding it creates anxiety or resistance, even if your horse is afraid to move two feet away from you.
Most clinicians teach horses that the safest place in the world is next to them. That’s fine, as long as the horse isn’t afraid of the consequences of walking away. I want a horse to choose to be with me – but not constantly. Is there anyone you really want next to you every minute?
It’s Okay to Require Focus Sometime, But Not All The Time
There are specific situations where horses must stand quietly, patiently, and in a particular frame. Conformation classes for horses and dogs include setting up or stacking, presenting the animal in the most flattering and correct pose. Other than that, horses should easily move between standing at attention, being at ease, or dismissed to do as they please.
Students and teachers can be in a room together purposefully, students focused on the teacher, even if they aren’t in the mood. Teachers and students should also be able to enjoy recess together, free to look, move, or wander in body or thought however they choose. When students or teachers pass each other in the hall, they should warmly greet one another, then continue on their way. The students don’t have to snap-to, locking eyes and attention on the teacher.
Horses and students are individuals, not game pieces with limited options to move within the rules.
Is Your Horse Free to Disconnect?
Horses can completely understand the difference between formality and candid relaxation – if you let them. Like children, horses have limited attention spans. Wise trainers don’t push it. Relationship with a horse is a win-win proposition.
Since horses are primarily limited to body language plus spirit or energy changes, learn what nuances determine your horse’s state of mind – connected and tense (not so good) or disconnected and ready to focus (fabulous.)
Always recognize horses with affection, even when meetings are unplanned, like passing a friend in the hallway. If a horse meets your eyes, respond with a greeting or smile.
Horses know who they’re dealing with, which tends to get horse owners into trouble. Be polite. Pay attention. Learn to recognize the difference in your horse’s body, spirit, and energy between tension and confidence. Encourage your horse to disconnect, to relax, to let down, even when you’re there.
You’ll love the result.
Recommended article – Teaching Your Horse to Relax by Anna Blake