Body Language & Communicating With the Horse
By Cynthia McFarland with Chris Cox
We’ve all been around people who talk a lot without really saying much.
Unfortunately, that’s exactly the story with too many horse owners. Their horses don’t clearly understand what is being asked because the owners don’t communicate in ways the horse relates to. You can avoid many frustrations if you learn to “talk” to your horse the right way. Your actions need to be specific and your body language needs to send the correct message.
“Remember that horses mostly “˜speak’ to each other through body language,” explains horseman and clinician Chris Cox. “Body language is crucial because this is something the horse instinctively understands.”
In a herd, the dominant horse is not the one doing the running around. Simply by his or her attitude and body language, the alpha horse runs the show. A horse will try the same thing with a human that he does with another horse. If he can get in your space and you back up, he learns that he’s in control. If he pins his ears and you stop whatever it is you’re doing to him, he knows who the boss is”¦.and it’s not you.
“You will stay a step ahead if you remember that the horse is always reading your body language, even when you don’t think you’re sending a message,” says Cox.
“If you move slowly and passively around him, he takes this to mean that you are unsure and lack confidence. On the other hand, if you move purposefully, he understands that you are taking charge. Too many people move slowly and cautiously around their horses all the time. They think they’re making things easy on the horse, but they are actually confusing him. The horse needs you to be his leader and if you won’t act confident and in charge, then the horse gets concerned and thinks he needs to be the leader. That doesn’t tend to work out very well!”
When Cox first works with a young, inexperienced horse, within a matter of minutes he can drive that horse around just by using his body language, without ever being close enough to touch him. When he moves quickly and purposefully, the horse looks to him as a leader.
“I don’t use many verbal cues with my horses,” says Cox. “I’ve found that the more people talk to their horses, the less they tend to communicate through body language. You can certainly use some verbal cues, but try to concentrate on putting your expression into your body for the horse to read.”
You also want to be very aware of your horse’s body language. Paying attention to this will usually tell you what he’s thinking before he reacts. Pay close attention to his eyes and ears as they will always tell you where his attention is focused. For example, you shouldn’t step into the saddle if your horse is not focused on you. If his head is turned to the side away from you and his ears are pricked forward in that direction, then he’s not paying attention to you and mounting at that moment might not be a safe thing to do.
Reading your Horse’s Body Language:
“¢ Watch the eyes and ears, as they will tell you when the horse’s feet are about to move.
“¢ When the horse’s ears are flicking back and forth, he’s trying to take in more than one thing. He may be confused or trying to sort out what’s happening around him.
“¢ If his ears are pinned flat back, be careful. He’s showing aggression and dominance.
“¢ Licking the lips is a positive sign and means your horse is relaxed and accepting.
“¢ If the horse swings his hindquarters towards you, he’s telling you one of three things: he’s either dismissing you, threatening you, or he’s afraid. None of these is positive!
“¢ When the horse’s neck is stiff and he’s carrying his head high, he may be frightened, or he might be showing resistance or even aggression.
“¢ A horse that is swishing his tail when you’re riding or asking him to do something specific can be telling you he’s irritated and had as much as he’s going to take. But swishing the tail can also mean the horse is uncomfortable or in pain. This can be a sign your horse’s back is sore or his saddle doesn’t fit properly. Rule this out before assuming the horse is just being difficult.
“¢ Grinding the teeth is annoying and can signal different things. Many horses do this when they are nervous. Some horses develop this habit because they are resisting the bit or too heavy a hand. You may have too strong a bit or it may not be adjusted correctly. Teeth grinding might also be a sign your horse’s mouth/teeth are bothering him, so have an equine dentist take a look to rule out any physical problems.
“These are some universal body language signals you should be aware of, but the best way to learn your individual horse is simply by spending time with him,” says Cox. “Watch him when he’s loose in the pasture or corral with other horses. Pay attention to his reaction to your approach. Notice how he acts when you work around him on the ground, in addition to when you are riding him. The better you know your horse, the better you can begin relating to him in ways he understands, and making progress with your horsemanship.”
Up Close with Chris Cox
Ranch-raised in Australia, Chris came to the United States in 1986 to make a career of working with horses. Years of working horseback on the ranch near Queensland gave Chris a healthy respect for the horse’s ability and intelligence, and helped him develop his own methods of individualized training.
Active in the cutting horse world as both a trainer and competitor, Chris has trained a variety of breeds for different disciplines. He travels the United States, Canada, South America and Australia appearing at expos, conducting clinics and horsemanship demonstrations. His “Come Ride the Journey’ tour takes him to cities across the U.S. each year. Chris offers week-long intensive horsemanship clinics at his Outback Ranch in Mineral Wells, Texas.
Western Horseman recently released Ride the Journey, by Chris Cox with Cynthia McFarland, a 225-page, full color book that details Chris’ practical methods and training techniques. Packed with step-by-step exercises and color photos, the book will help you improve your horsemanship skills, no matter what discipline or breed you ride.
Visit www.chris-cox.com or call Chris Cox Horsemanship Company at 1-888-81-HORSE for information about the Ride the Journey book, upcoming course dates and appearances, equipment and training DVDs/videos.