Beyond Body Language is the name of a presentation I started doing a number of years ago. By learning to recognize and respond to the things that happen long before a horse pins their ears or lifts a foot we let our horses know we can engage in a conversation, we can hear them. And that gives them great hope, motivating them to join us in the inter-species dance between horse and human.
I think less about how to shape their behavior and movement to suit my needs and more about how to shape my movement and behavior so that I am an attractive herd member. If it feels good to be with me then they will join me in my chosen activities with curiosity and interest. If I consistently prove to be a good herd member they eventually join me with enthusiasm.
Twenty-seven years of taking care of large numbers of horses provides me with ample opportunity to observe how horses behave when they are isolated from each other versus when they are in groups. Functional, healthy herds with ample food, shelter, water and space to move. What happens within a herd or between individual horses that causes them to move together? How does herd movement happen and what is the advantage to moving and working together?
These are the things I wanted to understand and apply to my one on one time with my horses. What do I have to find in myself to move and be in a way that is attractive and interesting to my horses? What I find is that they are so very sophisticated in reading body language that we can be equally sophisticated and refined in how we move when we invite them to do things with us.
So why does this body language based approach to moving with horses work so well?
We all know horses are herd animals. They are stressed when they are kept in isolation and not allowed or able to move freely.
But why is that?
All of life is strongly motivated to survive and thrive. There are some pretty basic things that constitute survival needs: access to air or oxygen, shelter, food, water, room to move, companionship and rest. If any one of these basic survival needs is lacking that thing becomes the horse’s primary focus until the need is satisfied. Our nervous system believes it is a life or death thing. Nothing else matters until that need is satisfied.
So why is companionship a survival need? In a herd of prey animals there is safety in numbers. An isolated herd member makes a much easier target for a predator than a flock or herd. A herd can share the responsibility for looking out for danger, then work together to protect one another, safe from predation. That basic survival need of rest can’t happen in isolation. They look out for each other so while some rest others keep watch. The shared responsibility allows each herd member to have down time in the safety of the herd.
A key component of feeling safe hinges on knowing when to expend energy and when to conserve it. Needless expenditure of energy or an expenditure of energy that leads to exhaustion means there might not be enough gas left in the tank to escape a threat. That level of fatigue taps into basic survival needs again. Horses are masters at knowing just how much to do to stay fit and agile so they stand a better chance at survival.
All that’s required to have a horse happily move with a human is an understanding of how to tap into that herd or flocking behavior. How do we become a member of the herd so they feel safe in an inter-species herd of two? When a horse feels part of a herd with me they have a strong desire to stay with me, to ‘follow my lead’. It’s natural to do so.
Being a good herd member means: I pay attention to our surroundings and make sure I always place myself between my horse and a potential threat – I have good situational awareness. I defend my herd mate against threats as aggressively as I need to (say another horse decides to charge the horse I’m leading out of the pasture or paddock – I won’t let that happen). I move with confidence, carry myself well and have good balance. I’m not overly emotional. I’m positive and encouraging.
Beyond that I show my horses that I have good ideas by encouraging them to engage in activities and types of movement that make them feel good in their body. We share movement that makes them stronger, more agile, capable herd members in life, not just in our chosen activity. What I ask them to do with their body has tangible benefits to them. I never work them so long or so hard that they feel compromised by their level of soreness or fatigue.
In doing so I can capitalize on herd behavior by becoming someone my horse wants to stick close to. For safety, companionship and the ability to rest in safety.
Once I tap into this desire to be part of a herd or flock then we naturally synchronize with one another. In fact, horses are so good at mimicking movement it’s best if I move naturally and understated. Any exaggerated movement will be picked up and imitated. Not always to good effect!
Herd dynamics and how horses move together is not complicated. We don’t have to do anything crazy or wild to attract their attention and interest. Be consistent, true and positive. Trust their instinct to follow and flow with others!
If you’d like to learn more about this approach to interacting with horses I’ll be teaching several workshops this fall: