Beyond Body Language 3: Watch those Ears!

Rio and I riding

We hear it all the time.  Our horse’s body language is important.  It’s one of their primary means of communicating with us.  Every movement, every twitch of a muscle means something.  The more we learn to recognize their signals and accurately interpret them the better!

This week is special.

I’m inspired by spending last weekend teaching calming signals with Anna Blake.  We had a blast and I was thrilled to find another like minded soul!

This weekend I glued myself to a round pen rail to watch Frederic Pignon demonstrate  how he builds a relationship with horses.  Watching him work was a bucket list item for me.  I’ve seen loads of videos and images of horses working with a person “at liberty” and the horse doesn’t look very happy to me. So I’ve not pursued it much because I didn’t want to bother my horses in my learning process.

Frederic’s horses always seem so mentally/emotionally free, I wanted to understand how he creates that.

Of course body language is key.  He gathers loads of information from the horses, and much to my delight I found he does it in the same way I do.  We watch how they move and the gestures  they use when we offer a suggestion.  We touch them to see how they respond to touch and  we feel with our hands.  We resonate with them to learn their story.  Are they happy, sad, anxious?

It’s nice to discover like-minded people out there in the world!

Of course, hot on the heels of watching Frederic interact so respectfully with horses I saw some images of horses working with a person at liberty that did not look so happy to me.  I see this so often.  The people are smiling and looking like they are playing while the horses look angry and frustrated.  Their movement may be expressive but it’s not happy.

And that’s what inspired today’s body language post.

Let’s talk about ears!

Let’s be clear.  Pinned ears = unhappy horse. Period.

Frederic always stopped when a horse pinned their ears or even if their ears stopped moving.  He apologized for doing too much, helped them calm back down and then asked again.

Anna Blake has this to say on the subject:

Ear pinning is not just a calming signal; it’s a loud one. It means that the work is too loud or too fast or just too TOO. If a whip is used, it’s being overused. Listen to your horse more and play the “game” less.

When our horses are actively engaged with us and comfortable their ears are almost constantly in motion.  When they get anxious, tense or upset or when they are processing something those ears stop moving. They fix in a position and stay there. For me, any fixed position needs to be noted and acknowledged by pausing and breathing. Checking in with myself and my horse.  Did I do too much?  Did I ask for something you can’t give? Did I ask you to do something too long?

The more we learn to listen to what our horses are telling us and respond to their feedback appropriately the stronger the bond we forge, the more they trust us.  Communication goes both ways.  We ask a question or make a suggestion and our horse answers. Are you listening to your horse’s response to your question or just throwing another question at him?

Here is the same series of images I included in last week’s post. Notice how mobile and expressive Sundance’s ears are.  Can you tell when he’s feeling confident? Anxious? Skeptical? Relaxed? Guarded? Curious?

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Are you listening?

What are your horse’s ears telling you?

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