Who’s Aggravating Whom?

The horse and human herd

Have you ever thought about the impact you have on your horse’s environment?

How your presence, your behavior and your needs influence your horse’s behavior?

Of course I know that when I am doing something with my horse they are picking up on all sorts of small things from me. If I’m edgy they’ll be edgy and if I’m calm, generally they can be calm too. At this most basic level sure, I know I have an impact on my horse’s environment and how they behave around me.

When Anna Blake was here teaching with me we had some fascinating experiences with the horses that I hope I can put into words!

During the weekend there were several occasions where we had a herd of people in with a herd of horses. My guys are pretty laid back so I didn’t think much of it.   It was a brisk day with a cold wind and scattered showers so the horses were huddled together under the shelter and more or less ignored us as Anna began her demonstration.

It felt as though we were a presence that was not disruptive to the horses. We could co-exist in the same space easily, without bothering each other much, which you can clearly see in the image above.

Then something changed. As we moved around the pen seeking a better view or some shelter from the wind, we began to come into touching range of the horses. I don’t know what it is, but it seems to happen to all of us, myself included, and it seems to be especially insidious around horses we don’t know. We want the horse to come see us and let us touch them. We can’t help it. It’s some deep heart desire to be chosen by a horse. We don’t care if they want to use as a scratching post we’re just honored they chose us!

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And that’s how it happened, sneakily, somewhere in this mix of horse and people contact was made. Someone touched a horse, more than likely more than one of us! Just like that the focus was no longer on Anna’s demonstration. The peaceful feeling of coexisting was gone, replaced by a bunch of ‘needy’ horses crowding people and begging for scratches. It seemed innocent and kind of fun to those involved. I mean, how cool is it to have a bunch of friendly horses come and choose to hang with you?

Into the midst of this rather chaotic scene rang the voice of authority. Anna calls it like she sees it. It’s one of the things I love most about her. And she says: “Who’s aggravating horses!?”

That got everyone’s attention. I don’t think anyone there, myself included, would have seen it that way. That the humans had aggravated the horses and the behavior we were witnessing was not, in fact, cute, friendly and cuddly, but rather a reflection of our neediness. The horses responded to our need to touch them by becoming rather obnoxious and pushy. Anna’s take seemed to be that in our reaching out and touching in the way we do we were actually causing the obnoxious behavior in the horses.

That this behavior was not in fact happy, friendly horses but irritated horses.

Anna’s suggestion – “let’s see if we can become invisible again”. And that’s when the most amazing thing happened. As each of us re-focused our attention on the demonstration and moved out of the herd’s space they all quietly moved off, bunched back up and went back to resting comfortably. No more irritation, no more pushy behavior.

What blew me away about witnessing this was realizing how much we influence our horse’s environment and behavior even when we don’t intend to! The best way I could interpret the behavior we saw was “needy” – they were reflecting our need to touch them back to us in such an obvious way.

How often do we invade their space and put our paws all over them? We call it love. But what do they call it? I swear it’s a curse at this point because now I can’t un-see this. Every time I approach my horses now it’s with this awareness of how they actually feel about my approach, my touch, my need to be close to them.  Not my rose colored glasses vision of how I think they feel or how I want them to feel.  I think I’m starting to be able to tell the difference between affection and irritation. There is a peaceful quality to the connection when it’s mutual that isn’t there when I’m forcing myself on them.

This whole experience helped solidify something I always knew but have so much more appreciation for now. Horses have a whole, complete, rich life that has absolutely nothing to do with me. When I enter their space I enter their home and boy, I do so with a great deal more consciousness now than I used to. They give me subtle signs that I’m invited in or not, that they are up for an interaction or not. The more I honor their life and their boundaries around being touched the more likely they are to do the things I have in mind AND honor my space and how I would like to be approached and touched.

My relationships with my own horses have blossomed since I stopped assuming they want to be touched. I ask their permission and pay close attention to whether or not they like how and where I’m touching them. If they don’t want me to touch them I honor that. After all, I don’t want them barreling into my space and shoving their nose in my face either.

If you aren’t happy with your horse’s behavior you might want to ask yourself: How am I influencing my horse’s environment, mood and behavior? You might be surprised! I know I was!

 

 

 

Beyond Body Language: “Heavy On the Forehand”

Horses naturally bear about 60% of their weight on their forehand.  It’s an accepted rule of thumb and also something that folks who ride strive to change so that it’s easier for our horses to carry our weight.

But what if you have a horse who is excessively on the forehand?  One who actively leans forward?

This is what it might look like:

Mystic leaning forward 1

Now this is a pretty extreme example and you might think this was just a moment in time and not her norm.  And that’s a valid thing to consider.  We probably couldn’t draw a firm conclusion from this image alone.

What I’m looking at that tells me she’s actively leaning forward in this image is:

  • The tight, distinct muscle definition in the front of her shoulders and the fronts of her legs.
  • The steep angle of her front legs well back under her body.  Her feet should not be behind her shoulders.

Here are two more images of the same mare at different ages and stages of development.  That pattern shows up in every photo so now I know it’s a postural habit for her, without doubt.

Mystic leaning 3Mystic leaning 2

Why does this matter?

From a training perspective – if a horse is naturally balanced this heavily on the forehand it might show up as any number of “training” issues:

  • One of those horses who seems to be invading your space all the time.  It’s like they just can’t get their feet stopped in time to avoid bumping into you!
  • Horses who seem to be clumsy and stumble on their front feet or have a hard time changing direction easily.
  • Horses that can’t stop and stand still, they are antsy all the time.
  • They won’t stand for mounting.
  • They walk off the second you put your foot in the stirrup.
  • They are heavy in the bridle.
  • They have no brakes and so on.

Sometimes a horse is just born this way and there are no other major problems.  These horses can learn to shift their balance and change their entire posture, as this mare did:

Mystic gallop summer

It can take some time though and I think it’s worth noting because these horses are not trying to be disobedient or rude they just quite literally, can’t get themselves stopped because they are constantly falling forward.  They just need help with their balance!

If you have a horse who was not born this way and has been a healthy athlete and suddenly develops this tendency then it could be they are leaning forward to take pressure off of something that’s bothering them in the hind end – anything from low back pain to Sacroilliac injury or strain to stifle or hock problems.

Some things are not training issues.  It pays to know how to tell if there is something else going on that is making it difficult for your horse to comply with your requests.

 

Mutual Respect

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His head popped up from grazing when he saw me emerge from the dappled shade of the grand old Cottonwood tree near the gate. Our eyes met across the pasture in mutual recognition. He walked in my direction with purpose, holding my gaze every time I looked in his direction. He wasn’t after the food I carried out to Patriot he wanted to connect with me.

Remember the yellow horse from last week’s blog?

The horse who allowed me to halter him after being chased around by a couple of women brandishing whips? It was this horse who caught my eye across the pasture two days later and made a beeline in my direction.

I am in awe of the depth and sophistication of communication displayed by him in our two brief meetings and in subsequent meetings with members of my own herd. It’s as though someone finally gave me a high tech translator gadget and I am suddenly and inexplicably in full comprehension of this language called ‘horse’.

 

The yellow horse taught me something incredibly valuable during our first encounter. He reminded me that haltering a horse is an act of intimacy. Not only am I making physical contact but tethering myself to his head with something that gives me a measure of control over his mind and body, over where he goes and what he does. A device that gives me the capacity to exert that control with force should I so desire.

Horses are intelligent, sentient beings, not unlike humans in that regard. If it is not okay for someone to come up to me and put their hands on me or restrain me without my consent than why should it be okay for me to expect my horse to allow that?  The yellow horse taught me with such eloquence what it feels like to have a conversation in which physical contact and haltering are negotiated.

He allowed me to put a halter on him during our first encounter.

He willingly entrusted his mind and body to me because I showed him who I was and declared my intentions. I watched and listened and answered all his questions until in the end he decided he felt safe enough with me to allow me to put that halter on his head. He knew enough about me by then to know I would not abuse his trust.

Not only that, but he allowed me to negotiate physical contact with him in a moment where he was frightened and vulnerable. That’s a pretty big deal. But I didn’t realize how big until the second encounter a few days later  when he approached me with the same awareness and tact with which I had approached him a few days before.  He watched, walked a few steps, paused, watched some more, walked closer and finally waited about ten feet away until I invited him to come to me.

When I looked at him he gazed back with a question in his eyes. “Can I come closer?” I asked him to please wait another minute, that I wanted to connect with him too, but I wanted to be free of distractions first. He waited patiently while I negotiated with his buddy to get him to stand back and wait as well. When everyone settled I looked over to find the yellow horse still waiting patiently, focused on me carefully so as not to miss my communications with him in much the same way I had focused on him the day I haltered him.

He was showing me just as much courtesy as I had shown him.

At last things settled down and I motioned for him to come. We met each other halfway and paused again. A bit too close for a comfortable interaction, he wanted to touch me with his nose and I wanted to pet him. He moved his head near my face, the top of my head, questioning if this was okay without making any physical contact.

I asked him if he could calm down a bit, move more slowly with his head by softly placing a hand on his nose and then his shoulder. “Could you step back one step so we have more room between us?” “Could you breathe more and be softer and slower?” “That would make me feel more comfortable about you touching me.” He stepped softly back, lowered his head and took a breath. I did the same.

We held each others eyes as he did many long slow blinks. We gazed into each others eyes and breathed without touching. When it felt right he slowly, carefully tucked his nose into my armpit and closed his eyes. It was only a moment, but the feeling of having this horse not only ask permission to touch me but also touch me with such care and compassion is indescribable.

In the end we just stood quietly together and enjoyed each others company,  feeling the warm fall sun on our faces, sharing this moment of mutually safe intimacy.

I will never take it lightly again, this thing of entering another being’s physical space and touching them. Asking permission, it’s something worth considering regardless of species.

Experiencing mutually negotiated and agreed upon physical contact is a powerful and wondrous thing.

Beyond Body Language: Looking Away

The Fine Art of Haltering Horses:

Approaching Sundance from the left he walks away with some determination.  Is this the beginning of the conversation about haltering or the end?

The invitation to dance walking away

Last week I wrote a story about a cool experience I had haltering a horse for some folks who must have seen their horse walking away as the end of the conversation.  I say this because their response to him walking away was to punish him by chasing him with whips.  Chasing Horses

What if your horse walking away is his way of starting a conversation with you? What if this is the first question he is asking about how this interaction with you is going to go?  Maybe he is asking you a question:

  • “Are you going to chase me?”
  • “What kind of mood are you in/how much patience do you have today?” (Gin used to ask me this question every time I went to catch her!)
  • “Are you willing to have a conversation where we negotiate the contact between us?”

The further I go down this rabbit hole the more I begin to think that it’s a healthy thing for a horse to ask questions and negotiate with us about how we are going to interact with each other. If I can answer his questions in a way that feels good to him, Sundance is likely to continue the conversation.  If I get frustrated, possibly reprimanding him for his behavior, all I do is shut the conversation down. I’m telling him I’m not listening, that I don’t care how he feels about the interaction with me.

On the other hand, if I don’t react adversely to his initial question I keep the dialogue open, the conversation continues with me answering his first question and him asking me another.  Perhaps turning to face me by way of indicating he is feeling good about our pending interaction.  And before you know it he’s allowed himself to be haltered and we have an open dialogue wherein we have mutually set the tone for the rest of our interaction.

Sometimes they are subtler than Sundance.

Notice how Fafnir turns his head away.  See the expression on his face?  He’s letting the person approaching him know that he’s not comfortable with the approach.  This is his way of letting us know, perhaps:

  • “I don’t know you and I don’t feel comfortable with you yet”
  • “You’re coming in too hot and fast and it’s uncomfortable”
  • “Are you listening? Can you see my communication?”

In the second image he’s letting the approaching person know they missed his message and have placed a hand on his shoulder.  Notice he is leaning away now and in the next image has turned his head further away and is ready to leave if this person doesn’t take a step back or pause and acknowledge his end of the conversation.

If I get his message, even if I get it late, and back off, give him a moment to turn to face me, he’s likely to stay and allow me to halter him.  If I were to persist in trying to get the halter on while he is leaning away he is likely to leave with more insistence or if he allows himself to be caught he’s going to know I am not listening and don’t much care about how he feels during our interaction.

Fafnir Christmas Day 2013

How I respond to these initial efforts at communication sets the tone for the rest of our interaction that day and in future sessions.

When your horse turns away do you see it as the beginning of the conversation or the end?  Do you open the dialogue or shut it down?

Haltering horses is a fine art, the invitation to dance.

It’s a skill worth mastering.

Merlin in the shadows

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chasing Horses:

The Fine Art of Inviting a Horse to be Haltered

Jack eyes

Part 1: How NOT to Catch a Horse!

Two women stalk through the pasture. Both carry a whip in one hand and a halter in the other as they approach the yellow horse. As you might expect, he runs when he sees them coming. Predictably, they launch into full charge, splitting off from each other in a futile attempt to cut him off and contain him in the north corner of the 2-acre pasture he calls home. They race to intercept him with whips cracking, screaming war cries that promise nothing any sensible being would stand around to receive.

How ironic to happen upon this scene having just taught a workshop here with Anna Blake a few weeks before. Our sole focus, how to read our horse’s body language. We spent all day Saturday learning the fine art of haltering a horse politely. The week after that I spent watching Frederic Pignon work with horses for two days. He talked about how everything the horse does means something. It’s how they communicate with us. He talked about making friends with our horses so they have a reason to do things with us. I’d forgotten there are still people out there who believe chasing a horse who doesn’t want to be caught is the way to go.

Chasing horses to catch them has never worked. It’s never going to.

I don’t often intervene in these kinds of situations, erring on the side of heeding some old cowboy advice I heard many years ago, “it ain’t always wise to offer aid in situations you ain’t made”. But, I had met this horse the day before and felt sure he wasn’t that hard to catch. Much to my relief, his whip wielding, winded people gratefully accepted my offer to give it a try.

The Fine Art of Non-Verbal Communication:

Armed with his halter – and no whip – I walked with calm purpose, never changing pace, slow, quiet, breathing, feeling the sun and breeze, tuned into my environment and not so worried about the yellow horse.

Horses like rhythm.  They respond well to calm, purposeful movement.  Erratic, unpredictable movement makes them nervous.

The yellow horse, justifiably, paid a whole lot of attention to me. He noticed everything about me, assessing my every move, gesture and response to decide if he could carry on a conversation with me.  The first question he asked was clearly a test as he trotted, instead of ran, up the fence line. His  first question/test: “are you going to chase me too?”

My answer: “No, I am not.” I convey this by not changing my pace or reacting in any way, I simply continue to walk in his general direction and continue to breathe. Instead of racing to the farthest end of the field from me he stopped about half way. This is his way of letting me know he heard my answer and is willing to give me a chance.

I passed his first test.

About this time his person chimed in, thanking me for trying as she headed with determination in his direction. She thought the conversation was over and was ready to resume the chase. Of course the yellow horse fixed his full attention on her, on full alert and ready to run. I stopped moving, quickly calling her off, letting her know I was not done yet. Our conversation had only just begun!

As soon as she backed off I resumed my slow, steady, connected rhythm, quietly approaching his position.  Soon he turns to look at me. I stop and breathe – “there you are.” I smile at him and send a wave of love and appreciation from my heart. Thanking him for giving me a chance. He looks away and I walk.

No hurry, no worry, no doubt, no agenda, we have all the time in the world.

He looks at me again.

I stop and breathe, bend over and pick some grass. He looks away and I walk again, slowly angling in his direction always watching for signs from him that let me know he’s still okay with my approach.

He never moves off of his spot, continually looking at me, looking away and looking back again. He carries his head and neck in a neutral position, not on high alert and not low and guarded. His expression is wary but open with ears mobile. These are all good signs and all part of our ongoing conversation. He’s listening, noticing everything I’m saying as well:

“I’m not going to chase you.”

“I’m connected to the earth and my senses like you.”

“I notice and care about how you feel.”

“I’m no threat (I breathe, pause, pick grass and look at the sky).”

“I don’t need or want anything from you.”

“There is nothing more than this moment right here and now.”

“We have all the time in the world.”

He allows me to approach and accepts my offering of grass but turns away when I show him the halter.

“Are you going to chase me now?”

“Nope, still not going to chase you.” I demonstrate this by bending over and picking more grass.

Making him an offering of peace.

He’s communicating with me in other ways now. Telling me how he feels. I can see his sides heaving still from so much running. His breathing is short and quick, nostrils flaring, steam rising from his flanks and he’s visibly shaking. I can feel anxiety radiating off of him in waves. With every fiber of his being he’s letting me know how frightened he is.

So I verbally, literally, explain my intentions. “I can’t save you from being ridden but I can save you from being chased for another hour.” I explained how I knew these folks didn’t understand and I was sorry about that. If he’d let me catch him at least he wouldn’t get chased.

He took a deep breath and looked at me, accepting my offer of grass. When I held the halter up this time he quietly and softly placed his nose in it. How can they be so gracious under these circumstances?

It took less than 5 minutes for this entire conversation to take place. Less than 5 minutes to engage in a conversation and politely ask if it was okay to put the halter on. Less than 5 minutes for him to accept.

Far less time than it took to chase him.

Everything we do with our horses goes better if we remember to make friends with them first.  From the sounds of it this young lady anticipates an adversarial relationship with horse and so she inadvertently sets one up each and every time she goes to catch him.  Whatever we do with our horses, we set the tone. The conversation begins the moment we step foot in the pasture (sometimes even sooner!).  Are you prepared for a conversation or an argument?

To read Anna Blake’s poignant and insightful blog on leadership click here: Making War on Horses: Is it Leadership?

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Beyond Body Language 4: In Sync

There is something I’ve noticed for a while now and it only happens when a horse is choosing to follow a person’s lead.

We sync up.

The horses front legs get in sync with the person’s legs, often down to the smallest gesture of the foot.

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Notice the body language of the people in these images as well.

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There is a sense of connection, attention and focus on one another.

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Sure, I can watch my horse’s feet and make an effort to match their movement and that can even be comforting to a horse.  But there is something special about these moments where it’s happening and you don’t even know it.

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I think it means something and it’s worth looking for.

Are you and your horse in sync?

 

 

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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?