Quick Tips on “hearing” with horses

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Horses don’t speak our language, but they make it pretty easy to understand theirs. A good number even try hard to interpret messages that aren’t responsive to their style, but want to please so much, they figure out what you want and do it anyway. Being sensitive to simple to read horse cues and using human aids in a manner that is easier on the horse can make your equine interactions a lot more rewarding – and safer.

Watch the eyes
Forget 1000 words, your horse’s eye will tell you volumes more than any picture about what he is thinking. This can change quickly and it behooves you to be cognizant of the message when holding the horse for a vet or blacksmith, asking him to do something new, starting him under saddle or any handling or riding activity that may be cause for concern in the eyes of your equine buddy. If you spend a little bit of time focused on this body part, you’ll learn quickly how to read the eye of any horse. Notice what an eye looks like right before a horse blows, when he’s relaxed, when he’s scared, when he’s about to retaliate and any other time when it will help you and him to predict how he is reacting to what you are doing. Once you develop this skill, it can also tell you a great deal about the temperament and background of a horse you are to ride for the first time or one you are considering as a future purchase.

Pay attention to ears and head carriage
Of course, it’s obvious that ears flat back against the neck signify anger or the onset of aggressive behavior, but there’s a lot you can do to predict and avoid challenging situations when riding by keeping an eye on what’s going on in front of you. An attentive horse keeps his ears moving or tends to have one ear cocked back toward you. Ears straight forward rarely signals happiness – be ready for a spook or spin as this often indicates something ahead has the horse’s attention and concern. This is also the case if the horse suddenly raises his head slightly. By simply watching what your horse’s ears and neck are doing while aboard, it’s easy to change what you are doing to get his attention, calm him down or assure him all is O.K. Don’t stiffen, tighten and stop breathing if you see him ready to react, as this will only make him more concerned and you less secure in the saddle. Instead, relax, sit deep, talk to him, take a deep breath and try to see what may be bothering him. Most importantly, let him draw confidence and courage from you in your calm, assured and patient response to helping him concur his fears.

Yank and Kick doesn’t work very well with most horses
There’s a lot more to steering than hauling on the reins and far better ways to encourage a horse to move forward than ratcheting up your leg pressure. Want to get a horse to root, fling his head and neck around and learn to ignore your hand aids? Take a good hold of the reins and don’t let go when he responds. Want dead sides on your horse? Kick harder and harder when he doesn’t respond and make sure you keep doing it when he gives you a little bit of what you want. Sure, an old seasoned lesson horse will tolerate this and usually do what you want, but they’re not very happy about it. Try it with a young horse and you’ll have years of undoing to fix the problems that ensue. Instead, learn it’s the release that usually gets the reaction. Always take and give and stop the pressure the minute you get any response in the direction you seek. Learn to use your seat in a deep and relaxed fashion to slow or stop a horse and in a driving and slightly behind-the-vertical position to send him forward. The seat is so overlooked by many who ride, yet communicates more to the horse than any other aid. Be conscious of what you are doing with it.

We’ll expand on this a bit in a later blog post and explore body language and other tools you can use when working with a horse from the ground.

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