“Horses don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care”
– Ray Hunt
Learning to Speak in our Horse’s Language
The two segments regarding essential communication with our horse are making sure that we are not still perceived as a predator by our horse and then understanding herd dynamics. The horse’s language is physical, not verbal. Horses hear us through our energy and spatial awareness. Until we can speak “horse” we may struggle with gaining our horse’s trust and cooperation.
Understanding herd dynamics means we can earn our horse’s trust in a physical way that horse’s easily understand. These specific dynamics do not come naturally to humans and we must all learn to master them as part of developing an authentic relationship with our horse.
Crossing the Prey-Predator Barrier
All horses are born as a prey species. All humans are born as a predator species. The natural barrier between predator and prey working cooperatively together lurks in all of us and in all horses. We may take for granted that this natural barrier dissolved long ago with our horse, or we may be well aware of this barrier because our horse is hard to catch or unsafe to handle. Until this natural barrier is overcome, safety will be a problem.
A horse that is hard to catch on a regular basis or not always safe to handle in the barn, tells us that the prey-predator barrier is still in tact for that horse. A horse avoiding or charging at a human with a halter, or becoming dangerously unpredictable during routine care, does not feel safe on the inside or feel safe interacting with humans. It can be hard not to take it personally when our horse runs away from us or bites us! But the prey-predator barrier is not personal, it is instinctual.
Horses that perceive humans as predators protect themselves whenever possible by using fight or flight strategies. We may be surprised that domestic horses can go so feral, but it happens all the time. We just call them “difficult” horses. Some horses keep the barrier in tact from birth, remaining skeptical of people, highly defensive and hard to handle for years. Other horses, that used to be easy to handle but lived through bad experiences, will restore the prey-predator barrier. Horses living with chronic stress, even if doing what we want, will eventually resort to instincts, trusting mother nature in order to feel safe instead of trusting humans in general.
Being hard to catch definitely tells us that our horse’s natural prey-predator barrier is strongly intact. Most horses that are unsafe to handle during routine care are often hard to catch or show defensiveness while we are putting the halter on. A horse that is defensive about being caught is already telling us that everything else we ask our horse to do is going to be problematic. A defensive horse is not going to offer cooperation, even after the halter is on and even if we use leverage.
Our horse may use flight, anxiously running away, walking slowly away or keep turning away, unable to make direct eye contact with us calmly. Our horse may use fight, charging us aggressively, come to us with tension, push us out of the way, bite, or toss the head towards us with intense, direct eye contact. Whether our horse chooses a flight or fight defensive strategy, not being calm and easy to halter is really frustrating, which is exactly the point. Prey animals instinctively know that frustrating a predator saves their lives.
Some horses become more submissive once the halter is on, even if getting it on took some creativity. But when horses are hard to catch, requiring treats, tricks or confined spaces just to be haltered, then horses are trying to tell us with brutal honesty that they do not feel safe with us or enjoy what happens after the halter is on.
The hardest part of catching, whether our horse is genuinely hard to catch or just doesn’t like it, is breaking down the prey-predator barrier and building trust. We have to work with our loose horse from a distance, wait for our horse to shift into The Learning Frame of Mind, then gain acceptance every time we reduce the distance. Putting a halter on a defensive horse is tricky. Putting a halter on a horse that is calm, willing to trust us and chooses to cooperate is easy. How we interact with our horse before the halter is on makes all the difference. Once the halter is on, our horse needs to feels safe and have a good experience with us, if we want to be able to easily catch our horse again next time.
Once the prey-predator barrier is down, meaning our horse is easy to catch and reasonably safe to handle in the barn, we still may have challenges with our horse but for a different reason. If we don’t understand how natural herd dynamics work as an essential survival strategy for horses, then our horse will not feel entirely safe while working with us. If we are not perceived as a predator, then we are in the herd. Once we are in the herd, we have to earn our horse’s vote for the role of leader by proving that we have the necessary skills and the best ideas for keeping the entire herd safe.
We are either a predator or a herd member to our horse. If we are a herd member, then our horse needs to know if we are the one who provides safety or the one who is supposed to follow when safety is threatened. Let the games begin!
Understanding the survival games that horses play with each other means we have to speak to horses in their language. Horses communicate through energy, spatial awareness and directions of movement. Horses are highly sensitive to the invisible bubble of personal space around themselves and each herd member. The interactions between bubbles is how horses test other herd members and prove necessary skills in order to decide who is best qualified for the responsibility of herd safety.
Even if an individual is well established in the role of leader, the testing can start again on any given day or whenever situations change. The lead position in a herd is interchangeable, shared by trusted members who have proven emotional stability, awareness of space and proficiency at guiding directions of movement. Being the lead horse is a heavy responsibility, like being a parent. Some horses feel constant stress in this leadership role and welcome another herd member taking over. When we earn the role of herd leader, not only do we help our horse instantly feel safer, we alleviate the weight of responsibility.
Leadership in a herd of horses is nothing like our human perception of a leader who holds power over the other. Horse leadership balances the love needed to keep the herd united with the discipline needed to ensure survival of the group. The leader has to be kind, trustworthy, stable, confident and constantly aware of all changes in the environment and other herd members. The followers get to relax because they only have to keep an eye on the leader in order to feel safe. The efficiency of this system is how the herd survives.
As humans, we often miss the nonverbal signs offered by our horse that test our metal as a leader. When we prove to be oblivious, unstable or reactive, we automatically don’t qualify in our horse’s mind as someone worth listening to or following. Just like highly anxious or aggressive horses in a herd, we will be tolerated but not trusted. Most importantly, when we fail to step into the leadership role in our herd of two, then our horse cannot entirely relax because safety is still questionable.
There are four important elements involved in herd dynamics.
- Energy, generated by thoughts and emotions related to nervous system dominance
- Personal Space, defending space of self and respecting other’s personal space
- Awareness of Movement, recognizing who initiated movement
- Awareness of Directions, recognizing who went where
Horses always knows how we feel on the inside through our energy. Energy is part of the nonverbal language of horses, so they recognize our energy whether they want to or not. We are primarily verbal communicators, so we are often unaware of our own energy or what we are actually communicating to our horse through our energy. We might think we are being clear to our horse while actually sending mixed messages.
Taking on the role of herd leader energetically means that we have enough self control to maintain calm energy and be in The Learning Frame of Mind whenever we interact with our horse, starting as soon as we enter the property where our horse lives. If we are feeling defensive, unstable or unsafe, then our energy will be anything but calm.
Energy is not something we can fake around our horse, even if we lie to ourselves in our own minds. Our energy, generated by what we really feel or think, will always be broadcasted, accurately assessed and understood by our horse, even from a great distance. Feeling angry, resentful, or frustrated, even if those feelings are not directed at our horse, creates unstable energy that our horse will notice. Feeling scared, nervous, or anxious about anything, fills our personal space with unstable energy. Feeling pity, self doubt, incompetent or thinking we have the “wrong” horse for what we want to do, all broadcast unstable energies that our horse will pick up.
Unstable energy in us can trigger some horses into defensive reactions while other horses just learn to ignore our unstable energy, but do not entirely trust our guidance because of it. Being in The Learning Frame of Mind ourselves is how we stabilize our energy. When we lose it for any reason, even if completely unrelated to our horse, then our first priority has to be getting our own energy back under control. Despite our fantasy, horses are not here to always make us feel better. Sometimes we have to get our own energy stabilized if we want our horse to cooperate and act like a friend.
Sometimes we feel entirely calm until our horse loses The Learning Frame of Mind. Working with a defensive horse, expressing fight or flight behaviors, can easily trigger fear in us. When our horse feels anxious or tense, losing The Learning Frame of Mind for any reason, we can only help our horse restore a sense of safety if we feel safe ourselves during the process. Once our sympathetic nervous system becomes dominant, we are no longer really capable of helping our horse feel safe and can make a bad situation worse.
With some highly defensive horses, we might need to make sure we can remain physically safe first, in order to remain calm, before we can authentically help our horse feel safe too. If riding, we might need to dismount. If working on the ground, we might need to increase physical distance from our horse in order to feel safe. We might even need our horse to be on the other side of a sturdy fence or wall in order to maintain our calm energy.
When horses are extremely defensive and possibly unsafe to handle, we can still begin helping our horse feel safe and building trust just by showing up. Sharing space, even at a distance or with a physical barrier, and remaining calm in our horse’s presence might be all we can do safely in order to start building a relationship. If we do nothing else but remain calm while sharing space safely with our horse, then eventually even the most defensive horses begin to calm down and accept us as trusted members of the herd.
Sharing space is how horses bond with other herd members. Intermingling personal space, sharing physical touch, is an earned privilege for a trustworthy friend. Horses that are bonded herd members graze side by side politely, often touching noses. Trusted herd members often stand nose to tail, grooming each other or swishing flys from a friend’s face. Grooming and walking with our horse are simple ways we can form a herd bond, once our horse feels safe with us. In order to help our horse feel safe with us, we might have to start by just sharing space at a distance.
When the herd dynamics are not yet sorted or are being decided again, then we will see one bubble pushing another bubble around. The horse that is doing the pushing or the horse that is not moving, are the horses proving stronger survival skills. One bubble far away from the group, means that the lone horse is tolerated, but has not yet earned trust from the herd. Aggressive and anxious horses are often loners, not sharing space with the other horses, because unstable energy will compromise the safety of the herd.
How our horse’s personal space bubble interacts with our bubble is what denotes trust or a lack of it. When our horse feels safe with us, then our horse will offer to maintain a respectful distance, with calm energy, and share space with us politely. When our horse is still testing our qualifications, then our horse’s bubble will constantly be moving towards or away from ours, usually with some degree of tension or anxiety.
Defending our own bubble of personal space, not being pushed or dragged around, is an important test. If we cannot defend ourselves, then we cannot defend the herd. When our horse pushes us out of the way or comes so close that we have to step out of the way, then we prove we are the follower. If we can hold our ground, calmly, without fear, and without becoming anxious, tense or retaliating, then we prove an important leadership skill. Only after we pass such tests can our horse feel safe with us and relax.
Horses prone to use fight defensive strategies push on or test our personal space boundaries intentionally. Aggressive horses tell us to back off or move in obvious ways, but even if the test is mild, meaning our horse crowds us a lot or gives us the stink eye, the meaning is the same to our horse. When a fight defensive horse pushes our fear button, then we tend to fight back. We often enter the action-reaction game of aggression, forgetting that the fight defense is fear based. When we punish a pushy horse for being “bad” we are only proving that we are unstable and not to be trusted. Instead, calmly protecting our space from a horse trying to push us, by remaining un-budge-able and holding our ground, is exactly what our horse is hoping to find in order to feel safe.
Horses prone to use flight defensive strategies try to gain distance from us or drag our personal bubble around. Anxious horses have a hard time standing still, so any invasions of our personal space are not intentional. We are simply in the way or in the wrong place at the wrong time when our horse needs to move, especially in a confined space. When a flight defensive horse pushes our fear button, then we tend to move around with the horse. It becomes unclear who is leading who as both personal space bubbles dance around randomly with excited energy. Instead, if we can stand still, at a safe distance, and guide our anxious horse to focus on us, then our calm, quiet, energy that does not move around, will help our anxious horse feel safe with us.
Being aware of our own personal space says to our horse that we have enough self confidence to protect ourselves and that we can remain calm in a crisis, effectively finding safety for all. When our horse tests our personal space boundaries or our emotional stability, it is not personal. Our horse is testing to see if we are capable of keeping our herd of two safe. Once we prove calm competence, without creating more fear in our horse during the process, then our horse can finally relax and feel safe sharing space with us as a trusted herd member.
Awareness of Movement
Earning the leadership role means that when we request halt or movement, our horse willingly follows. When our horse feels safe with us, then movement is minimal during Basic Handling or when halt is requested because our horse is content to just share space. When our horse feels safe with us in motion, then movement will voluntarily be steady and calm, synchronizing with us. Our horse will choose to keep attention on us and maintain a polite distance from our personal space. Our herd of two bubbles work together at halt or in motion harmoniously only once we and our horse feel safe together and trust each other.
If our horse does not yet feel safe with us, then initiating movement is the physical part of testing our survival skills. Our horse will test our awareness by initiating movement, either towards us or away from us. We have to be aware of who initiated movement in our herd of two and who is moving whom during movement.
When we catch ourselves working harder and harder, trying to control our horse’s movement, then our horse is actually the one directing the movement. It does not matter if the movement is subtle or obvious, the test is the same. Every time we have to reposition, get out of the way or work to keep up with our horse, then we are assuming the role of the follower. The one who moves less and causes the other to move more has the better skills.
Awareness of movement means that we need to decide for ourselves if we are moving or standing still, regardless of what our horse is doing. If we decide to halt, then we halt. It may take some time to help our horse halt too and relax during halt with us, but that is the precise dynamic of movement that we need to work out. If we decide to walk, then we walk. Again, it may take some time, and a million corrections, to help our horse walk with us calmly at the same speed. But whenever we initiate movement, then patiently help our horse find calmness in the halt or synchronize with our walk, we are working through important herd dynamics in the process. Despite many challenges along the way, we slowly gain our horse’s trust by being patiently persistent, repeating the requests, until our horse can willingly maintain halt or walk with us while in The Learning Frame of Mind.
The dynamic of movement cannot be worked out using tools or leverage. It needs to be worked out between herd members. As humans we often rely on the cross ties or hitching rail to keep our horse from moving. But tools will not help us earn the leadership role, so our horse may still have a hard time relaxing while tied. We also try to leverage our horse into movement using strong halters, ropes, whips and spurs. Again, we may get our horse to move, but our horse may still resist moving with us or in the direction we want.
Horses do not need or use any devices with each other. Herd leaders earn the love and respect of the followers through the testing and proving of survival skills. We have to be as aware of energy, space and movement as our horse. Our goal is to earn the trusted role of herd leader so that our horse feels safe with us. When we do, then our herd of two moving or not moving as one unit becomes effortless.
Awareness of Direction
Direction does refer to physical directions of motion, but also the direction of mental focus and energy. When our horse feels safe and trusts us as a herd member, then our horse’s mind is connected with ours and the body is relaxed, calmly synchronizing with ours at halt or in a specific direction of motion.
While we are still working out herd dynamics with our horse, watching our horse’s energy is more important than what we are actually doing. The direction of energy tells us when our horse is shifting towards The Learning Frame of Mind or away from it.
The conversation we have with our horse is nonverbal. It is through our use of action or no action that we have a very simple “yes” or “no” conversation with our horse about feeling safe. Directing our horse through our aids or making corrections is a type of negative reinforcement. Stopping direction, releasing a correction or aid, is a type of positive reinforcement. Positive and negative reinforcements are not good and bad, positive is just how we say yes and negative is how we say no. Paying attention to our horse’s energy is how we know when to actively direct our horse away from a fear trigger and when to release an aid, reinforcing the feeling of safety.
Whenever our horse’s energy is becoming calmer, we pause our actions and wait. As soon as our anxious horse finally looks at us, trying to mentally connect, we stop our actions. As soon as our snarky horse starts to soften and relax, trying to trust us, our immediate inaction is how we say nonverbally, “Yes, more of that” to our horse.
Whenever our horse’s energy is escalating with more tension or anxiety, then we need to offer guidance, with more aids or corrections. We become active with corrections in order to redirect our horse’s attention or redirect movement away from the fear trigger, towards safety. When we are active, increasing pressure or giving aids, then we are essentially saying, “No, not that” nonverbally to our horse.
Direction of movement is an important detail to our horse as well. When our horse feels safe, our horse will synchronize willingly with our chosen direction and remain mentally connected with us. If our horse is in flight, then the direction of movement will be away from our bubble. If in fight, then the direction will be towards us or through us. In order to help our horse feel safe, we can correct the defensive direction of movement by requesting that our horse move the exact opposite direction instead.
While we are helping our horse overcome defensive feelings, we might need to counterbalance each move in a specific direction. A counterbalance means that we ask our horse to move in the exact opposite direction of the flight or fight based movement. If our horse moves backwards, then we can ask our horse to move forward. If our horse moves forward too much, we can ask our horse to take a step back. If our horse moves left, we can ask our horse to move right. Counterbalancing directions, while our horse feels defensive, is how we prove our awareness of directions and competency for the role of herd leader.
Before our horse actually moves, we can notice the direction of our horse’s attention. The body follows the focus of the mind, so where our horse is looking often tells us which way our horse is about to move. We can offer gentler guidance when we time our corrections to our horse’s thoughts instead of waiting for the movement that follows.
Horses’ ears point the same direction they are looking, showing us where the mind is focused. When our horse has one or both ears softly pointed towards us and is calm, then our horse is mentally connected to us. When our horse has ears on us, but is not calm, then we are the source of fear. When our horse does not have an ear pointed towards us, and is not calm, then our horse is about to move towards or away from the fear trigger.
Earning the role of leader means that we can calmly and effectively guide the direction of movement, thoughts and energy, always towards safety.
Sometimes directing means blocking an unwanted direction, such as motion towards our personal space, or saying no with an aid when our horse’s mind wanders. Sometimes it means opening up a direction by not blocking the space that we want our horse to go. Sometimes just offering our calm energy like a beacon of safety is the only direction we can offer. When our horse has way too much energy, we may need to refrain from overly directing our horse and just find a direction for movement that is safe until the pent up energy dissipates. However we influence the direction of energy, thoughts and movement, we need to remember that the primary purpose is always to help our horse feel safe on the inside, with us, while doing whatever we are doing.