Mixed signals

An old Thoroughbred offers a reminder of how well horses understand our body language–even when we don’t mean what we “say.”

Many years ago, I learned an important lesson from a 22-year-old former racehorse. I was visiting a friend, and she had been giving a riding lesson to a small child. The handsome old gelding traveled with his head down, eyes half open and his ears flopping back and forth. I watched as he walked with the child, and noticed him purse his lips occasionally as if to say it was time for the lesson to be over. 

After the child had dismounted and gone home, the horse stood quietly in the shade of a tree. Waiting patiently, he yawned lazily and gazed in all four directions. It didn’t matter which way he looked—east, west, north or south—whatever he saw did not affect him, nor did he respond to the sounds of conversation, cars starting, children squealing or a dog barking. 

Finally, as our conversation wound down, my friend asked my husband, John, to ride the old horse back to the barn for her. She slipped the reins over the horse’s head and gave my husband a leg up. John—a former jockey who has ridden only racehorses—out of habit slid his legs up the horse’s sides as if to put his feet into short racing stirrups. It really was only a very small movement, but the effect was instant.

Suddenly alert, the old horse straightened his posture, raised his head, pricked his ears and flared his nostrils. His eyes became wide as saucers. He hadn’t been near a racetrack in nearly 20 years, but he instantly remembered what that gesture meant: “It’s time to race!”

John quickly lowered his legs and let them dangle loose. The horse relaxed immediately, and John allowed him to stand while we waited for him to sigh. With his body language, John had inadvertently signaled that it would soon be time to bolt. A sigh would be a sign that horse understood the new instructions to stay quiet and had relaxed. Soon he did just that, and we took him back to the barn without incident.

Over the years, I’ve read many articles instructing people how to read a horse’s body language. What few people realize is how good horses are at reading your body language. The fact is, horses are experts at reading a person’s posture, expressions and gestures because that’s how they communicate with each other in the wild. And it’s a skill that provides a ready-made way for us to communicate.

Every move you make means something to a horse. As you’re working with your horse, under saddle or on the ground, you’ll want your body language to match what you are asking him to do. Consider how a fearful rider might ask a horse to jump. Her aids may say, “Go forward,” but the tension in her body says, “Be afraid!” Can the resulting refusal be a surprise? 

Consistency is also important. If your signals vary each time you ride your horse, you will only confuse him. You can count on a horse to always be honest as he tells you how he feels using his own language. So you need to make sure what you are telling him is also true.

As that aging Thoroughbred once reminded me, horses will remember what they’ve learned for a very long time. It’s up to us to make sure those lessons help our horses to be at their best. In turn, our horses can motivate us to be our own best selves.

This article was originally published the April 2016 issue, Volume #475 of EQUUS magazine




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