The ability to understand your horse’s body language can be a time and pain saver. Ignoring a grumpy look in the eye, a perfectly timed ear twitch, that tail swish, and a tense body can land you in the least bumped rudely away or at the worst, handling an injury from a kick or a strike.
Since each and every horse is as different as we humans are, there is no hard and fast rule about what reaction is going to happen at what exact time. The best way to determine what your equine companion is saying is to simply watch them.
It sounds easy, and I promise, it is. There are some extra benefits included with your observation time, in that is also provides a sense of quiet and calmness in what are all too often intensely busy and stressful days. Watching the changes in the herd or your horse as you groom, or prepare feed, tends to be incredibly relaxing for many of us.
I tend to watch a few key areas, one at a time. The amount of time spent on each area will vary, depending on what is being communicated, and by all means, don’t just look once and move on. Coming back and checking that all is well is always advisable, and important when you are working on either learning a new skill together, or if you happen to be working with a horse you may not know well, or one that has not had much proper handling.
I start at the eyes. Are they clear and bright? Or are they wide, and darting around in the socket? Fixed on one point? Are the eyelids wide open, or half closed, looking sleepy? Are there wrinkles present around the corners of the eye, and a hard look present?
Once I’ve noted the eyes, I will look quick at ears to see where they are pointing. Are they forward, fixed on one point? Relaxed and almost drooping? Is one ear pointed to me as I approach? Or are they tending towards the rear in a pinned or almost pinned back manner?
From there, my gaze will drop to the muzzle and mouth, looking for licking and chewing, a drooping bottom lip, or wrinkles and tight muscles around the nose. (For the record, nothing makes my day happier than seeing a totally relaxed eye, flopping ears, and a drooping lower lip. While these horses can still surprise you at the speed of their actions, they generally seem to take a bit longer to decide if they are going to misbehave or not.)
I also take into account the level of tension in the body. Tension in the body often times indicates trouble ahead if the handler pushes ahead ignores warning signs. On the opposite end of the spectrum, an utterly relaxed body and face might indicate you’re going to have your hands full waking your partner up in order to have a fun ride!
After taking stock of the situation, you’ll be better prepared to go ahead with your ride or even just a walk to the paddock. If you begin with a tense horse, it is fulfilling to be able to watch the transformation to a calm one, and know that your handling and skill played a big part in making your horse comfortable. A good look over the entire horse will help you plan the start of your day, and you can adjust from there as needed.
Keep in mind, too, that observing a less-than-happy horse does not mean a disaster in the making. Your mental preparation and level of calmness are critically important in calming your horse. A favorite instructor of mine always said that when we anticipated a disaster with our horse, we would get a disaster with our horse. She was 100% correct! Every time I thought to myself, “Man, Jack looks really ticked today, I bet he bucks me off,” sure enough, about ten to twenty minutes into the lesson, Jack would roll his shoulder down and pitch me over the side. He got his point across, the instructor got her point across, and I learned a hard lesson in anticipation. That same anticipation worked both ways with Jack and I. Even though he might have been telling me in multiple ways he was not interested, by my anticipating a great ride or lesson, his mood would lift and we wound up having a good time.
Take a few moments here and there, and go enjoy watching your horse! Relax in the sheer joy of watching the beauty before you, and see what they have to teach you in return. Happy reading!