by Ron Meredith
President, Meredith Manor International Equestrian Centre
There is no simple way to describe to a beginner the feel old timers have developed for what to do around horses. After years and years of paying attention to horses, an old horse hand can ďreadĒ a horse like a book. He can tell just by looking at a horse what his state of mind is, which way heís going to turn next, how far heís likely to run if he gets startled, and a whole volume of other things. Because heís able to predict what a horse is going to do next, when people watch an old timer work they are astonished at how he always manages to stay one step ahead of the horse and gets the animal to do whatever he wants.
A lot of people hope by reading a few books or watching a few videos or going to a few clinics that theyíre going to be able to short circuit the process of learning to ďreadĒ horses and get the same results as the old timers. All those things can help people understand horses a little better but they are no substitute for the hours and hours of observation of horses that goes into ďnaturalĒ horsemanship. What seems so natural to these old timers is actually the result of hours and days and months and years of observation on hundreds of horses. That gets coupled with making lots and lots of mistakes because you didnít observe the right things or you didnít apply what you observed the right way. Then you have to learn from those mistakes. You have to use the feedback the horses give you to refine your observations and your applications of those observations until you get it right. And even when you get good, youíre not going to be right all the time. You just try to be right most of the time. And now youíve gotten to be a ďnaturalĒ horseman.
So observation, paying attention to every little thing, is where you start. You might be working with a particular horse in a training pen or you might be watching a herd of them in a pasture or you might be walking down a barn aisle. Start being very observant of every horse you come across. You will observe a lot of single things that you are going to have to put together like a puzzle to figure out how the horse is really feeling right at the moment.
The first thing you want to notice is how the horse is breathing. Ideally, his breathing is regular and relaxed. The horse that is breathing shallowly may be tense or he may be in pain. The horse that is holding his breath is anxious and may be ready to blow. The horse whose nostrils are wide open and flaring in and out may have just finished a good run and is feeling pretty good about himself or he may be checking out something really exciting in his environment. To figure it all out exactly, you have to observe and add in some other things.
The next thing you want to pay attention to is his muscle tone. In general, you want to notice if his muscles are soft and relaxed or hard and tight or somewhere in between. Muscle tone can be read in a lot of places. Look at his back, the muscles at the base of his neck, the way he carries his head, the way he carries his tail, the set of his ears, and the look of his eyes, his nostrils and lips. For example, if a horse is relaxed, his back will be relaxed with muscles stretched out. Heíll carry his head and tail low and relaxed. His eye will be soft and so will his nostrils and lips.
If the horse gets apprehensive or frightened, his back tightens and shortens. His muscle tone all over gets hard all over as his flight response kicks in. Heíll lift his head and his tail up. His nostrils and his eyes will open wide and his ears will lock onto whatever it is that looks or feels scary. Heís on full alert.
The horse thatís worried or in pain may show little wrinkles above her eyes or have her nostrils pulled back so that little wrinkles run up her muzzle. The horse thatís angry or resistant may harden his lips and flatten his ears. Ears speak volumes but a lot of people can read them wrong because there are so many little variations in the way the horse holds them.
In general, the horse points his ears in the direction of whatever heís paying attention to. So the horse thatís got his ears back listening to his rider canít be ďreadĒ the same as the horse thatís resisting or angry even though both of them have their ears back. The horse whose ears are pointed forward may just be paying more attention to the horse ahead of him than he is to his rider or he may be noticing something scary enough to spook at. Itís a matter of degree of muscle tone and breathing and the whole picture, not just one piece of it. Pay attention, observe, and learn.
Some other things you want to pay attention to are a horseís general activity level and the directional signals he gives you. Pay attention to how he greets you when you go to his stall, be observant of how he leads to the arena, watch what he does when you first turn him loose and notice how long it takes for him to settle down. Learn the sequence of a horseís footfalls so you can predict which foot heís going to move next and in what direction. For example, if youíre going to ask a young horse to back up for the first time, glance down at his front legs and see which one is a little more forward. Thatís the foot you want to put a little pressure on to ask for that first step back because, from a balance standpoint, thatís going to be the easiest one for him to move first.
When you first start learning to be a natural horse person, donít worry too much about being able to read all the horses out there. You probably donít have hundreds of horses around to practice on like we do here at Meredith Manor so just start with your own horse, the one you have right in front of you. Figuring out how even one particular horse personality and one particular human personality can best communicate with each other takes a lot of learning from a lot of mistakes. So donít be afraid to make them and give yourself plenty of time.
Training horses involves using methodically applied, horse-logical pressures that create a feel in the horse of a shape you want him to take. You always want to apply those pressures in a rhythmic, relaxed way that never startles the horse or raises his excitement level. But to know if youíve done something exciting or startling, you have to be able to read the horseís body language.
The reason you want to learn to read horses in the first place is so you can figure out the emotional context of any training session from the horseís perspective. You are not going to apply the same pressures to the same degree, even under the same circumstances, to a timid green horse or an alpha mare or a goldie oldie school horse. Unless you understand how to read the individual reaction of each of these individual horses to whatever pressure you apply, you wonít be able to figure out how to modify and refine your pressures to the least amount they need to be.