There’s a way that a mare can pin her ears back so hard that they make almond-shaped divots on her neck hairs. You don’t have to know much about horses to pick up on that cue. It’s big and dark and she looks like a serpent. By the time this is happening, there is even an argument she will have a hard time hearing you, literally, what with her ear drums smashed into her poll and all.
The other laundry list of signs that your horse is upset include flared nostrils, wide tense eyes with too much white showing and short, shallow breaths. It’s almost common sense if you pay attention.
We are all so clear about the signs a horse is coming apart, but do you recognize the signs that your horse is confident, relaxed, or just comprehending things? Are his ears relaxed and moving forward and back? Is his neck long and his poll soft; are his eyes big and fluid? Is his tail clamped down or swinging with his spine when he moves?
Beginning to learn horse language is dangerous if we over-simplify and humanize the horse, meaning dumb him down and miss his message. Is all of this head shoving and mugging on the ground affection or is he insecure? It’s flattering to think it’s affection, but a confident horse who stands flat and relaxed is the best reflection of the horse/rider relationship. How do we train that kind of confidence?
Is he blowing to tell you his back feels good and he is ready to work? If not, you have more warm up work to do. Is he blinking his eyes, thinking about what he has just learned? If he is, give him a minute- and that means stand still and respect his process of learning. A conversation, by definition, means listening, too.
If the horse gets confused, are you certain that you aren’t giving him a mixed signal? Is your body awareness so perfect that you are incapable of contradicting yourself in horse language? Are you listening to yourself as closely as your horse is? Now the conversation is getting more personal.
Are you so sure that he is pulling on the reins because he wants to run off with you, or is he just feeling so much pressure on the bit, metal on bone, that he is tossing his head trying to breathe and stretch his neck? Or are your reins a little loose and is he tossing his head, trying to make contact? What quality of hand shake with the reins does your individual horse want? Firm and fluid is the answer, but what does that translate to in terms of feel and finesse. Now the conversation is getting really intimate.
In order to progress with your horse, it isn’t so much training a specific technical movement as it is training confidence and trust to do the movement correctly. The difference between a frantic explosive canter depart and a smooth soft uphill canter depart reveals more about the quality of the horse/rider relationship than anything else.
This is where the art comes in. Can you speak in his language and influence him in a positive way. A good place to start is acknowledging (rewarding) positive communication. If he is moving forward, follow his movement softly, but stop with the leg cue. When he blows, say good boy. Reward him for trying, and ask for a tiny bit more. Say thank you and repeat. Score extra points for patience, a key ingredient in confidence building.
Remember: The things we focus on and reward are the things that grow- good or bad. The foundation of Dressage is Rhythm and maybe the emotional definition of rhythm is confidence and trust in movement. Horses love rhythm: it’s included in all good things like breathing, chewing, walking in the sun, and excluded in all bad or scary things like bucking, spooking, bolting. Rhythm is a rider’s very best friend and training aid.
So if you are having a conversation with a horse that includes praise of going forward and praise of being relaxed, you are in a much better negotiating position, whether you are training a new movement in an arena or out on the trail. Not only is a relaxed and forward horse easier to stay on, but they get over emotional disturbances quicker because they want to return to the safe place their leader has for them. External challenges are less interesting because the horse is so comfortable and safe in rhythm with his rider. Spooking is disturbing that conversation, and not worth the effort.
The difference between micro-managing a horse’s every move and having a conversation with a horse might seem like semantics, but not to a horse. It’s the difference between leadership that says “Do what I say immediately and correctly or suffer the consequences of my anger,” or “Let’s work together, I will listen to your concerns and we will work this out safely and sanely.” It’s the difference between soul-killing obedience and a happy relaxed and forward ride.
Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.