Horse language IS body language. They have usually said dozens of things before vocalizing or doing big and obvious. Horses are very efficient, and will give many small signals – moving an ear, for example – before making a bigger movement like snaking the neck or threatening with a foot. In doing bodywork with horses, my job is to read their body language and communicate with them in ways that they feel heard, respected, and safe so that I can touch them and work with their tissues. So much of what I teach in the bodywork clinics is about the subtleties of their body language. My students are understandably focused on practicing the strokes they just learned, but often miss the releases the horse is making. I encourage them to pause for those releases, and to really observe and get acquainted with each individual horse. Some horses process very quickly, some not so quickly. Like people, some horses are very sensitive, and a little bodywork goes a long way, while others are happy to stand still for us to practice all afternoon. Like Goldilocks, I’m always looking for the amount that is “just right” for each horse.
Today I want to talk about what I see in a couple of short videos from Anna Blake, a Colorado dressage trainer who writes a lot about horse body language.
First is approaching the horse. Just like people, horses have an energy bubble, their personal space. Here is a 45-second video of getting closer in stages. She pauses at the edge of the horse’s bubble, then moves inside it and pauses again. She gives the horse time to adjust to new input in their immediate environment. She approaches from the side and keeps her eyes looking mostly down, two ways of being respectful in horse language, of literally being more horselike.
As she stands there, she waits for the horse to turn its head towards her as she offers her hand. After the introductory sniff, she assesses the horse’s body language, and puts her arm over the horse’s neck in preparation to halter it. How she waits, again, for the horse to lower or turn its head is just lovely. Letting the horse dictate the speed of this interaction builds trust and relaxation which sets the tone for the rest of the time you spend together.
A 2nd video beautifully illustrates how to introduce yourself to a horse and halter it, including dealing with the other horse in the paddock. You can watch the 1.5-minute video here. In a 6-minute video, the woman waits for the horse’s cue to put the halter on, steps back and waits, tries again, steps back still waiting, and finally on the 3rd try, the horse turns towards her and is haltered.
You’ll see the horses licking and chewing during these videos, which I’ve come to understand is how they process the input (into their nervous systems) of having a person stand inside their space. New input is a little bit of stress in their environment (or for some horses, quite a lot of stress). That bumps them into their fight/flight/freeze (aka Sympathetic Nervous System) place not in a major freak out way, but just a bit. The person respectfully waiting for the horse before putting on the halter is allowing the nervous system to return to rest/digest/relax (aka Parasympathetic Nervous System). Licking and chewing (or yawning, sighing, and other forms of release) signal that shift. The point is not to avoid all stress, but to allow the nervous system to cycle back and forth, not getting stuck in one.
Interacting with horses this way is delightfully connected and gentle, and also requires having awareness of your own energy and body language. That is a topic for another workshop and another post!