Improving Communication With Your Horse
Equestrian Life,  Horse Training

Improving Communication With Your Horse

It Is All About Perspective: Are You A Human or a Horse?

Recently I was talking with a new horse owner who has a young animal. She commented on how her baby horse was often picked on or “bullied”. There are certainly times when this does happen, it’s happened to Ferrous actually at our previous barn, but it is not the usual scenario. 

This got me thinking that it’s all about perspective. If we look at it from a human standpoint, having a number of horses pinning their ears and nipping him out of the way or going to kick can be scary and we feel bad for our horse. However, think about it as if you were a horse.

Suddenly, this behavior makes more sense. The baby should be at the bottom of the herd and learning his manners. He is going to make mistakes and the adults are going to tell him by putting him in his place. Because he’s a baby he may not understand and they have to repeat themselves, getting more aggressive. 

Is it really bullying or is it just herd dynamic? 

Understanding that difference helps us to communicate with our horses. My barn owner told me recently that I have an incredible amount of patience with Ferrous. She has a good point. I have patience because I understand that he and I are speaking two different languages and we won’t always be clear, him or me.

This is why I enjoy Liberty training and R+ training so much. I don’t consider myself an expert as I am learning along with the horses what works and what doesn’t. But it gives me an opportunity to “play” games and improve on my relationship and my communication.

Observe Herd Behavior

Observe your horse interacting with others in the paddock.

Observe your horse interacting with others in the paddock. How many horses are there? Is your horse directly the others by moving into them and asking them to move or is he being asked to move? Does this happen with one horse or all the horses? Determining where your horse is in the pecking order can tell you a lot. 

For example, when Delight moved to his new farm we had to introduce him slowly. We began by introducing him to the lowest members of the herd first and then slowly integrated up to the herd leader. 

The Herd

Playful Valor pushing the limits of herd leader, Remmy.

Remmy a very steadfast herd leader of unknown, possibly Mexican descent, who is respectful but doesn’t accept misbehavior toward him. 

Valor is a young Mustang who has a high play drive and likes to push the limits. 

Rolo is a mature Thoroughbred who is near the bottom of the herd and had been injured previously by an aggressive herd leader, so tends to lay low. 

Arnie is a senior Mustang who just lives life and doesn’t get involved in the drama. 

Changing The Dynamic

Photo © Jesse Conway Photography

When Delight arrived he had some time to himself before he was introduced to Arney. They got along splendidly unless there was food, then Delight would move Arney away until he claimed his spot. Next, he was introduced to Rolo alone and so forth. Roll and Arney were often seen traveling together so we didn’t want to encourage Rolo to become protective of Arney and cause a potential fight for dominance. 

Once Delight had successfully been introduced individually to the lower members, he met the more dominant horses over the fences to smell, squeal, and stomp. 

Soon after Arney was moved to partner with a new Mustang, very shy of humans, and be a companion. This changed the entire dynamic of the group. Delight and Rolo then paired up as the lower members of the herd and during meal times it soon became obvious the Rolo would maintain his spot as second from the bottom. 

The new herd dynamic:

  • Remmy
  • Valor
  • Rolo
  • Delight

In the first few weeks Delight had some scratches and bite marks, which is common for herd behavior when being introduced. Luckily nothing major and no injuries. 

While herd dynamic does change occasionally, like when Remmy had to be separated for stall rest, the personalities of the horses largely place them in a pecking order.  Delight and Rolo continue to pair up and often when I visit, Rolo will be near Delight or come with us while I lead him out to groom him or work with him in the arena. 

To Reward Or Ignore Behavior? 

I’m a big supporter of positive reinforcement training and have found huge differences using clicker training. I don’t refer to myself as a horse trainer but the reality is each time we work with our animals on the ground or in the saddle they are learning something- a positive behavior or learned helplessness. 

Pressure and release has it’s uses, which originated from herd behavior but again, we aren’t horses and I’m going to venture to say that my horse knows that I’m a human. I don’t want to complicate our relationship and try to speak with him in his language completely. Instead, I like to observe him and find a way to communicate with him directly. Ferrous and I do communicate slightly differently than Delight and I, for example. 

Delight is a very mouthy horse, and at 9-years-old is still quite playful. He thrives best living out with a herd. When he first arrived he would spend hours mouthing Valor and now Rolo. For HOURS they would play like this. 

Delight likes to do the same with humans and has a history of charging and nipping at people as if they were horses. His trainer would discipline him and sometimes he would become more aggressive before backing down. 

I mentioned this to his caregivers when he found his new home. He did it once but more importantly, when he gas colicked a few weeks ago. They messaged me that he was really off and I should get over there to assess and likely, call the vet. He was lethargic, wasn’t eating or drinking, and pinning his ears and snapping when they went to take his blanket off. Very unlike him. 

When I walked into his stall he indeed, pinned his ears and snapped at me. I stood there, not backing down and not becoming aggressive either. Within seconds, he relaxed and I walked over to unlatch his blanket like it never happened. He had reacted out of pain but gave to me immediately when I ignored the bad behavior, instead of escalating it. Within moments his blanket was off and I was massaging him to stimulate his digestive system and move the gas through his body. 20 minutes later he expelled gas and manure, and started to drink his bucket of water. 

I began a different approach with Delight, ignoring his mouthiness and not engaging in this type of play rather than discipling it.

Beginning to understand how horse’s play and changing the dynamic when working with humans.

A recent example: we were playing in the arena and a friend stopped to say hello. When I began to pay attention to her and not to Delight, he attempted to get my attention with his mouth. This is what he feels comfortable with as he is quite oral. I don’t want to take this method of communication, and how he experiences the world, away from him as long as he does it respectfully.

When he stands quietly near me, he gets rewarded with a scratch or a click and a treat. As such, we are working on phasing out inappropriate behavior and replacing it with good behavior. He still plays with his friends this way, just not with me. 

The Goal

My goal is to improve communication with horses through trial and error. I don’t know everything. Even the best trainer in the world doesn’t know everything. By giving myself a break and saying that we’re a work in progress, I relieve the pressure to be perfect. After all, I’m in it for the fun and to experience a bond with horses. We have to stop thinking of training horses in human terms. They have herd behavior. We don’t speak the same language. We can try but we will never be as good as they are, because we aren’t horses. However, the more we understand this dynamic the more we let horses be horses and focus on our relationship and how we can successfully communicate. 

I don’t treat my horse like a human and I don’t pretend to be a horse. We are two distinct species learning to communicate with each other- that’s why I enjoy positive reinforcement training so much at Liberty. He offers a behavior and I shape it, reward it, or ignore it. As a result, we have honest and open communication and a rewarding bond.

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