Horses are the masters of body language. They will always be far better than you or I at reading and responding to subtle movements and vibrations we create. They pick up on our energy through our body language, which is how they assess our level of ‘horse confidence’ and our ability to be a good leader. This makes it very hard to lie to a horse.
The Horse Centred Approach
What happens when we approach problems with our horse from a genuinely horse centred perspective? What happens when we suspend our ego and think about what the horse needs, not what we want? Can you honestly evaluate and recognise your emotions when working with your horse? We have to first acknowledge our emotions exist and impact on our behaviour, in order to then look at attempting to control them.
I can tell you a few things that ring true for me. When I see a problem horse as a horse having a hard time understanding something, or a horse crying out for help, or a horse trying but physically incapable of doing as I am asking; then I see the horse as a horse, a living, breathing, thinking and feeling being, not as being defined by a problem.
I find it much easier to feel connected to a horse, to see them in a favourable light and to like them, when I can separate the problem from who the horse is. This is important. If you approach a horse with a bad attitude then you may not like the response you get from the horse, then you press harder and get madder or more upset, the horses behaviour deteriorates further. It’s a vicious cycle you don’t want to be on. The same rings true for a nervous and inconsistent handler. Your horse gets confused, you become more nervous, the horse behaviour deteriorates.
Your horse will learn to be resentful or fearful of interactions with you. Remember – its very difficult to lie to a horse! They pick up on your subtle body language cues that you aren’t even aware you are giving out. These cues will give you away and reflect what’s really going on in the inside for you.
Fake It Until You Make It
That being said, you can ‘fake it until you make it’ when it comes to your confidence and calm with your horse, to a degree. The key is awareness. Awareness of what you are really thinking and feeling, and being aware of what your body is doing in response.
It is possible to mirror the body language of confident people, and convince your horse you are a good leader! Once you change your posture to portray confidence, and have sufficient control of your emotions to portray calm, you should see some small improvements in your horses behaviour. Then guess what? You will also begin to feel more genuinely confident in your interactions with your horse. Just as a negative cycle works, so does a positive one. The better your horse responds, the more genuinely confident you feel, the better your horse gets. It’s a self fulfilling cycle that you really want to get on!
How Do You Convey Confidence?
Horses aren’t psychic, well maybe they are, but I certainly don’t have any evidence for this. You will hear people talk about their horse and “the horse knows when the rider is nervous” or “the horse knows I cant make him ride away from his friends” or this doozy “the horse wont listen to me because he doesn’t respect me.” This is absolutely true, but possibly not for the reasons you may think. I will address the respect myth in a future post in more details with rationale, but I’d like to touch on it here just to say that it is poor leadership that the horse is responding to, not his intrinsic lack of respect.
Confidence on the Ground
Think of the drill sergeant, square shoulders, marching, barking orders. Now think of the shy kid in class, rolled shoulders, relaxed or weak body posture. Who are you going to be more inclined to follow instructions from? Similarly, how do you know who the boss mare is? Body language tells the horse a lot about who is a good leader and who they need to listen to in order to maintain the status quo.
When you are approaching your horse for a training session, think about turning your energy on. By this I mean stand tall, use a firm voice, focus your eyes and energy on the part of the horse you want to respond. It sounds silly, but when you see it demonstrated it makes a lot of sense! Remember; fake it ’til you make it. You need to practice the body language of a confident leader until it becomes how you move. When you aren’t asking anything of your horse, or wish to reward your horse by decreasing pressure on them (yes you can do pressure and release training with your body language!), then you can turn your energy back off again. Relax your posture and go back to cooing at your horse if you wish.
However, please don’t confuse firm and affirmative body language as needing to be frantic or forceful! It is also important to remain calm and in control, to create a calm learning environment for your horse. If your horse panics at something scary, and is dancing on the end of a rope, it is not your job to mirror the horse here. You only go as far as the horse needs you to get their attention back, and you keep this pressure on until they settle for themselves, then you relax to reward them. If you have trouble settling yourself, you can feel your heart pounding because your horse just spooked and surprised you, then breathe. Stop moving big deep breaths, and compose yourself. Then carry on like nothing happened. Horses don’t hold grudges, and neither should we.
The horse can tell their rider is nervous because the rider gives off some subtle body language clues to indicate this. Think about when you are nervous or tense, what does your body do? Clenched fists, stiff shoulders and elbows, hand movement, a stiff seat, and leg pressure are just some of the little things that may be involved in creating some riding issues for the nervous rider. Be mindful when you ride, start practicing being aware of how your body is responding when you are in the saddle. You can’t change what you don’t acknowledge.
When nervous people clench their fists. When fists clench the horse can feel a tighter grip on the reins, even if no pulling is involved (although that usually comes too). Stiff shoulders and elbows mean the horse feels that the reins are no longer soft, moving with their movement. This puts more pressure on the horses mouth, their tongue, and may inflict discomfort or pain. This alone can put the horse into a flight posture and make them tense in response to the tense rider. Tongue pressure will act to shorten the horses length of stride through the hyoid apparatus, further contributing to flight posture. If this occurs over a longer term we start to see poll and back pain, and the associated deterioration in behaviour pain can cause.
When the nervous rider holds tension in their shoulders, they also tend to close their hands down on the horses neck, closing the space the horse has to move into by closing the reins. This can contribute to more bit pressure and causes the horse to slow down and shorten their stride. This becomes a great source of confusion for the horse if the rider also has their legs on and wants the horse to give a bigger gait or transition to the next gait, or is simply unbalanced and gripping with their heels.
When a rider has a stiff seat, they can block their horses movement by creating unnecessary heaviness and pressure on the shoulder. This can cause flow on effects through the horses body resulting in pain from the poll to the back end. This sort of pain is normally gradual to build and the nervous rider will blame themselves or their horse for a deterioration in behaviour, when pain may be the culprit. One of the biggest factors in letting go of your own body tension so that you can relax your hips and have a softer seat? Breathe! When we get nervous its an automatic reflex to hold our breaths. You can trick your body into getting softer by stopping and focusing on breathing. Slow, deep breaths.
It’s also important to work on your core strength and balance in order to work on your seat. You can do this on or off your horse! Nervous riders often feel unbalanced on a horse, which could be due to strength, technique or coordination. When unbalanced it’s an automatic response to grab on with your legs, and often your heels. This is why your riding instructor likely repeats the words “heels down” on the regular. It’s not about making you look like a pretty dressage rider, it is so you can have an effective and steady leg without telling your horse to go faster. Gripping with your heels and telling the horse to go faster, when you are already unbalanced, is a recipe for disaster! If you feel stable in the saddle you will feel more confident, and send less vibrations of nervousness to your horse.
Open and calm body language in the saddle is just as important as open and calm body language on the ground.