HORSES: SAFETY, FUN AND LEARNING (the natural way)
This paper has been produced by us for those who may have first or casual contact with horses. It is written to develop understanding and as a result, safety in their dealings with horses. Further involvement in handling, riding and training should be coached by competent equine professionals. We believe this can best be done by those who follow the disciplines of Natural Horsemanship, which can best be understood as learning and using the language of the horse to communicate and then forming a partnership.
—Alan and Pam Brownlie
Horses are prey animals and we humans are predators. Horses may be frightened of us and their way of protection is flight, to run away. Only when pressured or cornered will they fight.
Horses don’t see the way we do. For their protection, they see and focus all around. Their ears swivel all around to hear that way as well. This is so that they can see and hear warning signals, escape signals and messages and send them back to their herd when necessary. Watch where your horse is looking and which way its’ ears are turned and tune into your horse for those signals which are coming your way. If a horse is really paying attention both eyes will be on you and both ears pointed in your direction. Their eyes, just like humans, are important in communication but with horses the ears are also really important. For instance, when two horses walk in a line the horse in front will have its ears pointed forward and the one in back will have its ears pointed back, both for protection.
Horses are herd animals and feel threatened when separated and are alone. They naturally want to join up with other horses for protection. There is safety in numbers and so a horse will naturally want to join with you for protection and for leadership if you encourage it.
We see and focus in front with directed eyes and ears to search and attack and we also communicate directly that way. We communicate with a lot of talk and a lot less body language…horses communicate with a lot of body language and less talk. With this in mind, when you approach a horse, look at it with one inside eye the same way a horse does and be ‘calm but alert’. Be aware of their energy field, their space bubble of acceptance or rejection. Move fluidly and with rhythm with no sudden slapping or grabbing moves…you may open your hands quickly like the flick of a tail but close them slowly unlike an attacking claw. Convince them you are not attacking them and that you want to be friends so they should ‘stick around’. Be patient and wait for acceptance before you move closer.
People also have personal bubbles of comfort around them , so while being aware of your horses bubble, keep your own intact and ask the horse to respect you as well. They can be pretty pushy when they are checking you out to see who’s boss. They out weigh us by about ten times and can hurt you. Stand sideways so you can move back quickly and won’t be stepped on by mistake or inadvertently shoved or pushed off balance. You can then take a sidewise step to move quickly away and not be pushed over backwards.
As long as a horse is looking at you with one eye it’s looking for a way to escape with the other. So get it to give you both eyes and along with them the horses respect as well. When a horse trusts you it will look at you with both eyes. They probably don’t really have binocular vision as we do. Horses have two largely separate brain sides as we do but not so connected as ours. Their right brain is the emotional center and the left the cognitive center. When teaching a horse you must teach both sides, not just one and expect it to learn as we do by relating left and right. When working with horses it’s better to have them in their thinking left brain rather than the flighty right brain. Some friendly attention evolving into calm positive directions on the part of an experienced handler can usually achieve this transition from a wary maybe even frightened horse to a calm thinking one.
Ask for and command, do not demand, a horses’ attention. If a horse looks away when you are working together, ask it to face back to you with two eyes in a gentle firm way. If a horse suddenly looks away, check out what it is it’s looking at and acknowledge it. They see and hear differently and usually better than we do. Thank the horse with a stroking action and calm talk and assure it that what you are doing with them is most important and bring it back to you with both eyes.
When you have established contact with the horse and it begins to trust you, make friendly overtures like stroking and rubbing, not patting or hitting. Horses groom each other so you can feel free to rub and stroke, especially where they can’t reach. Use your inside hand and don’t reach across and over because that will make them nervous. When the horse is calm and thinking in its left brain you can continue with what you want from them.
Always ask a horse to do something in phases – 4 are good: ask, warn, promise, act. For example when asking them to respond to physical contact, start by touching their hair, then skin, then muscle and finally bone). You can act more insistently, if necessary, but always having given warning of your intent. Horses like to be talked to with feel and body language but it’s ok to back it up with first calm quiet talk, then normal talk, and then more forceful talk when attention is not given by them.
When horses get excited, be calm and take control the best way for the situation. Sometimes a preoccupied and excited horse won’t hear you with a quiet word or touch. It will work then to match or slightly exceed a horses energy level in a way that is loud and firm but without anger, which doesn’t work well with horses. This will encourage the horse to give the herd leadership role back to you when it thinks you are aware of the problem but are in control and in place and not running off. You can then quickly revert to calm confident reassuring behavior.
When riding, ask a horse to do things with your body. Direct your eyes forward with a still body. For turning, first move the eyes, followed by a turned body action telegraphed to your legs. This will apply pressure to the horse which will be a cue that it should move away from. Then, if necessary, back up with the reins. Teach your horse to move away from pressure.
Horses move in all directions but mostly forward so be constantly aware, especially when leading a horse. Be sure that you are a little in front and to also be on one side so as not to be run over if a horse takes off.
When in a learning situation with a horse, look for a chewing action. That means it’s thinking or that it agrees with you or that you just learned what it already knew. Don’t persist then or the horse will think you are stupid and lose respect.
When you are trying to catch a horse look at it with one eye and when it looks back at you with both eyes stop and then approach slowly without entering its bubble. When the horse looks away, continue to approach with out breaking the bubble, then stop when you get two eyes to acknowledge and reward the horse. Wait and relax and then move ahead again repeating the moves. Don’t be sneaky, relax your energy and be smooth. After catching the horse and when in a controlled situation such as a round pen, ask for both eyes by pressuring the hindquarters to move away so this is accomplished.
Frightened or startled horses may kick out with their back legs so when moving around behind them either be very near and in constant contact or far enough away to be safe.
Horses can kick sideways so stand sideways to present a smaller target. A frightened horse may rear and paw with their front feet. Be alert and as calm as possible keeping both their eyes on you but keep back and move smoothly away as necessary if their head goes up suddenly.
When dealing with a trained horse, give it respect, don’t ‘nag’ or try to drag it around because it’s a lot bigger and you won’t win that way. Use the horse’s language and then find out what it may have been taught by others before you who may have forced their language of fear and intimidation on the horse. If this is true be careful and patient.
Horses communicate by applying indirect and then direct pressure to one another and then desisting when response is made by another less dominant horse. They do this to establish who is the best leader. Ask a horse to move away from pressure so you won’t get pushed around by something that weighs 10 times as much as you. Do this by repeatedly applying phased pressure and as a reward, releasing immediately when the horse moves away. Establish yourself as the leader this way then ask politely for a lot and you will receive even more in return.
Horses love to play games just like we do, but they play leadership and escape game whereas we play leadership and attack games. When we play THEIR games, they will respect us. When we LEARN their language, they will want to be our partners and even play our games with us.
You can learn as much or more from your horse as they can learn from you. So be relaxed but always alert and ready for anything. You will be safe with your horse and can then have more fun and be ready to learn from them because they can and will teach us a lot if we let them.