[The following is a short excerpt from Week 2 of my new horse language course. In the course, week 2 includes 5 pages of summarized research, one journal article reading and three optional ones, two videos, and an assignment.]
I love getting enjoyment signals from a horse that I am working with, and I try to hunt for moments that the horse will enjoy, learning from each horse what they prefer individually. Positive affective states (roughly equivalent to optimism) have been shown to improve learning from training sessions, so actively looking for ways to improve my horse’s mood is good training practice.
We’ll start at the head and work through the body.
Ears are a great indicator of the horse’s state of mind. Both ears must be relaxed to indicate full pleasure or enjoyment, if one is still hyper focused and stiff I keep working to find more relaxation. A relaxed ear position can be flopped slightly to the side (but a horse with ears stiffly flopped over like a donkey can indicate pain) or gently swivelling.
The eyes shouldn’t have ‘worry wrinkles’ above them in the relaxed horse in a positive affective state. They may half close, but take care to consider the rest of the signals as half closed eyes can also indicate pain.
The nostril and lips are relaxed, not pinched into an angular shape.
When physical touch is particularly pleasurable, the horse will lean into it, move the body to put your hand in the right spot, and the upper lip begins to twitch and wiggle back and forth.
A neck position below the withers is the most calming position, as heart rate is lowered when the head is below wither level and pleasure hormones are released. During a pleasant grooming session, the horse may bulge his neck towards you to have you scratch harder, or bend his neck away to get a slightly different angle.
Often for a hard-to-reach spot on my horse’s side, she will swing her neck around and indicate where she needs a scratch with a jerk of the nose. While I couldn’t find any research relevant to gesturing behaviour in horses yet, when I pay attention to where she might be trying to reach or perhaps point to, I often hit on a spot she really enjoys.
Relaxed muscle tone and a comfortable stance usually indicate calmness. Standing with one leg twisted or oddly positioned can be a fear/frozen stance or indicator of pain. It can take some practice to distinguish a ‘frozen’ horse that isn’t moving because it is avoiding a fear-inducing stimulus from a horse that is simply relaxed, which is why taking the entire body into account is important. Both the relaxed and the frozen horse may have a hind foot rested.
During movement, the tail should swing softly from side to side, creating an ‘s’ curve through its length, particularly visible at trot. Thrashing or switching the tail is the opposite of what we look for in calming signals, rather the tail will be held softly up or relaxed down, not clamped, nor pulled up and to one side (although this can be normal for some breeds, it is also an indication of pain).
Next time you are with your horse, watch for some of these behaviours. Spend a moment wondering what your horse is telling you while you handle or groom him, and try to hunt for some relaxing bonding time. When you notice a behaviour, good or bad, pause and think before reacting. See if you notice any of the behaviours that might indicate pain or discomfort and practice being attentive to your horse’s requests and cues.
Do you want to learn how to interpret your horse’s behaviour more accurately to forward your training efforts? I’m launching a six week online course in January 2023 to teach just that. Submit the RSVP below to be first to know when registration opens in December.