Last Call: Language Course

I have posted some excerpts here from my latest writing project, the horse language course, over the last couple of months. Those posts were well-received, so I can’t imagine any of you readers of my articles not finding the course helpful… so why not sign up? The end of tomorrow is the deadline, as the course starts on January 1.

To qualify for this first discounted intake, you have to be willing to do a few things for me:

1. Give me feedback. When something doesn’t make sense, doesn’t work, even if you just notice a typo, send me an email. I want to fix any issues, big or little.

3. Keep track of how much time you spend working on the course each week. My current estimate is 4-8 hours per week, with 6 weeks of material and 8 weeks to complete it in. I need help to see if those expectations need adjusting for the next intake.

2. Write a review at the end of the course, either emailing it to me or posting it on my Facebook page.

If you think you can do those three things, send me an email through the form below to claim your spot. I’ll email back to confirm if there is room. Then you can send an eTransfer. When I receive the payment in full ($150+GST only for the first intake, then it will be $200+GST), you will receive confirmation from me and will get the welcome email with your password to the course automatically on January 1.

Looking forward to seeing you inside!

Enjoyment Behaviours

[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.

Can We Be Horses?

Many natural horsemanship training methodologies suggest the handler interacts with the horse as if he were, himself, a horse. This is typically said to involve body language, trying to mimic how the ‘alpha mare’ would interact with an insubordinate horse.

Recent research looks at the equine ethogram (a list of defined behaviours that horses display) to determine if it is possible for humans to interact with horses as other horses would, and if horses interact with humans as they would with horses. This article is based on the 2009 review article by McGreevy, Oddie, Burton, and McLean: The horse–human dyad: Can we align horse training and handling activities with the equid social ethogram? Published by The Veterinary Journal v 181, pp 12-18.


At first glance, it seems that many of the behaviours horses display towards each other in their social groups are also displayed towards humans and vice versa. Humans approach horses and touch them, with scratching around the withers being more relevant than patting or slapping. Humans move horses around with chasing pressure, and horses have been known to chase a human. Mutual grooming can be undertaken between a horse and a human. We push horses over in the tie stall, and horses sometimes push us. Leading a horse with no rein pressure looks similar to horses trekking together (traveling single file). Young horses can display snapping to humans. The list goes on, but the closer we get to the barn, the fewer the similarities become. By the time we are picking the horse’s feet and saddling up, the similarities are quickly vanishing.


The most well known natural horsemanship training technique, round penning, is an excellent example of the limitations of trying to behave like a horse, and of interpreting the horse’s responses as if they were responding to another horse. Studies have shown that the behaviours typically understood to demonstrate ‘respect’ in the round pen (licking lips, head lowering, approaching the human) are context-specific. That means they are only shown towards the human in the round pen training setting, not during other interactions. Studies have also demonstrated that the effects of round penning may be achieved with a remote-controlled car instead of a human, showing that negative reinforcement and not respect may be at the root of round pen behaviour. (Remember, negative reinforcement doesn’t mean bad, it means something–like pressure–is taken away to reinforce behaviour.)

Thinking about horse behaviour as if we are horses can also lead to us expecting the horse to know what we want, and describing them in terms of ‘willingness to please’. Both of these are dangerous ways of thinking, as they ascribe more mental capacity to the horse than it actually has, and the implications of these two assumptions lie in their opposites: if the horse doesn’t do as we wanted right away, we assume he is being wilfully naughty, doesn’t respect us, and perhaps even wants to spite us. These assumptions can lead to punitive training methods, lowering training uptake and reducing welfare.


Similarities exist between horse-horse interactions and human-horse interactions, but these become disjointed the closer the human gets to riding, and fall apart completely when the horse is mounted to be ridden. If the foundation of the horse’s training on the ground relies on attempting to be a herd member, there will be no training to rely on once the trainer wants to get on, as the horse cannot possibly see a rider as being a member of its herd—there are no longer any social analogues.

Basing training on learning theory, while still taking into account the horse’s behaviour, and learning to interpret behavioural signals accurately instead of trying to interpret them as a horse, seems to be a more logical and effective training strategy.

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.