Here is a newsflash….horses are the master of body language.
Of course, you did not know that. Haha.
While many of us say it and realize it, sometimes we don’t change our own enough (or at all).
We humans like to feel like we are in control of things. We sit on the couch with the flipper to the tv in our hands. We decide what apps we have on our phones, the temperature of our houses, we would like to tell our children exactly what to wear (good luck with that one for very long-lol).
Sometimes, we try to control things because we are worried that bad things will happen, and we think somehow we can prevent it.
I had a perfectly lovely, mannerly HOP foster horse who a person came to adopt. It was easily catchable, led very nicely, loaded in the trailer like a piece of cake…just a good fellow.
The potential adopter came to get him, and she haltered him abruptly and very business like, took a tight hold on his lead rope and tried to march determinedly across the field. While this was, on the surface, a small thing to a human onlooker, it was a major thing for a horse.
He jittered, he danced, he surged forward and stepped on the backs of her feet. He balked terribly at the trailer.
I tried to explain he just needed some slack, that she could give him some trust to behave and recommended she walk along like there was no doubt he’d be following behind behaving himself.
All things considered, if was a good home, and he was adopted. But that inability to use body language to communicate was not corrected
He was returned as a “problem horse” who, the person felt, had turned un-handle-able. (now he is adopted to a teenager and is her heart horse)
So what happened?
Nevousness and tension was created around him That tight hold on the lead rope made him feel trapped, and it was projecting worry and fear. He was looking around for the lions that his leader had evidently smelled.
It is so hard to get people to understand that a lot of horses feel trapped when someone has a death grip right under their chin on the lead rope. Seems a simple thing.
When teaching the leading and loading class for the ACO officers and Sheriffs in our Heart of Phoenix horse handling clinic, one of my favorite illustrations that really gets through to people is to treat the horse like your purse (or your wife’s purse).
Do you ever walk down the road and wonder if your purse is coming with you? Silly thought isn’t it? Of course that bag, hanging there on your shoulder, is going where you are going! (Men…think gym bag, diaper bag, whatever lol)
Although we are aware that our purse is hanging on our shoulder, we aren’t turning around looking for it constantly. We don’t keep a death grip on the straps like it will be running away at any second. We look forward, we go forward and the purse miraculously comes along with us.
We should treat our equines on the end of the lead rope the same way. Yes we are aware of them and watching them peripherally but we should just go where we want to go and trust that they will go with us. You would not believe how much that fixes bad behavior while being led.
So many people attempt to lead a horse in all the wrong ways. They look over there shoulder constantly, they turn around, face the horse, and walk backwards, they walk really slow, like they are dragging a cart with eggs in it that they must take care not to jostle and break. Horses are prey animals. They worry about “things” and they depend on leadership to survive. If you are a good horse owner, You are that leader. When you walk slowly, or backwards, or are always looking over your shoulder, your horse is reading that behavior as, “there is likely a lion behind us” or “we are worried about this awful place we are going”. So face forward, hold the lead rope casually, but aware. Keep your head up and think about your horse, but don’t, if you know what I mean. Be ready if things go awry but not expecting them to. You will be surprised how much better your horse will go along with you when you change your body language. And for Pete’s sake, don’t encourage them to be right on your back. Make them give you a little space and hang to one side or the other. This teaches them to be more respectful and gives you a little room to get out of the way if they spook. Choking up on your lead rope or holding a horse tightly under the chin only serves to worry him more anyway. So step boldly forth and go down the paths together with your new partner contentedly ambling behind her leader and have fun out there!
Of course there are exceptions. The horse that bolts, (you still cannot stop him with your death grip) the horse that doesn’t respect your space (someone needs to help that fella learn how to do that btw), but for the most part when you lead a horse it should look just about like the second picture.
More than that, remember all of your body language is telling the horse something . . .all of the time. Be sure you’re sending the right signals.