Horses are experts in reading body language and intent. As prey animals their survival depends on knowing what a predator is going to do long before that predator actually springs into action. I always find it fascinating to watch a herd of zebras peacefully grazing while there are lions close by. Sometimes the lions even stroll among the zebras. Then suddenly there is a change, heads come up, ears prick and within seconds the whole herd has taken off. The focus of one of the lions has changed and the zebras know it. It is not easy for a lion to catch a zebra.
I used to have my horses in a livery yard and I’ve witnessed how difficult it can be for a human to catch a horse many times. “It’s because he can see the head collar, hold it behind your back” is the usual advice given, and so the person walks into the field, headcollar hidden behind their back, unaware that their intention to catch that horse is preceding them in almost palpable waves. The horse is, of course, already moving away.
Horses are very subtle communicators. A flick of an ear, nostrils pinched, a shift in stance, horses read each other’s body language and respond to it. In my little herd, Cassie is the dominant mare. When I put hay out for the night, she will move Minnie away from both piles, so she can have the first choice. Sometimes she has to use quite a bit of energy, because Minnie is no push-over. Minnie doesn’t take offence, she just waits at the right distance. Cassie will check out the hay and start eating. Minnie waits until Cassie shifts her body almost imperceptibly and then she will join her, often at the same pile of hay.
When I am out with Cassie I have noticed that she often takes her cue from me. I can get her through scary situations if I am totally calm and relaxed, aware of what she finds potentially threatening, and focussed on where we are going at the same time. She might be contemplating panic and flee mode, but if she doesn’t get any bad vibes from my body, she seems to assume that I know what to do and then she’s happy to follow my lead.
If I can get her to calm down by being calm myself, it is because Cassie senses that there is no fear in my body, but she is also measuring the amount of energy in my body. I would like to be able to ride like that at all times. To use only my energy and intent as cues for speeding up, slowing down and halting and use leg and seat aids more for refinement and direction.
I have started to take Cassie out for walks as a form of in hand work. Instead of a leisurely stroll together, the way we walked after the shoes came off, walks are now work. Our country lanes are a good place to do this. The roads are very quiet, it is easy to focus, there is a purpose, because we are going somewhere, and I can stop to reward Cassie with a bit of grazing every now and then. While we walk, I position myself just behind Cassie’s shoulder and try to teach her to walk straight, maintain a steady pace and to move off my energy.
This Sunday was a beautiful day, a relief after all the rain, so off we went. My husband followed behind us with Minnie, who hates to be left behind, and the dogs had come too. Cassie started off really well, but after a while she seemed to be flagging a bit and it was really hard to move her into trot. We were on our way back when we met a couple out for a Sunday walk. We’ve met them before, they have three dogs, two big dogs and a terrier. The woman always picks the terrier up, because he’s an excitable little fellow, but the big dogs are fine. The four dogs met up and started to sniff each other. One of them took an overly enthusiastic interest in our old dog Pippin, who wasn’t impressed at all and after her warning growls were ignored, she attacked.
I think we all called the dogs and shouted at them, to absolutely no effect. I was closest to the dogs, about 15 yards away from them and I ran to them and when I was close enough, I lashed out with the longe rope and hit them, twice. That brought all the dogs to their senses, they all came to heel when called, the other couple and we passed each other, everyone apologised for the dogs behaviour and that was that.
What did Cassie do during all of this? When I started running she immediately trotted along, she halted when I stopped and she stood perfectly still while I flung the rope at the dogs. She was on a loose rein the whole time. When the dogs were put in their place, I stroked her neck and she looked at me with a soft eye, calm and completely unfazed by the whole thing, so I organised my rope and we walked on as if nothing had happened.
Afterwards I thought about what happened and how she responded. First of all, I probably wouldn’t have done this with any other horse. But Cassie is not scared of dogs. Every time we go out, we have to go past a neighbour’s Alsatian, who never fails to run out and bark at us. I can yell at dogs to GO HOME! from her back, Cassie knows that it is not directed at her and is not bothered at all when I raise my voice.
What I think happened from Cassie’s perspective is this. There was focus, a burst of energy and instant action. There wasn’t any emotion involved, I wasn’t angry with the dogs, I just had a very clear picture in my mind of flinging the rope at them to stop them. So Cassie basically did what I was trying to teach her, move off my energy and follow my intent. Except this time, it was finally totally clear to her what I wanted. I need to define how to use my energy and intent.