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In my last blog post, I touched on the basics of horse communication and what they can teach us about relationships. In this article, I will analyze how humans can become more attuned and sensitive to each other through understanding horses’ primary mode of communication: body language.

While horses do use some vocals – neighing to seek out nearby horses, nickering to literally ask something to “come over here,” snorting to express agitation or fear, and squealing when angry – their primary source of communication is body language. While one could say the same for dogs or other animals, horses’ signals are particularly subtle. When they are happy, the signs are not quite as easy to recognize as a dog’s tail wag. As such, the human seeking to communicate with the horse must learn to look for these signals and attune themselves to them, much like any other language.

The root of all horse body language is the concept of pressure and release. Since horses, are constantly testing to see where they stand in the hierarchal totem pole (as discussed in the previous blog post), a second will not pass after a horse meets you before they begin to test you in order to discover where you stand in relation to them. A well-trained horse should automatically assume that all humans outrank him. However, many years – and near scrapes – have taught me that you should never take a horse-owner’s word regarding their horse’s training level at face-value. It is important to read the body language to determine what a horse is trying to say to you.

There are some basics to horse body language that can instantly tell you a lot. Ear positions, for instance, can give away instantly what a horse is thinking or feeling. In the three images below, we have a curious horse, a disinterested/calm horse, and an irritated/angry horse. Can you guess which is which?

The top image is a very curious horse. The ears are alert and “pricked.” If the eyes were much wider, he might be bordering on being anxious about whatever has his attention. The lower left image is a very relaxed and disinterested horse. His ears are angled backward slightly in “neutral” as it were, and his eyes are half closed. Nothing is tense, and he looks like he could fall asleep any minute. The bottom right image looks like the other (lighter) horse in the picture has a few seconds before the brown horse is going to bite. The ears are lying flat back against the neck, so this horse is warning whoever is nearby that he is not at all happy.

This is a good time to reintroduce the idea of pressure and release. The angry horse is taking the first step of asserting dominance by putting pressure on whatever or whoever is bothering him, whether it is another horse or a human being. If the animal or person does not pick up on his body language, he will increase the pressure until they understand. The next step after ear pinning is showing teeth or biting, depending on the individual horse’s level of aggression. If biting does not work, hooves could start flying. In any case, the horse will continue to put pressure until one of two things happens: either he wins and the opponent backs down (enabling him to grant release as a reward), or the opponent calls his bluff and proves to be more assertive: a.k.a. higher on the hierarchal totem pole.

There is an important lesson to be learned here in human communication. So often, because of our God-given gift of speech, we humans forget the importance of body language. How often have you misinterpreted someone’s body language as being irritated when they were actually just tired from a long day at work?

Because we rely so heavily on speech as our primary mode of communication, people tend to put body language on the sidelines. So much miscommunication could be avoided if we learned to read each other’s body language better. Instead of instantly getting irritated with someone and taking for granted that they must understand you, take a moment to think about not just their words but how they present themselves. What kind of a day have they had? How did they enter the room? How are they currently standing? Do they seem relaxed or tense? All these things matter when making communication work. If I judged my horses as quickly as we judge our fellow human friends, I wouldn’t get anywhere with them! Sensitivity to body language is a crucial element in communication that our modern, high-speed society would do well to remember.

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Blessings to all and to God be the glory!

Ad Jesum per Mariam,

 

- AB