I believe that when you really want to have a great two-way communication with your horse, in which you listen to each other (!) and act on each others communication (!), you should stop coercing him. I believe that the foundation of a trustworthy and loving bond with your horse starts with listening to him and addressing what he’s trying to tell you all along.
Ways we coerce our horse (sometimes even without realizing it)
- When you shut a horse down with a tied noseband, so he can’t open his mouth to avoid the working of the bit. A horse wants to avoid to bit because of discomfort or pain
- When you use a whip to correct him when he’s not forward enough or to ‘remind’ (I find the word ‘threaten’ sometimes more suitable) the horse’ of the consequences
- Using a rope halter. These halters are thin and made out of polyester and therefor work harshly into the horses sensitive skin, onto the thin bone in their nose and behind their ears. All pressure is laser focused on that one tiny part of the thin rope that presses on the horse’s head and therefor “we” (we as in horse people in general) like to use them, Even when we aren’t aware of what they are doing to our horses, we do see our horse listens better when we use these, instead of soft halters made out of band or leather.
- Chase after out horses in the pasture until they give up or give in, so we (again, ‘we’ as in horse people in general, not you! 😉 ) can catch them and do something our horse obviously dislikes (and anticipates on by running away from you)
What would happen if we would listen more?
We would hear the message of our horse!
“But I don’t know how to listen!”
Start by simply observing and noticing what you’re feeling when you see certain reactions, or behaviours of your horse. Look at these photo’s above. In which ones looks the horse more comfortable?
Pay attention to these things and how they relate to each other:
- The shape of the eyes: round and relaxed, or open and round, half closed and relaxed or half closed and tension above the eye.
- Head position: high with tension in the neck, or more horizontal and relaxed? Is the head position natural or forced?
- Mouth: open, closed, lips open, lips and chin relaxed? Wrinkles around the corner of the mouth or upper lip
- Nostrils: open or closed? Wrinkles above the nostrils?
- Ears: open or flattened (closed), to the front, sideways, are both ears doing the same?
The more you pay attention, the more you’ll see. Once you see it, you can’t un-see it. Look up pain faces in equines.
How to listen to our horse
- When our horse shows discomfort or when he wants to avoid our equipment (like his halter, bridle, bit, saddle) we investigate: does he have pain, an injury, is he sore, is he anticipating on what’s coming with avoidance. It’s painful when our horse walks or runs away from us in the pasture because he’s anticipating on riding, right? BUT, when we would address his feelings about it, we can change it! When a horse shows signs of avoidance or pain, investigate!
- Correcting is a nice word for punishment in the equestrian world. The goal of punishment is saying (but often: shouting) ‘NO!” to our horse. It’s meant to decrease behaviour. When you simply say ‘No’ to a behaviour, you’re not explaining to your horse what he’s suppose to do. It’s likely that he’ll fall into the pitfall of that undesired behaviour. Usually what’s undesired behaviour for us, is desirable for the horse! Punishment is clear ONE-way communication. Punishment will not give the learner the feeling of being heard or understood. When we focus on what we do want and find ways to reinforce more desired behaviours positively (by adding appetitives/something the horse values and wants to receive), punishment will be unnecessary. Not only will it make our horse feel better, we feel better too.
- Rope halter vs flat halters. Simply try using a flat halter again and focus on the behaviours that change. Will your horse grass dive, pull you when you use a flat halter? These are the behaviours that you can improve using positive reinforcement/ clicker training. Teaching your horse to lead by following you, can make a lead rope unnecessary. Even when leading on grass! Your horse will feel heard and valued.
- When your horse is hard to catch, he’s definitely telling you he doesn’t want to be with you. Worst case scenario, ‘you’ means ‘all people’. You can change his feelings by listening to him and addressing what’s bothering him. It can be that he dislikes grooming, or being manhandled when cleaning his feet, or he’s anticipating on a bumpy ride with an unbalanced rider, poorly fitted tack. All these things can be solved! And when you find an experience horse person, it will be worth the investment in time and money. In return you’ll get a better understanding and a better relationship with your horse.
Want to learn to listen to your horse?
Find someone who can help you interpret his language. You’ll know! Actions speak louder than words. When your looking for a trainer, riding instructor or clicker coach, pay attention to how they treat their horse and how the horse reacts to the person. That will tell you a lot!
Want support implementing what you’ve learned? In the HippoLogic training method, ‘Emotions in Training’ is one of the Key Lessons for Trainers. I find that when we notice how our horses are feeling about training, we can make it better for them. This enhances our bond with them.
Need help training your horse?
Are you a compassionate horse owner who wants to build a strong friendship with your horse? Would you like to understand your horse better and help your horse to understand YOU better? Get access to many online clicker training courses and a fabulous, supportive R+ community in our HippoLogic Clicker Training Academy. Check out the link!
Not sure? Start with a free clicker training assessment to get taste of what it feels like to work with me. When you have a specific struggle that you want to overcome, don’t hesitate to contact me. In this assessment you’ll discover what’s holding you back from accomplishing the things you want with your horse. After our conversation you’ll know exactly what to do, in order to move forward towards your goals.
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