Using Horse Language
- October 24, 2023
- Jan Swan Wood
Maybe I’d read something about it, or maybe it was just an idea that hatched in my own head, I don’t remember, but, the addition of an old gray mare made me put it into action. “Lou” was an old calf roping horse and quirky due to her opinion of people in general. Being a broke mare, I had certain expectations about manners, but she didn’t share that. Instead, she was one to challenge me pretty regularly. Once caught she was a perfect lady, but handling her otherwise, she was not. She would run over a person in a gate or even in the corral when sorting mares. This behavior had to end. Not only for my benefit, but for the attitude of her foals as well. They learn behavior from the mare.
From childhood, I’ve spent literally hours watching interactions between horses. Facial expressions, body language, head position, ear movement, tail position and even nostril wrinkles, all had meaning. Horses not only are reading each other in a herd situation, but they are constantly reading humans as well. Even though we are anatomically very different, our body language and positioning reads clearly to horses. So, with that awareness, I went to work on Lou.
I had her in the corral for some reason, and was graining her daily. When I’d walk into the pen with her grain, she’d try to “hurry” me to the trough. Once I poured the grain, she’d pin her ears and try to move me out of the way. She wouldn’t actually nip or even shoulder me, but her expression said she would if allowed. So, in response, I “laid” my own ears back, changed my facial expression, and stretched my neck out toward her in a menacing fashion, just as if I were a dominant horse. Now, mind you, my ears and neck were not adequate for the job, but, she read that expression like they were. The look on her face changed as I kept my expression as boss mare and walked her away from the trough, never touching her. I walked her clear to a corner and left her.
We repeated this several times in the following days and then she was convinced that I was the alpha mare over her. She’d wait away from the gate and not approach the trough until I’d walked away, always making her give a step of ground on my way out of the corral, even if she was 15 feet from the trough.
Catching her in the pasture or corral, and sorting her as well, were also done with my alpha mare face on. She understood that language and didn’t chafe under it, whereas her years of being physically disciplined had made her suspicious and slightly aggressive with people. She accepted me as her lead horse.
At that time in my life, we also had two stallions. Both were really nice horses, very easy to handle and breed, and well broke to ride. But, they were still stallions. Being stallions, I knew that stallions are always ON. They are in a constant power struggle for dominance, 24 hours a day. One had better never forget that either.
The old stud never intruded on personal space or became too forward, due to his lifetime of good handling in his past as a show horse and breeding stallion. The younger stud, Spider, though he was kind and nice to handle in many ways, would get in that personal space bubble that people have to keep intact around studs. My then husband allowed it and even thought it was cute. I didn’t. I never, ever forgot that he was a stud and he was reading me every second.
So, Spider got the same treatment. I did it differently since he was a stud, keeping my head higher and using my elbows to make myself bigger. I didn’t want to challenge him as a stud, but, I let him know that I was his superior in every way. I’d walk him back from his feed bucket in his stall, walk him back away from his hay, and occasionally, just put him in a corner and make him stay there just because I could, just like another horse would. As a result, he was very respectful of me and it made him a nicer stud to handle in every way, even during breeding season. If he was coming in too fast and loud for the mare, I could back him off away from her and settle him down with a point of my finger and my head position. He would reapproach much nicer when asked.
Weanling foals are learning people every day when we handle them. I see people in videos letting a baby foal run them away from the mare. They are creating a monster, to say the least! Not cute, not funny, but dangerous. Speaking “horse” to them with our body language and facial expressions can teach them quickly that we are the alpha horse.
With body language, keep them back from the trough when graining them. If you have to work with them one at a time to achieve this, do so. It’s a favor to them in the long run. But, being herd animals, they’ll also do the group thing of moving back and respecting that expression and position. They learned those manners from the other horses in the mare band, so just adapt it to humans. If a foal is standing too close and I want space, if they are tuned in, me picking my foot up next to them tells them they are too close. In a mare band it would mean a kick would follow.
If you don’t understand the expressions and body language interactions in horses, it would be good to make a study of it. Spend some real time and watch how they look and move, watch the reaction of the recipient. It will make you a better horseman and you will be doing every horse a favor who learns that though people are friendly and great providers, they also are the alpha in their life. Leadership is desired by horses in a band, and will translate to that desire for leadership and trust in you.
To truly “love” horses, I think you need to understand their language to better communicate with them. It’s a big deal to horses. Make it a big deal for yourself.
About Jan Swan Wood
Jan was raised on a ranch in far western South Dakota. She grew up horseback working all descriptions of cattle, plus sheep and horses. After leaving home she pursued a post-graduate study of cowboying and dayworking in Nebraska, New Mexico, Montana, Wyoming and South Dakota....