What is body language?
Body language is the display of instinctive or learned physical signals that help horses communicate with each other and with us. Communication is about sending a message that is received and understood by somebody else, and communication between horses and humans is a two-way process; horses learn our communication signals, and we can learn their signals; what they are saying to us. Horses have lots of ways of communicating via body language and they do it very well, using their faces (and parts of their face – eyes, nostrils, mouth), ears, legs/feet, backs/posture, tails, and their entire bodies to communicate information.
When we learn to read our horses, we can create stronger and more trusting relationships, and we can be more effective trainers too.
Horses evolved to do most of their communication via body language. The movements of different parts of the body can be very subtle, and even just a shift of weight, a slight turn of the head, or tensing up conveys information. As prey animals, subtle, silent communication can mean the difference between survival or being caught by a predator, because any kind of noise could draw attention. Other horses understand these signs instinctively, and we can learn to understand them too.
Am I bothered? The function of body language
We can break different expressions of body language down into three categories: Approach, Avoid or Neutral. The body language signs that we see our horses expressing will perform one of these functions: to decrease distance from something (an object, horse, person, situation), to increase distance from it, or to remain neutral (and if it’s neutral, that avoids expending energy, something that’s very important in relation to survival, which all behaviour points back to.)
Approach behaviours are those that decrease distance, they say I’m friendly, or I’m confident, I know what happens next and I like it, I’m interested, I’m curious.
Avoid behaviours function to increase distance from something, they indicate anxiety or fear and the messages are either “don’t come closer” or “I’m going to move away”. Very often, in terms of how we manage and engage with our horses, it can mean “I know what happens next and I don’t want that thing to happen”.
Neutral behaviours indicate relaxation and are most of the behaviours that we see on the natural equine ethogram: rest/sleep, eating and drinking, and body maintenance behaviours e.g. scratching, rolling.
Avoidance behaviours also relate to the “Four F”s, the most widely known of which are Fight or Flight.
The subtle signs
Turning their head away is an early sign that the horse is not completely relaxed about something to do with the situation they’re in, and it’s a sign that’s often missed, meaning that then the horse is pushed further towards doing something that they are more likely to react to with a more obvious and unwelcome behaviour such as planting, napping, rearing, bucking or bolting. Turning the head away is one of first signs I look for when assessing and observing a horse in a behaviour case.
We can see on this table a list of some other subtle signs of stress that we can observe in various areas of the horse’s body:
Fight, flight and other Fs
As a prey species, horses evolved to “run away first and ask questions later” as their default method of avoiding and increasing distance; you’ve probably seen examples of this, especially in their natural startle response where they’ll turn and run a short distance, or jump sideways if it’s something in a hedge, and then they’ll stop, head raised, ears pricked, and re-orientate themselves to look directly at the object that caused the reaction, sometimes raising and lowering their head so they can take in the whole of the visual stimulus.
Some of the time, our horses want to avoid something, but we want them to approach it, so we use restraint in the form of tack, to prevent them from taking avoiding action, and a lot of the time we also use our bodies or equipment to drive them closer to the thing they don’t want to approach. If they can’t do what they want to do, which in this example is Flight (bolting is a clear example of Flight behaviour), there are some situations where Fight (aggressive) behaviour will be displayed, and these are the situations where a horse may rear, buck, or kick or bite aggressively in their attempts to increase distance from a person or an object, when they know that “what happens next” is going to be something that they associate with a negative emotion – fear, confusion, frustration or pain.
In these situations, in biological terms, the sympathetic branch of the horse’s autonomic nervous system has become aroused, activating the fight or flight processes. Psychologists have also recognised other behaviours associated with sympathetic arousal, also conveniently beginning with F, which are Freeze, and Fidget. Freeze can clearly be seen as planting behaviour in horses, and more subtly where you can see them holding their breath; in this “holding their breath” example it’s easy for us to think they are coping with something such as shoeing, clipping, or an injection, but if you watch their respiration you’ll see that it becomes shallower and slower in these situations.
Fidget behaviour we see a lot of, because most of the time a horse is restrained in some way by tack and the rider’s use of it, or by being tied up, or contained in a stable; this is when you’ll see things like little rear attempts (feeling as if they’re about to go up, raising the forehand) or a full rear, head tossing, tail swishing, biting the lead rope, walking in a semi circle as far as the lead rope will allow while tied up, or repeatedly walking to the back of the stable and then quickly to the front again and head out over the door, before rushing to the back of the stable again. This sort of body language is driven by an innate motivation to move, which is thwarted in some way.
Listen to your horse
The best way to learn more about your horse and how they communicate is to spend time just observing them, without actively doing anything. See what they react to, and how they react. Learn what their body language signals are and respond to them; by doing this, you and your horse will be able to communicate more effectively and have more fun!
***Debbie Busby is an extremely experienced and knowledgable Clinical Equine Behaviourist, and is our GUEST EXPERT in my Strength & Straightness Online Training Programme!! Debbie has provided a training module for my members this month (her 3rd in total!), on the horses body language, and she will also be available for questions in our live Q&A session this month too!!
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