For horses, communication through body language is very important. Although they have their own set of verbal cues such as neighing, nickering and the likes, the herd uses mostly non-verbal communication to get their message across. They read and respond to movement and posture quicker than we can think about moving.
Many of the contemporary equine clinicians are basing their entire careers on learning what is called this physical “language of Equus” and teaching it to others in order to work their horses in a “more natural way”. (I put that in inverted commas, because really, no matter what your chosen equipment is, a bit, a rope halter, a saddle, bareback saddle-pad, even no saddle at all, the minute you put a horse in any type of confined space, with even as little as a rope around the nose, it is utterly unnatural to that horse. So, “Natural horsemanship” is a misnomer at the very least, or a complete oxymoron!) The problem however, is that you need to mean what your body says. They pick up on much more than body language.
Another aspect of horse communication involves congruency. Horses do not know how to lie. What they think is what they do. And they expect no less of us. You cannot fake being brave or assertive with a horse. Your intentions need to be clear. If your body language and your mind are not talking the same talk, a horse will merely act upon the intent they pick up no matter how much you pull your shoulders back and look them straight in the eye!
Example: I have not been able to ride my own horse for months now. She has had sore heels and has taken a long time to recover. She is slowly coming back into work now and we are starting with some groundwork to get her mentally and physically fit before we ride again.
I am in the lunge ring, playing around with her. The plan is to just get her to move her body in different directions on cues from me. She moves around in a circle and changes direction when I ask. Then, we do both outside (she has to turn away from me) and inside (she has to turn towards me) turns. She is very sensitive to being pushed away, so the outside turns are easy and she masters them quickly. The inside turns, not so much. I cannot get her to understand that she has to come towards me. She just keeps circling round and round and round, looking at me and saying: “I don’t understand what you are telling me?” And I’m standing in the middle of the ring thinking: “I wish I knew how to explain to you what I want you to do!” This is a most perplexing position to be in. She is right there, ever so willing to do as I ask, but I am standing in the middle of that circle at an utter loss of how to communicate what I want from her.
I have done some reading on the subject and the idea is that you use different cues from your body to tell the horse to move towards or away from you. But no matter how far I retreat, or take the pressure off, she does not stop and turn towards me. She drops her her, cocks her ear towards me and licks and chews all the way round the circle! Eventually, I step in front of her, as if I want her to turn away, and then simply will her to turn in instead of out. She gets it. She turns in. I do it for a few rounds, then ask for the outside turns again. She does it. Then back to inside turns and she does it beautifully over and over again. Now try as I might, I can’t see what I’m doing different with my body. She is either guessing what I want (unlikely, as the rate at which she gets it right is way more than chance would predict!), or she is reading my mind!
Leif Hallberg has stated in her book: “Walking the way of the horse” that horses communicate on four different levels and that we as humans can only begin to perceive that communication on level 3! She doesn’t suck this out of her thumb either, it has been stated by others who study animal communication such as Dr Temple Grandin, Willis and Sharon Lamm as well as the great Monty Roberts himself. By the time level three of communication is reached, horses are moving and showing signs physically, such as swishing tails, pinning ears back and all those signs that we know to watch out for, but just imagine how much they have been saying that we didn’t even know!
The problem for us humans is that our minds are very hard to quiet down. They are running all over the place and if we don’t focus on something to do, physically, we are not even aware of what runs through our minds. Perhaps that is why they are so good when it comes to therapy?
In the reading I have been doing lately on Equine Assisted Psychotherapy (EAP), it has really astounded me how many people who practice this form of therapy (or any therapy that involves horses, really), also practice dressage. In dressage specifically, you are supposed to sit there with a horse performing intricate manoeuvres underneath you, all the while seeming to do nothing.
It is also what drew me to dressage in the first place – that clear line of communication the two of you share. I’m not saying it doesn’t exist in other equestrian pursuits, it is just very much highlighted in dressage. (The sport, unfortunately, has disappointed me very much recently, in that horses are forced and coerced to perform movements and that the true elegance has been lost in the quest for winning.) Nonetheless, despite what people actually do, the main aim is still stated as having such good communication with your horse that you can sit there and seemingly do nothing.
If I can simply intend for my horse to do something and it happens, why, it must seem very rude to them pushing and pressuring and posturing to get them to move… Surely they must feel like we are shouting at them all the time?