Horse Signs: Attentiveness & ComfortBy Jeffrey Rolo
In our companion article Horse Signs: Unease and Discomfort we took a look at why it's essential that any handler learn to detect blatant and subtle negative reactions immediately in order to ensure a happy, productive and safe training session. This article will take a look at the flip side of observing a horse's body language.
Some may initially say to themselves, "It's not as essential to understand positive body language as it is to understand negative body language, is it?" Such a philosophy goes along with human nature, for there is little doubt that we tend to react strongly towards the bad while taking the good for granted. But when you actually think about it, such a philosophy is shortsighted.
Proper training is a constant give and take between horse and handler. Our goal is to gradually progress a horse through various steps until he's a confident riding and/or trail horse, but a good trainer also knows that each step should be taken slowly. The horse's comfort and happiness must be kept at the forefront of every lesson, for an unhappy or distracted student is an unproductive one.
Until you know for certain a horse is comfortable with your presence or requests, ideally you would not attempt to train him or expose him to a new step. The reason observing a horse for positive reactions is so vital is because it allows us to hold off on progressing an unprepared horse too far before we push accidentally push him to the danger or discomfort stage. If the horse doesn't appear happy or excited with you or your requests, quite simply he's not ready to go further until that is resolved. To try and do so anyways will inevitably put him into the red zone.
So what are some of the signs of a happy and/or comfortable horse?
Relaxed muscles – A happy and/or trusting horse is not going to bunch his muscles up in preparation for a quick reaction or flight. Whether on the ground or under saddle, your horse should move in a loose, fluid manner at all times. If the neck, back or any other muscle is tight and rigid, your horse possesses some reservations about you or your request. (This is barring health issues that may cause a horse to favor a body part, such as a sprained muscle or hoof abscess.)
Ear Positioning – A relaxed horse will often point his ears towards you, rest them back slightly or do both at the same time in a back and forth manner. That's great for when you're lounging about the stall or field with your partner and enjoying the day, but if you are in the midst of an actual lesson you want to ensure he's not only comfortable, he's also attentive. An attentive horse will raise his ears towards your direction as he watches you.
Head Positioning – If your horse is not looking directly at you during the midst of a lesson, you're quite simply not on his list of priorities at the moment. It's generally the sign of a bored horse when his gaze wanders away from you, though if his head and eyes dart to and from you quickly he might also be assessing potential routes for escape.
Resting Foot – When a horse is comfortable with his surroundings (including you), he will often rest one of his feet lightly on the hoof tip while relaxing. This will probably not happen during the course of an actual training session, but it's a great sign for when you two are just enjoying each other's company.
Calm Breathing – A healthy horse that isn't currently being physically worked should breathe in a slow, rhythmic manner, whether at rest in a field or paying attention to you in a round pen. When the horse's breathing accelerates he's either in the midst of physical activity or he's becoming anxious.
Ultimately you want a horse to be comfortable and attentive in your presence while at work, while comfortable and relaxed in your presence while at rest. My horses will typically rest their head on my shoulder and/or nuzzle me while socializing, but the moment we hit the round pen it's all business for the two of us. Happy business, but attentive business nonetheless.
Observe and learn your horse's normal mannerisms, for that way you'll develop a deep understanding of his ways and state of mind, thereby allowing you to react far quicker than the standard observer when he appears to be leaving his comfort zone.