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Horse Signs: Unease & Discomfort

By Jeffrey Rolo

Too many aspiring horse trainers will approach their equines with plenty of good intentions, but not enough knowledge of a horse's body language. While most trainers quickly learn the basics of natural horsemanship, such as implementing firm yet gentle techniques rather than brute force, often a trainer will miss subtle cues that might indicate his horse is uncomfortable with a certain direction the lesson is taking.

Had the trainer picked up on these cues immediately, chances are he could have either modified his request to better suit the horse and scenario, reassured his nervous student, or both. It's of the utmost importance that a trainer learn how to determine when his horse is becoming uneasy or uncomfortable with a request since allowing frustration to take root will virtually ensure your session is not nearly as productive as it could have been.

With people, some signs of annoyance or unease are obvious, such as muttering an obscenity under your breath. Other signs aren't so obvious and must be judged within the context of the whole. For example, an increased rate of breathing often indicates stress, yet the sign would be virtually useless if you were assessing someone that just ran a lap around a football field!

As I go through potential warning signs that your horse might be uneasy or cranky, keep in mind that some are no-brainers while others must be judged within proper context since they could also be perfectly logical or reasonable even in a relaxed atmosphere.

Breathing Pattern – A healthy and comfortable horse should breathe in a slow, rhythmic manner. Just as with people, when a horse increases his breathing pace it means he is either anxious or he is in the midst of physical exertion.

Head Positioning – A relaxed horse at leisure will generally keep his head low or keep his neck muscles relatively loose. If your horse stiffens his neck muscles and raises his head, it means you have caught his attention or caused him concern. The degree of stiffness will determine whether the horse is being attentive or cautious.

Pinned Ears – This is one of the no-brainers among horse danger signs. When a horse pins his ears he is seriously angered or concerned and it's time to back off and re-evaluate the situation for the sake of your well being, as well as that of your horse. Don't mistake pinned ears for ears that are slightly drawn back, though. If they are flat against his head he's in a very foul mood, whereas if they are drawn slightly back it may not be indicative of anything depending on your horse's normal disposition and natural composure.

Tail Swishing – When a horse becomes agitated he will often swish his tail back and forth. Depending on the season and location, a tail swish may not indicate annoyance with your request; it may be a reaction to a pesky fly near his backside instead.

Tense Muscles – Just as with humans, a horse will stiffen or bunch up his back, neck and leg muscles if he anticipates potential trouble. It's a reflex action designed to prepare them for possible flight. Under saddle, tensed muscles can also indicate physical discomfort… the horse is bracing himself in an attempt to thwart off the pain.

Grinding Teeth – If your horse is grinding his teeth then it means he is clearly distressed or unhappy. When the horse grinds his teeth without any type of gear in his mouth, he's angered. When the horse bites down or fights a bit, it means the bit is causing him significant discomfort.

Spooking – Okay, this one is obvious, right? Yet some owners often dismiss it as being a condition naturally inherent in some horses. "Ah, he's just a spooky horse. Not much you can do there." Although some horses are naturally braver than others, even a spooky horse can be comforted with enough soothing work and exposure to foreign stimuli. A horse that startles or spooks frequently does not possess a wacky personality flaw – he's an anxious horse that believes a threat is near.

Foot Raising – A horse that is relaxing will often rest one of his rear feet, letting the tip just brush the floor. That's a good sign, but if your horse actually lifts his rear leg off the floor and his leg appears tense, or it's kept suspended in the air for more than a fleeting moment, that's a danger sign. He may be threatening you or bracing himself to launch a kick, so proceed with caution.

Fidgeting – A horse that sways his rear back and forth, or otherwise behaves in an antsy manner, is generally bored, though it can also be a way to release nervous tension. In either case, such behavior indicates the horse's attention is not directed towards you, nor is he in the least bit enthusiastic about your request or lesson.

Fast Starts – If your horse takes off under saddle as if he's running the Triple Crown, he has either been trained poorly in the past or he's uncomfortable with you or your request. A calm horse will begin at a leisurely walk and graduate to higher speeds as you request, while a nervous horse will bolt forward.

The above signs are just some of the most obvious and general reactions all horses exhibit, but you'll find that attentive observance of your horse during work and play will help you develop a sixth sense, whereby you can detect unhappiness far before the horse responds in the above manners. Once you reach that point, you'll know you've reached the pinnacle of a horse-handler relationship.  



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