What does your horse's expression tell you?
What does your horse's expression tell you?

You've seen it before (maybe you've been there yourself?) - the horse/human tug-of-war scenario:

The person is trying desperately to keep the horse in a particular position


the person is leading the horse somewhere and all the while, the horse is moving, imposing, and once in a while, running over the doting human being!

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Once you know how to listen to your horse, a whole world of communication can open up for you. You will know how to interpret what the horse is saying - to the other horses, to you, and to the 'world'. Horses send messages out as much as humans do. It's just that we do it verbally (just think of what a gathering of people sounds like and you'll know what I mean).

Horses, on the other hand, do very little verbally (unless the horses belong to me - they've definitely learned to 'voice' their opinion!). Most of their communication lies in the non-verbal realm; you need to learn to 'listen' in a different sense, by carefully observing their body movements. Pretty much EVERY movement has a meaning and is 'sent out' with deliberate intention. The talent on your part is to interpret the body language accurately.

Point in fact - the horse's social structure works on a basic hierarchical system. Lower-level horses always defer to the herd leader. In other words, if the herd leader moves into the direction of another horse, the lower horse is expected to move away - from the hay, from another horse friend, or simply from the herd leader himself.

Neglecting to move away often results in a more aggressive movement from the herd leader - including the possibility of a swift kick in the lower-level horse's direction!

This submission has developed over the millenia for good reason - the herd leader HAD to be the one who moved the herd around. In nature, without a good leader to tell the others what to do and where to go, the herd's safety would be at risk.

How does this involve you, the human? Your actions will dictate your current and future relationship with that horse. Here is a possible scenario: while you are leading the horse beside you, the horse steps into your direction, almost walking on top of you. Your possible responses:

- you think it's cute that the horse wants to snuggle up to you, and you step back as the horse walks into you

- you see the horse coming in your direction and you push the horse on his shoulder so he doesn't continue coming into your space

Each reaction on your part gives the horse a different message. The first reaction - stepping away - will tell the horse that he is the herd leader between the two of you, and that he should be the one to make decisions. Many times, this 'herd dynamic' works just fine for your interactions, because chances are that your horse is kind and generous and usually will not be inclined toward stepping on you or dragging the lead rope out of your hand.

But unfortunately, the one time that he feels he must impose his authority on you (if he feels threatened by an unfamiliar object), you will not have a say in his decision-making. As the lower ranked member of your herd, you must obey - meaning, you'd better get out of his way as he tramples you to get away from the fear object!

If instead, you choose to not move away and push him back out of your space the moment you notice him stepping toward you, you impart a very different message. In this case, you are telling him that you are the herd leader, and he needs to respect your personal space.

This is the preferable role for you as human, since you are likely more than six times smaller and lighter and at risk of being easily injured based on just the size difference itself.

As you learn to listen to your horse, you will realize that there is constant communication going back and forth between the two of you (whether you know it or not). So instead of assuming the subservient role, pay closer attention and work on asking your horse the questions. If you move into his space, will he move away from you? If you need him to stop moving his feet, will he stand still?

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Make a habit of routinely asking him questions. If he answers "yes" to your questions, you can be thankful and reward him with a pat and a "good boy" vocal response, but your job is not quite complete. Just getting an affirmative is not enough - as soon as your horse gives you the 'yes', you need to ask him the next level of question.

Maybe it could be something like: "Will you stand still and not dive for the grass while I lead you in the field with the yummiest grass?" The next level might be, "Will you walk nicely and not prance around while I lead you away from the barn and your herd members?"

Each time you get the 'yes', think of something that could be the next step. Pushing the envelope is one step in developing a trusting, confident relationship with your horse.

What are some questions you ask of your horse?

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  1. Excellent way of describing the “pushing of the envelope”!!! Without this constant pushing we will never create a harmonious relationship with our horse.

    Another point to consider: if you tell your horse you are not the leader and he is not leader material he will eventually display stressed and irrational behaviour as he is over faced with the job.

    1. Helene, love your point about leader material. Something I never considered but it will stick in my craw now : ).

  2. A great way of putting this. Also: for Helene—I like your point about the horse who is not a leader type being told he is the leader and then becoming stressed and irrational because he isn’t up to the job. I never thought of that, but now will never forget it. Thank you.

  3. There is a third alternative. You jerk his head with the leadrope. I know you don’t, but people should know that only a bully horse goes after another horses head and that horse will be more feared than respected. Respect is earned by herding the body.
    And yes “Pushing the envelope is one step in developing a trusting, confident relationship with your horse.” But if you ask him three questions and get three yes answers but then totally ignore the question he asked you (because you didn’t hear it), he will lose confidence in your ability to lead. He is always asking, sometimes very subtly, “Are you in charge? Because if not, you’re just in the way'”
    Love your articles, thank you, Trish Hyatt

  4. Great topic! But did you know that humans communicate for more than 90% non-verbally? They do, but they do it without knowing it. So it might be very useful to be aware of our own non-verbal signs we are swnding to our horses in order to understand their reactions as well.