Listening to your horse is such an important part of riding and horse ownership. In fact, the rider who is ignorant of the messages her horse sends is missing out on sometimes vital information. Knowing how to understand and correctly interpret the signs and behaviors of your horse allows you to know when something is off. The feedback you get from your horse can inform everything from general health care, to training and conditioning programs, to your horse's mental well-being.
How can you learn to listen effectively, in a way that positively affects your horse? Here are a some ideas.
1. Body Condition
When you become familiar with the way your horse looks, you will notice very small changes in your horse's body condition - even from one day to another. Does your horse's body look a little lean? Maybe it's time to increase hay or grain just a bit. Is your horse a bit rolly-poly? Cut back! How about when you notice super tight muscles? Maybe you'll be in for a bit of a wilder ride that day! Is the horse tucked in the flank area? That can be a warning for gut problems or some sort of discomfort. Consistently evaluate your horse's body condition to identify how he feels and what he needs - on a daily basis.
2. Herd Dynamics
Take a few minutes when you go to catch your horse, or alternately, when you turn him back out into the herd. How does he interact with his herd mates? Does he have any favorite pals that he spends time with regularly? How does he negotiate his way around the herd hierarchy?
Once you know what "normal" is, you will be able to tell when something just doesn't seem right. If your horse is usually a member of the crowd, finding him all alone at the back of the field might indicate that something is just not right.
3. Weather Conditions
Does your horse turn on his "inner stallion" when the temperature drops 20 degrees overnight? When you head to the barn, do you notice his that ample topline muscles dissolved overnight thanks to the chill in the air?
Then today might be the day that you should lunge him before you ride! (Trust me - I have the T-short on this one!) Or conversely, what happens to your horse with a 20 degree increase? Does he want to have nothing to do with exercise while he's sweating just standing still? Maybe this is the day you hose him off after a shorter ride and leave him inside during the highest heat of the day.
Some days, your horse might want to do more "TV watching" than ride. Rather than respond to your aids, he's looking left/right/straight - focussing attention everywhere except where you want it! In this case, you might need to change your riding plans. Do more "pop quizzes" and be more active in your own riding. Insist on more suppleness. Slow down his leg speed if he is running. Do something different to challenge him and get his attention.
5. Body Language
Horses rely mainly on body language to communicate with each other. The signals are fairly consistent among all horses, so if you can learn to understand the behaviors, you will know exactly where you stand in your mini-herd of two.
For example, if you approach your horse and he turns his head away, you know that he isn't completely comfortable with your approach. When you notice him getting out of your space, step back and invite him back. Given enough repetition and time, your horse will learn first, that you have no aggressive intentions when you walk up to him, and second, that he can step into your personal space. This fairly simple exchange develops your horse's trust in you.
6. While Riding
After you ride the same horse for a while, you get to know how he feels under regular conditions. So if one day you get on, and all you get is tail swishes or reluctance to move forward, you know this is a sign that he isn't quite right. Maybe your gelding was running around in the field yesterday and is muscle sore now. Or maybe your mare is in heat and not able to move as well as usual. Regardless of the reason, there is no need to push a horse that you know would normally be forward moving and willing. Always consider unusual discomfort as a sign to look into the horse's physical (or mental) needs.
7. Eating Habits
What are your horse's normal eating patterns? Does he wolf his feed down, or does he pick daintily at each and every oat kernel? It is important for you to know these things, because a change in eating behavior is a huge indicator of other impending problems. When you notice something abnormal, be ready to analyze everything from the feed itself to the horse's physical health and mental well-being. Narrow it down by starting with the most obvious first.
These signs are only a few ways that you can learn to "listen" to your horse. The more time you can invest into getting to know your horse, and the more you can educate yourself about riding, horse health and body language, the more you will be able to almost literally understand about your horse. The concept of "horse listening" begins with the human. If we can improve our own knowledge and behavior, we will invariably be able to support our horses so they can be happy, healthy and active well into their old age.
How do you listen to your horse? Comment below.
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