I remember years ago when I was working with the race horses and there was a particular stallion in the training barn that terrified me. I really enjoyed riding him but I always talked the assistant trainer into tacking him up for me while I got his horse ready. One day the trainer decided I should deal with the horse myself, assuring me he’d be right there if I needed him.
These horses weren’t crossed tied. They were just standing in a big box stall with a little piece of string attaching them to the wall. Every time I raised the brush to begin grooming, the stallion would pin his ears and swing his head around, teeth bared. And every time he did it I took a half step away to get out of his range. Then I would hit him as hard as I could on the neck and with as much authority as I could muster, I would say “NO!”
The trainer watched and laughed. When I demanded to know what he found so funny he kept chuckling and said the problem was that I stepped back. Given that this was all that I could see that was stopping the horse from reaching me with his teeth, I didn’t really grasp how this could be the problem. But the trainer insisted and sent me back in the stall to try to brush him again. This time, he said cheerfully, when he goes for you, step towards him when you whack him on the neck.
I have to be honest. I doubted how successful this was going to be but didn’t want to be one of those people who doesn’t seem to take advice. So I raised the brush, the stallion pinned his ears and swung his head towards me and I stepped towards him, mumbled ‘no’, and with a certain confidence that the trainer would rescue me if required, I whacked him on the neck. The stallion stopped, his ears perked up and he studied me for a moment. Then he nuzzled my hand.
I was quite shocked. ‘Sunny’, as we called him, continued to be a joy to ride and he never threatened me again.
It might have been the first time I ever concretely realized how easy it was for horses to read body language. I had thought I was being assertive but that stallion had read my reluctance in a heartbeat. He wasn’t vicious by any stretch and in hindsight, given everything else about that horse that was so wonderful, I think he might have just been having a bit of sport at my expense. But still, by stepping towards him rather than backing away, I had changed the dynamic between us.
I got thinking about ‘Sunny’ the other day as I watched a bit of a kerfuffle in the field.
One of the horses was a bit upset with one of the other horses and chose to show this by lunging to bite and then wheeling to kick out with both hind legs. It was fascinating to watch. There was dust flying, grunts and squeals, amazing amounts of action, and yet both parties emerged from the scuffle completely unscathed. A lot of bluffing and grandstanding but there was no intent to injure.
It made me reflect on how the horse has evolved over time. He is so massively quick and powerful but if every disagreement really came to blows, horses would injure themselves all of the time. And so over the millennium the horse has learned to enact threatening behaviour without actually following through. Pulled punches so to speak. In the process he has evolved as a master at reading body language.
But as I learned years ago with ‘Sunny”, this skill horses have, finely tuned and refined as it is, is almost as effective at reading humans as it is at reading other horses.
And so we rely on the generous, good nature of the school horse to help us learn to ride.
Trust me, they spotted the beginner 100 feet away but fortunately for us, most of them choose to do the right thing anyway.