Ed Dabney Gentle and Natural Horsemanship Confidence Course. Step by step obstacles to develop confidence, trust, agility, awareness on part of horse.
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"Read Your Horse, Part I"

If you can learn to read a horse, nothing he does will ever surprise you again. You’ll be able to predict how a horse is going to react, when and why. Reading a horse’s body language can help you understand his mind. The information conveyed through a horse’s body language can unlock the mystery of horses and enable you to recognize when a horse might run off, run over you, buck, kick, strike, get worried, frightened, defensive, bad tempered, or bored.

The horse and human worlds confront one another and one seems to have nothing in common with the other. If we don’t want to force these two worlds together, what other choice is there? Could there be an important link missing? I believe that link is body language.

With body language you should do as little as possible, but be precise and deliberate with every motion. Everything you do means something and the horse is always reacting to your body language- what he can see and what he can sense.

Reading the horse’s body language is a critically important skill to develop. It will keep you safer because you will know the horse’s tendencies and intentions and you’ll achieve better results because you will have a more sensitive approach and better timing. In order to make improvements in your horse’s performance you must be able to notice when your horse has made a small change or given you the response you desired whether mentally, emotionally or physically.

Even though horses cannot speak or write they do have a language. Because body language is their primary means of communication they develop the ability to express and interpret body language on a highly sophisticated level. We will probably never be able to achieve the intricate details and subtle nuances of posture, expression and movement that horses use to communicate with each other but with careful observation we can begin to understand and use some of their very basic fundamental “words” in order to build a bridge of communication between human and horse.

Do you remember when you first got into horses? Someone probably told you to watch out if the horse put his ears back because it meant he might kick or bite you. This is the extent of many horse owners’ knowledge of reading their horse’s body language, yet horses are very expressive. You can determine their intention, emotional state and attitude if you know what signs to look for.

In reading the horse’s body language the greatest misunderstanding occurs in the confusion of aggression and fear. What is often interpreted as aggression is actually fear. Unless you see his body telling you what his motivations are, then you both lose. If you only see his resistance, then you won’t be able to help him overcome his anxiety and fears, thus leading to aggressive and disrespectful behavior. You must have a receptive and understanding method of approach, being able to correctly interpret his reactions which will earn his respect and trust, build his confidence and alleviate his fears.

A good starting place is to learn to determine whether a horse is operating from his left-brain or right-brain. Right-brain behavior is instinctive reaction. When a horse is operating from his right-brain you can count on anything and everything happening at once. He is in survival mode and may lash out without thinking. You may not even be the target; you may have just been in the way when he got scared.

Left-brain behavior is responsive, calm and thinking. He is confident, unafraid and deliberate in his actions, whether they are perceived to be positive or negative by you. He is capable of the same actions as left or right-brained. For example, he can bite, kick, buck or rear up out of fear as a right-brain reaction or out of disrespect as a left-brain response.

So how do you tell the difference? “When he’s blinking he’s thinking, when he’s not he’s hot.” A right-brained horse is tense, scared and ready to run away. He’ll have wide-eyes and nostrils, a high head, a tense jaw, neck, flanks, back and tail. He won’t keep his attention on you and will be looking for escape routes.

Horses are eight times faster than humans, so when he blows up you may not even know what hit you. He feels that his life is being threatened and will do anything to survive. Never forget that inside every gentle horse is a wild horse.

A left-brained horse will have a more relaxed posture with his head level, with his withers, no muscle tension and a soft but alert eye that is blinking. When a horse makes the transition from fear back to confidence (from right-brain to left-brain) he may do any or all of the following: blink his eyes, wiggle his ears, lower his head or lick his lips.

Don’t blame a scared horse for acting like a prey animal. Learn to identify it and to help him become calmer and braver. Just trying to calm him down and then trying to avoid anything that might cause him to get scared or nervous is not effective. That’s like living with a time bomb.

I believe that a great majority of horse-related accidents are due to the human misreading or not reading at all, not being aware of signals from the horse and not knowing horses well enough to anticipate what might happen.

It is your responsibility to help your horse become calmer, smarter and braver. You can do this by developing awareness, skills and knowledge and by being mentally and emotionally prepared to do the right thing at the right time.

Some horses are unpredictable and undependable. One day he’s great, the next day he acts like a nut. He may be a trail horse who spooks at the same stump he has often passed or a performance horse that refuses a jump he has taken many times. He may blow up in the middle of a dressage test he has practiced perfectly or a barrel horse that refuses to enter the arena.

There is a direct connection between dependability and confidence in a horse. In the previous examples, these horses may just be going through the motions, doing what they have been “trained” to do, but without confidence. Therefore, they come unglued as soon as things are a little different such as the weather, the location, other horses, etc. They are emotionally fragile and don’t do well under pressure.

There are plenty of things you can do with your horse day by day to help him increase his self-confidence, his trust in you and his ability to remain calm in a scary or confusing situation.

The Six Keys to Harmony ground exercises we do with our horses present tasks to challenge them mentally and physically. When they are performing the six exercises well, with lightness and respect for the human, they will become more willing and confident to try other new things.

I have observed that many people do not ask very much of their horses. In fact, some owners tend to make an effort to avoid anything that could possibly upset their horse or prove difficult. They begin to accept their horse’s poor behavior as normal and the human becomes willing to do whatever it takes to just get along with their horse. This results in the human constantly dealing with control, resistance and safety issues. When a horse owner begins to ask their horse to perform these six exercises they may expose some resistance areas they have avoided or didn’t even know existed. Discovering and exposing harbored pockets of opposition gives the owner opportunities to resolve these problems at the root.

If a horse performs a task or exercise in a right-brain, reactive mode he will have a high head, staring eyes, tight tail, and will often rush and stumble. In order to bring about a significant mental and emotional change and help him overcome his fear and uncertainty, the task or exercise must be repeated until the horse can perform it calmly, willingly and without hesitation.

When a horse performs the exercises from a left-brain, thinking mode he will be alert but not tense, athletic, coordinated, deliberate and fluid. He will be visibly relaxed and confident.

Many people would call this a well trained horse; however, this is more about confidence than training. It is about building the horse’s confidence in himself and in the human as his leader. Through the use of The Six Keys to Harmony exercises, both on the ground and in the saddle, your horse will gain confidence in your leadership through your clear direction. He will be able to comprehend the task you are asking him to perform and thus be able to respond positively, establishing a comfortable, confident and understanding relationship between horse and rider. You will be able to interpret your horses’ behavior and give the needed response and he will comprehend your requests and follow them with confidence.

Once this is accomplished, the horse will be able to perform many new and challenging tasks with enthusiasm and courage whether on the ground or with a rider, establishing the foundation for a long and enjoyable relationship.