In-Hand Harmony

The Art Of Trailer Loading: Building Block #1: Understanding Your Horse

  1. Understanding Your Horse
  2. Overcoming Fear & Building Confidence
  3. Being Comfortable & Competent With Your Tools
  4. Being Comfortable In, And Respectful Of, Each Other’s Space
  5. Leadership & Knowing How To Direct Your Horse
  6. Putting it All Together

#1. Understanding Your Horse

Here, Tobias has a very relaxed, interested expression. His right ear splits his focus between my camera and the person in front of him.

Here, Tobias has a very relaxed, interested expression, although his right ear splits his focus between the camera and the person in front of him.

It’s critical to be able to read our horse in order to respond accordingly, and yet that takes a lot of time, experience and feedback to learn. I may as well tell you now not to expect an easy, one-size-fits-all answer here.

We live in a highly-verbal, literate society that is not well versed in body language. Body language isn’t something we’re consciously taught from our parents or schools. If we’re lucky, we might learn something about it in a college level psych class. For most of us, body language is something we guess at, make assumptions about, or just follow our gut feelings when observing the people around us. Unfortunately, too many people are just plain dishonest—their words, their intent and their body language do not communicate the same message—which makes it not only hard to learn, but also difficult to trust our gut or our feelings about what’s being communicated.

Fortunately, horses don’t lie. Well, not exactly.

There are some horses that are more difficult to read than others. These are the horses that have hidden their wounded souls within, have no life in their eyes and don’t dare express an opinion, at least not too obviously to others. These are the horses that take the most patience to win their trust, and yet can seem quite willing to do almost anything for you—even walking right into a trailer. Occasionally, these are the horses that have been sent away to trainers (of course, not all trainers are like this) and are returned to their owners as “finished” horses. Yet these “finished” horses—with whom someone took lots of quick-fix shortcuts with— can be the ones that from “out of nowhere” bolt out of the trailer, kick, bite or buck you off after finally—unbeknownst to you—having been shut up so many times while being pushed too far out of their comfort zones that they just explode. These wounded souls need lots and lots of what the Parellis refer to as the “friendly game” to slowly bring them out of their shells and let them know you are interested —not only in communicating with them—but in hearing what they have to say.

Other horses are easier to read—if you’re paying attention and if you know what to look for. These horses are the ones, when they pin an ear, your riding buddies may tell you, “You should correct him for that!” Oh, but beware! If you do, you may lose one of your best early warning signals (remember the explosive example above).

I’ll give you some examples of what to look for and what they—more than likely—mean.

The look I adore on my horse is when his eyes are soft, ears forward, lips and jaw loose, back swinging with his head and neck relaxed and perhaps accompanied by a deep nicker as he walks up to me. The look I truly crave is when he trots up to me with a similar expression, yet all collected and ready To Play!

That said, if a horse comes up to you with what appears to be a Playful look, but his eyes are hard and ears are back, the last thing you want is to give him a warm welcome. Yet a low-slung head and neck doesn’t always mean that a horse is relaxed, it can also be aggressive, stallion-like behavior that you would never want to encourage.

One of the best nuggets of wisdom I learned from Barb Apple wasn’t during one of her clinics but when we were all casually chatting during lunch. She said that she never feeds her horses unless they have a nice expression: with both ears pointing brightly her way. There isn’t a time I go to feed our horses when I don’t remember that.

On the other hand, some horses just carry a surly expression on their face with no negative intent in mind. Our mare can be like that and I’m sure you’ve met people like that, too. They seem to scowl and growl at everyone, yet they are sweethearts and puppy dogs at heart. So, it’s important to learn your horse’s body language and cues.

Unfortunately, as I said, there are no easy answers or one-size fits all readings. And that is why one trainer’s strategy doesn’t always work for all horses. It’s complicated. There are contraindications. Let’s explore a few more scenarios together.

How do you know if your horse is tense, or relaxed?

Many horses will indicate tension, or being on alert, when they raise their head up because when adrenalin kicks in, a horse’s head has a natural tendency to go up. A raised head also allows a horse to see farther. When a horse puts their head down and blows or sneezes, they are usually releasing adrenalin. I always reward that behavior with a good word and/or a pet.

However, if your horse is unsure about something nearby, or on the ground, his head may be lower. In that case, you might notice that his muscles are more defined than usual, indicating that his muscles are preparing for flight.

Some horses are more subtle with their tension. Their body might look relaxed, but you’ll notice an increase in their respiration rate, either by hearing their breath or seeing their flanks moving more rapidly than usual. Another subtle indicator is that their mouth is clamped tight and their eyes are tense. You will astound your horse if you notice his tight mouth and massage his lips until he licks, chews, maybe yawns, blinks and, finally, blows. Your horse might think you’re not so unobservant afterall!

Here are a few tips from the horses’ mouth (so to speak):

  • “Wherever my ears are pointed, that’s where my mind is.”
  • “If I’m blinking, I’m thinking.”
  • “When I lick and chew, that usually means, ‘I’ve got it!’”
Receiving a bright expression from your horse is a gift.

Receiving a bright expression from your horse is a gift. But you’ll notice that, even though Tobias is giving me his attention, he is not relaxed as in the photo on page one. His facial muscles and eyes are tight. He looks as if he is still worried about his surroundings.

There are lots of things to look for and, honestly, it would take a lifetime to be proficient in every nuance of each horse. One of the best ways to learn your horse’s body language is to watch yours interact with others.

You may be thinking that you aren’t getting the fool-proof, step-by-step building blocks you were expecting. But what we’re talking about is not an inanimate object that is easily predictable. Each horse is different. Each situation is different. And each person is different. I hate to say this, but if you’re looking for a turn-key ride, you might want to think about trading in your horse for a motorcycle.

Being able to read a horse is something you have to study, learn and develop a “feel” for. Maybe you already have a good feel for reading your horse. If not, having someone coach you who has developed a gift for reading horses can help put your learning curve on a faster track. We’ll talk more about developing a “feel” next week.

  • Parellis –  “Liberty and Horse Behavior” home study course. This is an excellent resource but, like many of Linda’s contributions, I can no longer find it on the Parelli website (unfortunately, I sold mine a couple years ago). You may be able to find it at a library or on eBay. However, it does look like Parelli made some of their “Horsenality” information available without being a Savvy member, here’s a link

And a few books that sound interesting that I haven’t yet read (Hey, I’m still learning, too!):

  • Dr. Robert Miller Understanding Secrets of the Horse’s Mind
  • Linda Tellington-Jones The Ultimate Hore Behavior and Training Book
  • Klaus Ferdinand Hempfling It’s Not I Who Seek the Horse, the Horse Seeks Me: My Path to an Understanding of Equine Body Language, and What Horses Reveal: From First Meeting to Friend for Life
Next Week:
The Art of Trailer Loading – continued
Building Block #2 – Overcoming Fear & Building Confidence

6 thoughts on “The Art Of Trailer Loading: Building Block #1: Understanding Your Horse

  1. Diane

    I was so happy to read your statement that “one trainer’s strategy doesn’t always work for all horses.” So many of today’s trainers think that their way is the only way and that it will work for every horse. I’m going to practice rewarding my horse for putting his head down, and try massaging his mouth when it is tight, as you suggested in this post. Great article! I hope the weather holds because I’m so anxious to start using some of your ideas on my horse. Just wish this darned wind would go away!

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