Being able to see what state of mind the horse is in during training is an essential and actually very basic skill. A skill that’s not reserved for horse whisperers or famous horsemen. It can be learned, just like everything else to do with horse training.
We can make horses do all kinds of things, with all kinds of interpretations of their signals and behaviours. But in our times, with so much research available, it is not so interesting anymore WHAT we can do, but HOW we do it. To see the animal before us as it’s own being, with an inner life, needs, sorrows and joys. I believe that only then, riding and training horses becomes an art.
For me, it’s not only a question of ethics – that I do not want to cause stress when training an animal – but also of how I treat my friend. It doesn’t mean that I avoid stress at all cost. Learning often brings us out of the comfort zone, because otherwise there would be no development. That’s why we have to be able to tell what is going on with our horse, if he is still relaxed, or getting into his stretch zone, or way into the red or stress zone. It’s not about living in a rosy unicorn dream where everyone is always happy, but rather seeing WHAT IS, so we can make an informed decision. Also about our choice of trainer.
Due to different characters and facial expressions, every horse has a unique set of calming and stress signals. If you would like to learn about them, I highly recommend Rachaël Draaisma’s book “Language Signs and Calming Signals of Horses”. It is a good book to start with. But be warned, because when you start to learn about it, you will see that most horses out there are showing lots of stress signals, are trying to calm down their handlers, and are far from being relaxed in the training. You might also start to notice that what you see in a youtube video, when a famous horseman or -woman explains his/her method of how to work with a certain problem, his or her explanation doesn’t fit what is actually going on. And that a lot of negative reinforcement training could already be classified as positive punishment.
I want to tell you a little bit about my horses. Weto is a very confident, introverted horse and his stress signals can be difficult to read for a beginner. That’s why this type of horse is often being labled as “bomb proof” when in fact, there might be a lot of worry going on under the surface. Then, when the horse is pushed too far, there is a “sudden” explosion, apparently without warning. So it’s good to be able to read such a horse so you don’t wrongly assume that everything is ok, just because he doesn’t show obvious signs of fear.
When Weto doesn’t understand something in the training, he blinks faster with his eyes, gets slower, or stops moving. He might lower his head (in this case, it is a calming signal, not a sign of relaxation). When he feels too much pressure, he looks away, presses his lips together (the chin get a shape like a triangle), he might paw the ground, his nostrils widen, his breathing becomes shorter and more shallow, and wrinkles show above his eye. When something is very difficult for him physically, he lays his ear flat, wrinkles his nose, and his eyes become more narrow (I call it his gym face 😉 ). He also swishes the tail more then. When he gets stressed, his eyes and his nostrils widen, he snorts, breathes very audibly, stiffens his back, lifts up his tail, and presses his lips together.
In the training, I work in very small steps and make sure that he really understood. I give him lots of time to think (we are often standing around more then we move) and I give a lot of rewards, so that he knows he’s doing well. I always go with his ideas and avoid too long or too intense training, because he would have less motivation next day. I work a lot at liberty and I encourage him to express himself.
Nazir is an insecure extrovert. With him it’s easy to tell when he gets stressed, because he immediately moves his feet. Due to his lack of confidence, this happens a lot. He also has a very tiny stretch zone and on most days it doesn’t exist at all, so that he goes straight from being comfortable into flight mode. When Nazir doesn’t understand something, he reacts with impatience and becomes very pushy. But he also shows a lot of calming signals: He half closes his eyes, chews with his tongue out, turn his head. He might also offer all kinds of other behaviours that he has learned (“I don’t know what you want, but I know this, maybe that’s what you mean”). He can also bite the rope or start moving in a faster gait when he gets more frustrated. When Nazir is worried, you see a fold forming above his eye, the eye looks more like a triangle and not round like an almond. You see more white in his eye, his ears are very stiff and point in the direction of his worry. He gets a higher muscle tonus and breathes in a shallow way, also often keeping his breath. His tails lifts. When he is very stressed or scared, he tenses his abdominal muscles, poops a lot, tries to run away, and is totally shut down mentally. His eyes are wide and fearful, so are his nostrils. It is very hard to change his opinion then.
In the training, Nazir profits from a routine that stays the same every day. It gives him confidence to know what’s coming. Changes in equipment can throw him out of balance as much as starting a new exercise without a good structure. I introduce new things gradually and without pressure. I pay attention to be grounded very well myself, that I breathe deeply and regularly, and that my body energy is not too high. A discrepancy between my body language and my whip signals would already scare him. He is motivated when he can move his feet and when you give him a task (he is perfect for working equitation). When he spooks, I allow him to expand this energy and don’t try to stop it (it would be like trying to fit an overflowing river in a cup).
Minor is a confident extrovert. He is not easily scared and gets used to new things very quickly. Being a young and confident horse, his main emotion right now is impatience. He likes action and running around. Now he is learning how to focus, to learn things slowly and step by step, and that not understanding is absolutely no problem and no reason to get angry. I’m still getting to know Minor better. His facial expressions are sometimes difficult to read, and I have the suspicion that he is emotionally very comfortable. I rarely see him scared or worried. He has some issues with anger though, in the training (when he doesn’t get it) as well as with the other horses (when they don’t move out of the way). When he is unsure of something, he looks away or turns his head. He will sometimes lick his lips or yawn (all are calming signals). When he feels more pressure then, he starts to become pushy, shakes his head, might stomp a foot, kick with a hind leg in the air, lays his ears flat, wrinkles his nose, and narrows his eyes. He might also snort. When he gets very frustrated or angry, his ears become even more flat, the eyes more narrow, he presses his lips together, his nostrils are very narrow, he lowers his head (like a stallion who is ready to attack).
In the training, I alternate between action and inaction, learning and having and break. When he gets frustrated because he doesn’t understand, I try a different way or let him move a bit. He doesn’t like pressure (will go against it), so I do a lot of liberty and free shaping. He needs to know that he has a choice and that following my suggestions is really cool. He loves people and really wants to learn, so it’s easy for me to redirect his emotion. I think if someone would train him with a regular pressure and release technique, he might feel too much pressure and start nipping/ going against that person. Being very brave himself, he is not easily intimidated. I enjoy his confidence and his high spirit, so I’m looking for a balance between discipline and expression.
Now think about your horse: How does he look like when he doesn’t understand? When he gets uncomfortable? Scared? How do his eyes look like, the ears, the lips, nostrils…how does he breathe? What behaviours does he show? How does your horse’s play face look like? Can you tell when he is enjoying himself? Is he more secure, or insecure? Is he extroverted or introverted? I believe that navigating these questions is what builds our relationship with our horses much more than any training exercises or education programs.