When you go to get your horse, what does he usually do? Stoically stand still while you approach him? Ignore you? Look toward you? Look away from you? Walk away from you? If you would like to have the kind of partnership with your horse where he comes to you as soon as he sees you, relaxed and happy, changing how you approach him can make a positive difference.
Have you ever paid attention – I mean really paid close attention – to your horse’s body language when you approach him? Your horse tells you how he’s feeling in every moment if you’re watching for the subtle cues.
How You May Be Inadvertently Stressing Your Horse
Walking directly towards his head: It’s human nature to take a direct line to what we are focusing on. But when horses approach each other, they come in on a slight angle – unless they are behaving aggressively.
Instead: Approach your horse on a slight angle walking towards his shoulder rather than directly to his head. Keep your eyes softly focused on your horse as you walk in an arc instead of a straight line.
Aiming any part of your body into his ‘bubble’: Horses respect the bubble (personal space) around the head and neck of other horses (see the March/April issue of Horse Canada for more on the bubble). And, because horses communicate through the movement, direction and energy of their bodies, your horse reads the same elements from your body. A hip (whether it’s yours or another horse’s) aimed towards him is seen as a threat to kick. In the same way, the physical energy from your core, hip or arm, for example, directed towards his head or neck can be seen as a threat or a signal to move away from you.
Instead: Aim your eyes, core and hips away from your horse’s head or neck. When you are near his bubble and facing him, soften your core (imagine your belly button being pulled back towards your spine) and shift your weight to just behind the balls of your feet. When you’re standing beside him, avoid resting your weight on the leg nearest him. Instead, shifting your weight to your leg farthest from him softens and opens your opposite hip.
Moving slowly or quickly: Your horse may feel unsettled if you approach him slowly – because you look like a predator creeping up on him – or quickly – because it feels aggressive like a predator pursuing or another horse threatening him.
Instead: Walk in a calm, easygoing and confident manner towards your horse. Have the same posture and level of energy that you have when greeting a friend you see regularly; or that makes you feel most comfortable when someone you don’t know well approaches you.
Strong, powerful posture: When your energy and posture are very strong – shoulder’s back, chest out like a soldier, pelvis tipped forward – your horse perceives it the same as you would if someone was walking towards you in that manner – get out of my way. A passive horse will leave, feeling intimated. A confident horse or one that has learned that leaving ends in punishment (such as chasing him down) may stoically stay put but feel tense. An assertive horse will likely push back.
Instead: Develop awareness for your normal relaxed posture and physical energy. To approach your horse with casual posture and energy, stand tall and straight, but soften (without collapsing) your core, chest and shoulders.
Experimenting with this approach exercise can help you improve how you understand and communicated with your horse:
Step 1: Walk directly toward his head watching for any subtle signs of tension – e.g. slightly elevating his neck, not blinking, tightening his mouth, swishing his tail or looking or turning even slightly away from you.
Stop as soon as you notice any sign of tension. Take a few steps backwards and notice any changes – e.g. exhaling, relaxing his neck, softening his eye, licking his lips or looking toward you.
Step 2: Approach your horse by walking on a slight arc towards his shoulder. Picture the bubble around his head and neck that you want to go around not through. Don’t burst this bubble. Be aware of your posture and energy as you approach your horse keeping it casual, calm and confident.
If you notice any signs of tension, stop and back up a few step. Exhale – you may have been holding your breath. Drop your eyes – you may have been staring. Adjust your approach slightly until you notice your horse is not exhibiting any signs of tension, but is showing signs of relaxation.
When you consistently approach your horse being respectful of his bubble, paying attention to your own posture and energy, and adjusting when you notice any subtle signs of tension, you’ll build a more trusting and positive partnership with your horse. And he just might get easier to catch!
Personal space is the region surrounding a person or animal which they regard as psychologically theirs. They may feel discomfort, anger or anxiety when their personal space is encroached.