Instructor and trainer Ron Meredith explains how to watch your horse’s body language when you are grooming and handling and begin to learn to communicate with him.
A lot of amateur trainers MythUnderstand what the training process is all about. They think that training involves dominating a horse, showing him who’s boss. They approach training as though it were a battle in which one party wins and the other loses.
Good training is not about confrontation. It’s about building a horse-logical communication system. As trainer, you do your talking as a non-hunting predator just walking through the herd or in the role of lead mare in your little herd of two. But you don’t ignore the horse’s side of the conversation.
To understand the horse’s side of the conversation means learning horse-speak–how horses say things to one another. Then you use that knowledge to say things back to the horse for your own purposes. You want to communicate to the horse that you like it, that you’re glad it’s there, that you like to be around it. You’re not going to just grab the horse and beat it into submission. In terms of horse-speak, grooming can be a powerful influence you can use to gain control and trust.
Wild horse survival requires strong herd instinct. Mutual grooming expresses camaraderie among horses and helps wild ones bond into a herd. Horses love to be groomed. Use this to your advantage to make friends with a horse when you first start working with it and to study how your horse communicates things to you.
For example, if the horse is totally relaxed and looking around and sometimes looking back at you then you got some good quality time going on. Pay attention as you groom the horse to see where it’s sensitive areas are and where it really enjoys a good scratching. Horses often signal their pleasure by screwing up their upper lip or by arching or stretching their neck when you hit an itchy spot. If the horse pins its ears, swishes its tail, or threatens a kick, it’s saying “back off.” There are horses with very thin skin who dislike coarse brushes but if you groom them properly without sudden moves using soft brushes and a degree of pressure that agrees with them, there should be no problem.
When you are grooming, the horse will naturally want to return the favor because that’s what it would do if you were another horse. If the horse starts chewing on you, do NOT slap it. If a horse tries to chew on you, you should have seen it coming if you were paying total attention to your horse. Grooming is not just moving a brush with your hand while you daydream about tomorrow. You should be thinking about now, about this horse. So if the horse wants to groom you in return, interrupt it unobtrusively. If the head starts around, and you’ve been paying attention and have a plan, you’ll just put hand up near the neck to stop the head turning without making a big sudden attack on the horse. You interrupt the undesirable behavior without changing the horse’s attitude, excitement level, or interpretation of what’s going on.
The safe place by any horse is beside the front legs. If you are standing beside the front legs and have some way to control the head, you won’t get kicked, bit, or tromped on if everything turns into a can of worms. So you start grooming where it is safe–at the shoulders–and you just keep working both directions. Take your time and keep working slowly to the back and find all the places. Keep making your safe bubble bigger and bigger. And by the time you and the horse speak the same language, the entire horse will be available to you and things will rarely if ever fall apart.
If, when you turned it loose, you saw that this horse did lots of kicking, you would never go to the back of the animal without taking the lead rope with you. That way, you can swing the horse’s hindquarters away from you by pulling the head toward you if the horse tries to kick.
Actions and body language are the only things that make up horse-speak. Save your vocalizing for later. If you use vocal commands at the horse, you will leave out the horse-speak, and if you leave out the horse-speak you will be very frustrated with why the horse won’t listen to you. If you always apply a methodical and directional pressure to create a shape that the horse feels and understands, then put a word or signal along with that methodical pressure, the horse may notice it or may not. However, over a period of time, the horse will begin to notice it and pick it up as having a meaning that it feels at that moment. But it is unenforceable.
If you want to talk to yourself, or hum, or sing to yourself while grooming, however, it is fine. Anything that will keep your rhythm and relaxation will keep the horse’s rhythm and relaxation.
There are times when you go into someone’s barn and all the horses in there will be in a depressed state because they don’t like where they are and they don’t like what goes on and they don’t like anybody. The horses won’t make any fuss, they’ll just be mopey and down. Horses that have a happy thing going on are going to communicate with you as soon as you go through. One may stick its head out and tell you that you have no business going by without coming over to visit. One might try to get you into a game of duck and bite. But they are all going to be active. They will be doing anything they want. If you go into a barn and the horses get up immediately, you know that the horses are definitely afraid of the people. When you watch people around horses you will find out very quickly whether or not they understand horse-speak and have the knack for “nice-ing” the horses into submission. That is the skill that a lot of people don’t understand.
Really good training is boring to watch. When it starts getting exciting and looking like a rodeo then you know that somebody is out of control or scared or angry. Good training should have about the same activity level as paint drying.
Instructor and trainer Ron Meredith has refined his “horse logical” methods for communicating with equines for over 30 years as president of Meredith Manor International Equestrian Centre.