Body Language Basics for Your Horse

We've all admired someone whose horse was so in sync with her that it looked as if he was reading her mind. In our ongoing series on developing perfect ground manners for your horse, we'll show you how you can develop that kind of control of your horse, a

We’ve all admired someone whose horse was so in sync with her that it looked as if he was reading her mind. In our ongoing series on developing perfect ground manners for your horse, we’ll show you how you can develop that kind of control of your horse, and without even picking up a rein. You’ll find plenty of times when this training for your horse will come in handy, from catching your horse in a field all the way through halterless leading.

You can use “round pen reasoning” to improve your horse’s ground manners, whether you have a round pen or just an ordinary corral. By using a series of easy questions that the horse can answer “Yes” to, you can build his confidence and get him in the habit of cooperating with you. “Will you move forward?” “Yes.” “Will you turn to the outside?” “Yes.” And so forth.

One of the keys to successful training is being really specific. I used to think that when I was giving a general command, I was being lenient with the horse. But it’s much harder to obey a general command than a specific one.

If I told you, for instance, to go move my truck, that would leave you guessing, especially if you thought you’d get in trouble if you parked it in the wrong place. But if I told you to park the truck in front of the garage door, you could do that confidently.

You Are the Cue

  • Use body language to form simple questions that your horse can easily respond to with a “Yes” answer.
  • Apply pressure and immediately release it when your horse responds correctly.
  • Mentally divide your horse at the withers. Position yourself behind that line to encourage forward movement; step in front of it to encourage the horse to stop or turn.
  • Start by focusing your energy on controlling just two spots, the nose and the tail.
  • You can use any cue you want, but be specific about what you’re asking so your signals become clear to your horse.
  • Kissing sounds and flapping are useful for getting a horse to move, but you’ll ultimately develop your own unique body language.

When we tell the horse to do something, we don’t want him to have to guess about it. So we are as specific on the ground as we are when we’re riding. Because of that, the horse learns quickly and without much stress.

This month, we’re going to focus on the body language that helps the horse understand what I want. Next month, we’ll work through the sequence of round pen lessons that I teach as preliminaries for the “spook in place” exercise.

Talking with Pressure
We use the same pressure and release-of-pressure concepts in the round pen as when we’re working with the horse in hand in the bridle. We also use the same magic formula that we use for everything else we do with the horse: motivator, spot, direction and reward.

Rather than trying to control the whole horse, we pick one place on the horse about the size of a quarter. We call that “the spot,” and we tell that spot to move in one direction. We apply pressure to motivate the horse to move the spot, and we release the pressure to tell him that he did what we wanted. By being specific about the spot and direction, and being consistent about our pressure and release of pressure, the horse quickly learns what we want him to do.

People always ask me what cues I use. I tell them to forget about any kind of sophisticated body language and just be themselves when they signal to the horse. The horse will figure it out much quicker than if they set up an artificial code.

I use as little pressure as I can to get the response that I want. How does the horse know that I’m pressuring him? He just does, the same way that you might be aware of someone staring at you. You feel that pressure, and you can also feel when the person turns away or leaves the room. Horses are far more sensitive to that than we are, so they pick up on our intentional focus faster than a person would.

A few basics make it easier for the horse to initially understand what we want. I draw an imaginary line across the horse’s withers. When I move forward of the line, the horse senses that I’m blocking his forward movement, so his first guess is that I want him to stop or turn. When I’m pressuring him from behind the line, he’s not feeling blocked, so he’s free to move forward.

But here’s the amazing part: Rather than memorizing particular signals, such as a raised left hand or a particular body stance, the horse learns to read my intention. The trainer becomes the cue. My position gives him a hint, but because I’m not always going to stand in the same position or use the same body language each time I ask him to do something, I don’t make a big deal out of it.

People who know nothing about horse training or horse language can communicate very easily to their horses in the round pen. In fact, in my symposiums, I frequently take someone inexperienced out of the crowd to demonstrate that fact.

Think of it this way: Even though we’ve never met, I could look across an arena and tell you to “Wait there.” You’d instinctively know what I mean. I could also signal you to “Come here,” and you’d know what I said.

Working with body language is no more complicated than that. We talk with one part of the horse’s body at a time, telling it to move in a particular direction. Then we give the horse a release-an okay signal-that lets him know he did what we wanted.

Initially, I think about the horse as having two working spots-his nose and his tail. Obviously, it’s easier to get the horse to move forward if I am behind him than if I’m standing in front of him. So I make sure that I’m behind the imaginary line. I look at his tail and use body language to tell the tail to move.

The simplest body language is movement toward the horse. If he hasn’t had much handling, he’ll likely move away as I begin to move closer to him (staying well out of kicking range, though). The moment that the horse begins to move forward, I relax, essentially giving him the okay signal by removing the pressure.

Horses are also far more sensitive to release of pressure than people are. The horse will mentally link the release with whatever he did a split second before you released him. The first few times, he’s just guessing. But if you are intentional in telling him to move and in releasing him from pressure the moment he responds correctly, it won’t take him long to learn the connection.

If he doesn’t move forward within two seconds, I’ll become more insistent, perhaps raising my coiled lariat or slapping it against my leg. Again, don’t get hung up on the specifics.

Imagine that I was signaling to you across an arena. You would instinctively know when I was casually saying, “Come here,” and when I was more intense about telling you to move. Even if your horse doesn’t grasp it right away, at some point he’ll move forward, if only because standing still when someone’s flapping around isn’t natural. The moment he moves forward, stop pressuring him.

One additional tool is the kissing sound. I kiss to the horse once or twice just a split second before I signal to him, and the horse learns that the kiss means, “Move something.” So when I’m going to ask him to move, I kiss, then step toward him, for instance.

After a while, he’ll learn to read me and know what movement I’m most likely to make after the kiss. When that happens, it looks and feels as if the horse is reading your mind, and his ground manners will have taken a giant step toward perfect.

The basics of body language involve being able to tell the horse three things:

  • Go forward.
  • Take your nose away from me (outside turn).
  • Bring your nose toward me (inside turn).

I recommend teaching the outside turn before the inside turn. If you teach the inside turn first, the horse will think that standing by you is the right thing to do, and it can be hard to get him away from you. When the horse gets frustrated, he’s more likely to become aggressive.

Also, if I have a horse who I think might be aggressive, I don’t turn him loose in a pen and work him that way. I do bridlework with him instead, and teach him to cooperate with me and answer my signals. That way I have physical control of him and can most likely keep us both safe. But when working with an aggressive horse loose in a round pen, you can quickly become a target.

Tips for Getting the Inside Turn

Teaching the inside turn will take a little more work than the outside turn, especially if you don’t have a small corral or round pen to work in. Resist the temptation to bribe the horse into coming to you. That won’t give you control, and the horse won’t learn a cue.

Realize that after you have the outside turn down pat, the horse will understand when you want a turn. When you won’t let him turn to the outside, he’ll figure out that you want inside.

Here’s a little tip that will give him a hint that you want an inside turn. You’ll set your horse up to turn his nose toward you. If the horse stops (let’s assume that he’s facing to the left), move to your left so that you’re parallel to him, across from his head or even slightly in front of him. Look at his nose, and kiss to him softly. When he turns his nose to look at you, immediately relax, perhaps even turn away. If he doesn’t look at you after two seconds, tell him to go forward again.

After a few times, he’ll look at you. When he does, allow him to stand there quietly. After about six or eight seconds, ask him to move again. After a few tries, he’ll realize when you want him to look toward you without your moving to the left first. Then it’s a matter of combining the go forward and the turn of the nose to get a complete change of direction to the inside.

Go Forward
When we did the bridlework, we taught our horse the go forward cue. We tapped his hip with a whip until he began to take a step forward. Then we immediately stopped tapping. We’re going to do the equivalent, but we’ll use pressure on the hip (or tail) instead of tapping.

Forget about all the dominance, predator-prey stuff you may have heard, and just think in simple terms. Position yourself in the middle of the pen. The horse will likely move to the fence. Make sure that you’re not blocking him, look at his tail, and “shoo” him forward. The moment the horse moves, quit “shooing” and relax.

It doesn’t matter if the horse keeps moving or stops. Because he obeyed your signal to move, you’re rewarding him. When you relax, you end a mini-lesson, just as if you’d stopped tapping his hip with a whip. If the horse doesn’t move within two seconds, then do something more intense. Immediately stop pressuring the horse the moment he takes one or two steps forward.

For now, your position behind the imaginary line at the withers is important. When you and your horse are practiced at this, you’ll be able to signal for his tail to move forward, even if you’re standing directly in front of the horse, such as when you’re asking him to come to you.

Outside Turn
When you want the horse to make an outside turn, use your body language to tell his nose to go away from you. If the horse is going to the left, you’re going to step to your left, so you’re ahead of the imaginary line, and look at his nose.

Now think about blocking him, to prevent him from completing a circle. You’re not going to try to physically block him – just think about it in those terms. That will help you figure out how to move somewhat into his path, so that he prefers to turn rather than get too close to you.

Continue to “put pressure on the nose” until you see the horse bring his nose around to the right-toward the fence (assuming you’re working him around in a corral or round pen) to begin an outside turn. The moment you think the horse is going to turn to the fence, relax your pressure. Allow him to continue the turn. Give him a two-second break. Then you can tell him to go forward again.

If the horse doesn’t seem to understand or you’re having difficulty coordinating to ask for the outside turn, walk across the pen and stand about two feet from the fence. Rather than run over you, the horse will change direction, usually to the outside. The next time, you may not have to go as far as the fence.

Don’t put yourself in a position where he’s likely to run into you. It’s a judgment call, and the actual distance varies with each horse.

Inside Turn
The inside turn is a little trickier at first. To ask for an inside turn with the horse going to the left, move to where you’re about parallel to his withers and step back, increasing the distance between you and the horse. That invites him to turn toward you.

The first few times, he won’t know that you want him to turn. So you may have to step to the left, which will slow him down slightly. Then you’ll step back, inviting him to turn toward you.

He’s still likely to think “outside turn,” and begin to turn to the outside. You have to be pretty quick to tell him, “No, not that.” To do that, step to your right, so you can tell the tail to continue going forward. Basically, you want an inside turn or no turn.

Tell the horse to keep going, then ask for the inside turn again in several strides. If he turns to the inside, relax and let him complete the turn. If he tries an outside turn again, interrupt the turn as you did before, move him forward several more strides, and then ask again.

It may take several tries, but when the outside turn doesn’t work, eventually he’ll try an inside turn. When he does, relax so he knows that he did the right thing. If the horse doesn’t complete the turn (perhaps he just turns toward you), then gently shoo him forward into the new direction.

It will be normal for him to be confused for a few minutes, but the quicker you can let the horse know that you don’t want an outside turn, the sooner he’ll think of making an inside turn instead. If you miss, don’t worry about it and just try again. No one pass is critical.

In the Real World
Now that you know three things to ask of the horse, you can put those to work, whether you have a round pen or not. Practice asking him to step forward, even if you are just in his stall. If you’ve taught him the go forward cue, then ask him to go forward, using your body language and not a whip.

Remember that we just want a few steps, which will tell us that the horse understood the cue. Then, instead of pulling his lead rope to tell him to step forward, you can use body language. With practice, it will look like he’s reading your mind.

For the turns, use a fence to help you, but realize you’ll have less influence on your horse than if he was in a round pen. When your horse is loose in a pasture, for instance, get him to take one or two steps in the correct direction. Think about how you’d “head him off at the pass” if he had gotten loose and you didn’t want him to go down your driveway. You’d look at his nose, and your body language would tell him, “Turn back to the barn.” That will earn you an outside turn.

Of course, we don’t recommend you turn your horse loose in the driveway. That’s just an example to get you thinking. You could approximate that situation in some safe, controlled setting, such as a small corral.

The outside turn is really important for keeping us safe. Imagine yourself trying to bring a horse in from the field, but his buddies all have something to say. That can be a dangerous situation. But if you had developed control of each buddy so you could tell them to turn away-before they got into a crowd-you could keep yourself and the horse you were leading out of trouble.

Or perhaps you’re walking in the pasture with a little child. Wouldn’t it be great to be able to tell your horse to give you a little more space?

And what about that inside turn? What will that do for you? Plenty. When you’re in the barn aisle, how cool would it be to kiss to your horse and have him turn his nose toward you as if to say, “You rang?” How cool would it be to go into the pasture and have the same thing happen, and then to teach him to come to you on cue?

Play with the three signals, remembering to talk specifically to the horse’s tail or nose. With just a little consistency, you’ll be amazed how much your horse will look to you for direction. It’s really fun.

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