When talking about body language, another point I’d like to mention is that, just like us, the horse’s body language obviously shows how he’s feeling. But the reverse is also true – ie the shape we encourage him to hold will affect how he feels. Just as the act of smiling and standing up straight helps us to feel better, so the way we influence the position of a horse’s head will affect how tense / relaxed he feels.
The picture on the left shows a tense horse. His head is pulled in, his neck muscles are tight, his nostrils are flaring and his jaw is tense. In this position his airway and throat could be restricted. This is not a natural position for the horse to hold.
The horse on the right, in contrast, is relaxed. His neck and head are more extended allowing his airway and breathing to be free-er. You can also see that his eyes, nose, and muzzle are relaxed
In order to help the horse to stay calm, and to be able to engage with an activity, it is therefore important to be aware of how he is holding his head and his body, and how we are influencing that shape. When he is in a position similar to that on the left it will contribute to raising his adrenaline levels, whereas encouraging him to hold a position closer to the picture on the right will allow him to relax.
(If you’d like to know more about how our stance influences how we feel, you can look into Professor Amy Cuddy’s research on the Harvard Power Pose: http://www.businessinsider.com/harvard-amy-cuddy-power-pose-research-2012-10?IR=T)
In the picture below you can see how the horse’s back is quite ‘concave’, or ‘hollow’, when his head and tail are raised and his adrenaline levels are high. Off The Track Thoroughbreds can sometimes show behaviours like this, learnt from their days on the track . They can tend to get kind of ‘stuck’ in ‘flight’ mode, particularly when they see a line of white fence, like that in the picture, as it reminds them of their racing days.
In contrast, this relaxed horse carries his head much lower and his back is more ‘convex’. Encouraging the horse to keep a more relaxed body shape like this will help him to stay calm and to feel happier.
In fact if a horse keeps his head up for long periods of time it results in stress on the muscles of the back and tension in the nuchal ligament that runs along the spine. You can also see below how it brings the spinous processes of the vertebrae much closer together, possibly even rubbing against each other, causing injury and pain (as seen in kissing spine, which is where the spinous processes start to rub causing arthritic changes to the bone). The vulnerable area at the base of the neck can also suffer.
If a rider is tense this, too, will also affect the horse, meaning that he will be more likely to adopt this position, possibly leading to damage in his back.
When the spine is in a more relaxed position, with the head and tail down, it encourages the spinal ligament to extend, meaning that the forces exerted on the vertebrae now keep them apart, significantly reducing the risk of injury.
If you would like to know more about anything mentioned here, or about care for your horse in general, I have created a series of videos which are available through my website: www.equenergy.com or by following this link: If Horses Could Talk video series
Please also feel free to contact me with any questions, comments, or to book a session with me for you and your horse:
mobile: 07980 669303
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