THE PSYCHOLOGY OF THE HORSE – part 2 of 5

Last week I looked at some of the similarities and differences between us and our equine friends.  One of the ways we can see this is in our use of body language.  For example, when two horses meet, they introduce each other by approaching slowly, often at an angle rather than directly.  They are very respectful of each others’ space and will read each others’ body language to know if it is acceptable to come closer.  If they are both comfortable they will come close enough to touch noses.

As humans we often walk directly up to horses, even those we don’t know very well, which is contrary to their code of behaviour.  Instead we could learn from their example and approach slowly and gently, watching for signs of how the horse feels as we enter his space.  Stopping a few feet from the horse and extending a hand, allowing him to choose whether or not to come close and make the first contact, respects the horse’s need to assess new situations, making sure that they are safe and that there is no threat.

When two horses know each other well and have built up a mutual trust, they will often groom each other.  Humans tend to pat their horses  but perhaps a better way would be to mirror the horses’ own behaviour and scratch instead.  Find the place that the horse enjoys being scratched — his body language will let you know when you’ve hit the right spot!  It will often be in the places that he cannot reach himself such as the neck, withers or rump.

If you’d like to learn more about equine body language and facial expression you might like to read my other blog series, part 1 of which can be found here.  I also have a video on this topic which forms part of a series.  Follow this link to see more.

As horses are herd animals their natural instinct is to be with others of their kind.  Living in a herd means protection: many eyes looking out for each other.  Also horses prefer to be in open spaces where they can see in all directions, knowing that they can spot a predator in time to run away.  Living in a stable therefore is not natural to a horse, both because they are on their own in the stall, and because they cannot see far and they are unable to run.  On top of that, life in a stable can be very boring with only four walls to look at for hours on end.

This can be very stressful for a horse and can lead to behaviours which have been labelled stable ‘vices’, a rather unfortunate term since the definition of vice is:

“a practice, behaviour, or habit generally considered immoralsinful, depraved, or degrading in the associated society. In more minor usage, vice can refer to a fault, a negative character trait, a defect, an infirmity, or a bad or unhealthy habit (such as an addiction to smoking).

Synonyms for vice include fault, sin, depravity, iniquity, wickedness, and corruption.”   (Wikipedia)

This seems to place the fault with the horse instead of looking at the underlying reason for the behaviour.  All we need to do to understand this stress is to put ourselves ‘in the horses shoes’ and imagine how we would feel if we were left totally alone in a box with no-one to talk to and nothing to do.

In next week’s post I’ll look at what you can do to support greater wellbeing for your horse.

 

(You can read this article in full here)

Facial Expression and Body Language – part 5

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.

spine-head-up

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.

spine-head-down

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:

email:              robyn@equenergy.com

mobile:           07980 669303

 

You can read the full article here

 

Facial Expression and Body Language – part 3

One question that people often ask is: How can I tell if my horse is in pain?

The signals given by a horse in pain will vary depending on the horse and the location and severity of the pain.  Any sudden, unexplainable, change of behaviour could be due to pain and so it is worth calling in the vet if you suspect that your horse is experiencing discomfort.

Some of the more obvious signs could be:

  • lameness
  • stiffness or tightness in particular areas
  • swellings
  • reluctance to move or weight bear

You might also spot what is often referred to as the ‘Pain Face’.  An example of this is shown in the right hand photograph below.  You can see the clear contrast between this and the more ‘normal’ face on the left.

pain-face

pain

Other signs that your horse is experiencing discomfort are that he might:

  • suddenly become headshy or reluctant to accept tack or take part in activities that he normally enjoys.
  • become protective of an area of his head / body, not wanting to be touched, or even approached, there.
  • become moody, withdrawn, depressed or even aggressive.
  • be having difficulty eating, maybe even starting to losing weight, possibly indicating problems with his teeth.

I’ll also mention a couple of common illnesses here that have particular pain symptoms.

  1. The first is laminitis (founder) which has a very characteristic stance.  The horse is leaning backwards to take weight off his painful front feet.

laminitic-stance

 

2. The second is colic.  There can be other signs of this too, but here I’ll focus on the visual indications of pain:

  • kicking up at the belly
  • rolling
  • restlessness
  • flank watching

If you would like to know more about Equine Body Language, 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:

email:              robyn@equenergy.com

mobile:           07980 669303

 

You can read the full article here

 

Facial Expression and Body Language – part 2

In the following diagrams I will look at each feature in isolation, but this can be misleading.  These comments are therefore just a guideline.  You will need to take the whole face and body into consideration. For example, if the ears are facing slightly backwards the horse could be listening to something going on behind him, he is not necessarily upset.  There will be a clue in the way that the ears are being held.  Notice if they are tense or relaxed and whether they are more down or up.

ears

The tail, too can be a good indicator of a horse’s mood:

tail-position

Looking at the face, the degree of tension is again important.  Increased tension can result in wrinkling around the nose, mouth and eyes.

 

Of course the face won’t be still, as it is in these diagrams.  This can make it difficult to catch each nuance of your horse’s range of expressions in the moment, as they can be subtle and fleeting, therefore a helpful tip is to take photos or videos to review at a later time.

If a horse is fearful, wary or upset you will often see the sclera of the eye, that is the whites of the eyes:

sclera

When he is happy and relaxed, however, his eye is soft and deep, and often starts to close drowsily.  You can also see here the relaxed position of the ears and the mouth with the lower lip drooping.  The nostrils, too, are relaxed and the head is lowered slightly.

relaxed-eye

The points above are just a rough guide and you will need to spend time observing your horse to be able to interpret his expressions in a variety of settings.

If you would like to know more about Equine Body Language, 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:

email:              robyn@equenergy.com

mobile:           07980 669303

 

You can read the full article here

Facial Expression and Body Language – part 1

horse-communication      verbal-communication

As humans we use a verbal language and often we place so much emphasis on this that we are no longer used to reading visual clues.  This is compounded by the fact that much of our communication is done at a distance – by email, text and telephone – and so we are less familiar with reading the facial expressions and body language of others.

Horses, however, largely rely on visual clues in their communication.  It is therefore well worth taking the time to observe and become more ‘fluent’ in this language.  They use various different body parts and facial features in their communication but if we start by looking at the body as a whole, you can quickly get a basic sense of the horse’s overall mood.  If he is alert his head will be up and his neck muscles tense, his tail raised, with his eyes and ears focused in one particular direction.  His nostrils will flare as he sniffs intently, and possibly snorts.

alert-4

 In contrast, a relaxed horse will have his head and tail lowered allowing his back to round and stretch.  His eyes will be soft and possibly half-closed.  His nostrils and lips will be relaxed and often the bottom lip droops slightly.  He might also rest one hind foot and then the other.

relaxed-horse

In the next post, I’ll look in more detail at specific parts of the body.

If you would like to know more about Equine Body Language, 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:

email:              robyn@equenergy.com

mobile:           07980 669303

 

You can read the full article here