Tag Archives: herd

  • Equine Body Language

    Written By Walt Friedrich

    Y’know, you can’t hide anything from a horse. He knows what’s going on in your mind. Sure, you know what he’s thinking, too, sometimes, but he seems to be so much better at it than you and I, doesn’t he?

    Our horse has gotten so good at “mind reading” because it’s his natural “language” among other horses -- and it naturally spills over into his communications with us. He doesn’t have to figure out what a “hard eye” is when he sees ours (and, of course, he doesn’t read our minds), he knows it very well because he’s seen it on other horses all his life. And that’s half of the communication transaction – that which we transmit. The other half is what he receives, or better put, how he perceives what he sees, and therein lies communication by body language! Of course it’s his natural language – raised in his natural environment among other horses in his herd, it’s the only language there is. He learns to read and comprehend the most subtle of signals, and he puts that learning to good use when we’re introduced into his life.

    There was probably a time ‘way back, before our ancestors perfected the art of language, when we, too, communicated mostly with body language. But our world then, as theirs still is now, would have been quite small, and our need for communication quite basic. Not much has changed with horses over the millenia, however, and it’s safe to assume that horses everywhere communicate in the same manner. Interestingly, those of us who spend time with horses have intuitively picked up on their language without realizing it.

    He “speaks” to us with his body language, and he expects us to “get it”. When we don’t he will sometimes add emphasis – flared nostrils, maybe, or a head nudge, or even a kick if just flattening his ears isn’t enough. And how quickly we learn from that sort of emphasis! It’s the same emphasis he uses when he’s communicating with another horse, and so it’s quite natural and not a big deal. Unfortunately, when that sort of emphasis happens many of us tend to blame the horse for an indiscretion instead of immediately realizing that he’s just “being a horse” and does not actually bear us any ill will. Usually, however, we can and do connect with his initial ear-flattened message – and so we learn, sometimes the hard way, a little more of his language.

    But there is so much more to a horse’s language than flattened ears. It should be pointed out here that ear-pinning is just one of many examples of equine aggression behavior. We tend to think of aggression as meaning physical attack, but a physical attack and ear-pinning are both examples of aggression body language. We might define equine aggression body language as any physical attempt at control, whether it’s by flattened ear or sudden kick or anything in between, and much of it has counterparts in our own body language. That means that to a degree he and we already do speak the same language. You may become displeased with your horse for some reason, and you glare at him to “make” him behave as you want him to. Your “hard eyes” (your body language) mean the same to him as hard eyes from another horse, and he reacts accordingly. You sometimes use many facial muscles to emphasize your displeasure (clenched teeth, a big frown, hunched shoulders), he sees them all and interprets them accurately. And he does the same thing, actually; if he wants to emphasize his flattened ears, he may flare or purse his nostrils, raise his head up high to make himself appear more formidable, and even stamp his forefeet with great force; he’ll swish his tail, may turn his butt and stand with weight off of one hind leg so he can deliver a ritual kick – all signs to another horse that a big fight may be moments away if he doesn’t back off, and he uses it with us as well.

    A much more common body language example of aggression is that of one horse moving another. We may notice it when it’s obvious – when accompanied by a nip on the rump, for example – but usually it’s so subtle that we rarely notice the body language that actually moves the “movee”. However, she reads it immediately, as do all other horses in the immediate area. The control of spacing between individuals in a herd is an important use of aggression body language, and it has many shadings. For example, at one extreme, when food is scarce each horse needs more space in order to find enough forage, and “back off” signs are the tools used to gain and retain it. At the other extreme, aggression is used continuously, in normal, non-stressed conditions – for example, the “intimate zone” between horses, up close and tight, is entered only by family and close friends, while others are warned off.

    These are common examples of the body language of aggression -- one of our horse’s two basic communication devices. Of course, herd members don’t spend their time in overtly aggressive behavior, and even when they use it, it is rarely violent. Although aggression body language is fundamental in a horse’s lifestyle, fortunately dominant horses – bullies -- are relatively rare. It’s probably why herd members usually get along together so well.

    His second basic communication device is cooperation. Cooperation is the most important characteristic of herd behavior – without it there would be no herd – and body language is the tool that makes it work. Cooperation between herd members implies mutual trust. Without trust a horse will see every new thing as a threat from which he must escape. Consider a grazing herd; each member knows the whereabouts and actions of every other member present, and through trust and body language, he knows that all is safe and content.

    The body language of cooperation is often the antithesis of the body language of aggression; eyes are soft and ears are up, the head is down, grazing, amid a group of herdmates. Horses will lay on the ground for a brief nap in the presence of others; a “sentinel” horse will remain standing and watchful. These are body language messages of trust and acceptance. Two friends will groom each other, obviously in each other’s intimate zone. The foal will work its mouth in the presence of older, mature horses, an action sometimes called “snapping”, which is far from a threat, but rather a message that says, “I’m young, small and weak, and I mean you no harm. Be nice to me.”

    We tend to think of body language as a system of clearly understood signals, and it is, but there is so much more to it than many of us realize. Because of the subtle nature of many body language signals, they occur without our being consciously aware of them. Yet we do pick up many of these tiny clues without realizing it – and so does your horse. You catch his eye moving to look at you while he’s facing off to the side, and you know that he’s paying attention; that’s body language. He sees and interprets a twitch of your eyebrow. Many a trick circus horse has been trained to “count” by tapping a forefoot just by reacting to eyebrow twitches.

    While both horses and people communicate with their own species using body language, it might be assumed that there is a vast gulf between these two disciplines, but this is not the case. We think of ourselves as primarily verbal communicators, but there is surprising research that indicates that we communicate face-to-face verbally only one-third of the time – fully two-thirds of our intercommunication is via body language! Because of the similarities in body language used by horses and ourselves, how interesting it would be if, with some concentrated effort, we were able to bridge that gap somewhat and develop much greater mutual cooperation, understanding and empathy.

  • HOW TO MAKE YOUR HORSE SMARTER

    Written By Walt Friedrich

    Feral horses are smart horses. Living in a vast geography, they know where all the water holes are, where to find the best grass, where the mountain lions hang out. Very smart, indeed – but it’s all built around feral living. The feral has much, much more learning to do before he’s capable of routine, daily life with humans – yet the domestic horses we live with and enjoy, same species, identical animals – seem much smarter by comparison. But not really – it’s just that they’ve had opportunity to further develop their minds. It’s said that the human brain is capable of so much more than it typically uses. Same thing with horses. The domestics just give us a clue about what’s possible – and their thinking powers can be quite surprising.

    To illustrate: Gail was riding her horse, Rocky, on a pleasant cross-country outing one warm summer day. Off in the distance, an interesting rock formation covered with wildflowers attracted Gail, and so she had Rocky leave the trail and walk through the brush toward it. The brush got thicker and thicker as Rocky plowed on, until he found himself unable to continue, with his legs tightly tangled in brush and vines. He was struggling to proceed, unsuccessfully, when Gail stopped him and asked him to stand still. She dismounted to examine the situation, saw that it was hopeless to plod through, and so she took out the small garden shears from her riding kit and calmly snipped away the entrapping vines, then led Rocky away from that patch of brush. Rocky followed her, calmly, and when clear, she remounted, patted his neck to tell him what a good, smart boy he was, and continued her ride.

    Many horses, in that situation, might have panicked, thrown Gail, hurt themselves in the process. But Rocky understood that Gail will help him out of any difficult situation; he kept his cool and allowed her to do so. He showed far broader comprehension of unusual circumstances than would a herd-raised horse without human experience. But what made Rocky capable of controlling panic so well? Why is he so smart?

    A horse’s lifetime is one of continuous learning. The two basic learning environments are his herd and the geography in which he resides. We’ll examine both, but first, let’s have a look at what happens between his ears, that makes it all possible -- the controlling factors that set the parameters for how he perceives and copes with those social conditions.

    Learning by developing his cognition:

    How he develops mentally is strongly influenced by what he views his physical limitations to be, what are his likes and dislikes, and does he know when he needs help, for example. But -- and this is tricky – we’re talking about understanding self-awareness in an animal, a challenging subject that’s difficult to define for even humans, about whom we do know something. It must be considered as the foundation on which knowledge is based because everything we see and understand is observed from a totally personalized standpoint. It seems unlikely that the relationship we humans have with our horses, as with our dogs, could exist if animals act only out of instinct. As we shall discuss, horses shape their behavior to fit the herd’s requirements; there seems to be some evidence, perhaps only intuitive, that they would do likewise in the company of humans. And it works both ways – a positive environment elicits positive attitude, and negative elicits negative.

    Learning from the herd:

    We know that the group environment is a highly influential factor in developing cognition. How smart a horse becomes is defined by the circumstances into which he is born and in which he develops – and it is a continuing process. Every event he experiences contributes to his fund of knowledge, and thus his intelligence. It follows, as studies confirm, that youngsters develop best in a herd environment, where its members have established complex interrelationships among themselves. The youngster comes to understand hierarchy, and that he must comport himself accordingly. But herd dynamics is much more than an unwritten rulebook – it’s also a blueprint for comfortable and safe living within a broad society, and to participate, he must learn it. The importance of the social environment cannot be overstressed. If you and I were to learn only at our mother’s knee until we were adults, we would be quite ill-prepared to exist in a society of people who developed within the broad panoply of school, playmates, close friends, neighbors, society in general. Likewise, a foal, growing up in such a group environment, will be far better prepared to cope with life’s events than one who knows only his mother and perhaps a few others during his developmental years.

    Not only does the foal learn the dynamics of living with his mother, he also learns the relative position of  every member of the herd toward himself, his mother and each other. Processing this data and understanding it, then living within it, develops his social intelligence so that he can quickly and efficiently continue the process going forward. Most importantly, this mental development forms the foundation for his ability to “fit in”, without unwarranted fear or anxiety, in new and different social situations. That means joining a new herd, for example, when he changes homes; it means handling show environments, joining strange horses in group rides, training experiences, and especially events with humans – as witness Rocky’s performance when tangled in the vines.

    Learning from the environment:

    Since a horse is such a physical animal and he lives in a primarily physical world, that physical environment is a major teaching aid in his mental development. It is the violin from which the music emanates. The objective is to allow the horse as great a range of experience as possible, with the understanding that the most threatening thing for many horses is, simply, change. But constant changeless environments set the horse up to react badly when change does occur. He learns to deal with changes by experiencing changes. Developing his experiences and thus his intelligence is squarely in our bailiwick. Keep him bottled up and we can expect him to be frightened of anything unfamiliar. But keep him in a complex social group and manage his terrain to promote frequent learning, and he will develop the ability to operate intelligently within his environment no matter how dynamic.

    Jaime Jackson recognized that a plain vanilla environment is a boring place, for domestic horse as well as human. He also understood horses’ need for constant movement in order to maintain physical condition. He developed the concept of the Paddock Paradise, a whole new way for the average person with a bit of land and a drive to practice optimal husbandry, to create a stimulating world for her horses, for their health and deep contentment. The difference between Jackson's approach and the usual fenced acreage is like the difference between an animal safari park and a zoo with barred cages. Creating physical, social, even emotional environments in which animals can believe they're in their primordial setup, yields fascinating results when applied to horses.

    Here's how Pasture Paradise works: instead of housing our horses in rectangular fields where they just stand in one spot and eat, an additional "inside" fence is added to create a "track" system. The track shape and width can vary - the narrower the track the more the horses will move. The topography can be changed quickly and easily, rock piles, sandy areas and water locations added. Hay can be piled in different locations within the track every day. The electric fencing can be moved to change the pathways, also allowing grazed areas to recover before being grazed again. The more innovative and creative our management methods become the more likely it is that we can create a real harmony between the needs of the horse and the space he lives in. It’s easy to change around, and it all can be done quite cheaply and quickly using electric fencing. It’s well worth the effort when you see how much happier and healthier he becomes. Horses adapt to such an extent that they look forward to changes in the route, watching while modifications take place. Once a change is complete they move into it without any need for pressure.

    The sum of the parts:

    The foal raised within the herd, an environment of diverse and interesting activity, builds a great deal of knowledge that influences his relationships, personality,  decisions and actions into and through his own adulthood – it makes him a “smarter” horse, very much better prepared for your teaching and training when he joins you as your equine partner. And when he is your partner, allow his natural intelligence to continue to develop in an environment of diverse and interesting activity. The more he learns, the greater his capacity to learn still more, and the greater will be your own pleasure and safety. It’s one of the best investments you can make.

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