Natural Horsemanship: Behavioral Clues, Mar 06 | Your Horse’s Eyes and Ears Give Behavioral Cues

Learning by Chance is presented in part by The Natural Gait, near Marquette, Iowa, the ideal place for recreational riders.

One of the best ways to learn about horses is to spend some time with them. Now doesn’t that sound a wee bit obvious? The answer is not quite as simple as you might think. When I say “spend some time,” I really mean to place yourself totally in the moment and observe with your complete attention.

This was brought home to me on a cold winter day when I was feeding my horses their twice daily ration of hay. A friend who had stopped by commented that my four horses were patient and showing excellent manners by being calm and not pushing me or each other around, jockeying for prime position. A horseman himself, he knew that feeding time around hungry horses can be a challenge if the person doing the feeding is not paying attention. When I had time to reflect on his comment, it occurred to me that feeding time went smoothly because I knew what I was doing and was aware of what was happening around me. Why? I use my powers of observation to pay attention to my horses’ body language—specifically their eyes and ears.

My Arabian horse, Chance, is easily the best communicator in my small herd of four geldings. Most of what I know about horses has been learned from him. Because he was unhappy, skittish, and distrusting of people when I first acquired him as an eight-year-old, I was forced to be proactive in his presence. As I wanted to be safe and I had a strong desire to bring him comfort and teach him confidence, I invested a lot of time in the first two to three weeks noticing how he was feeling and how open he was to being around me. By focusing intently on what was being communicated to me, I slowly gained his trust. The knowledge I gained then helps me greatly now whenever I am with horses.

Horses are gregarious in most situations, as they live in groups by nature, yet if they have had a bad experience, they remember it for a long time. This is one of the keys to their survival. And because horses are instinctive creatures, if an uncomfortable or scary situation presents itself, they will run, kick, or rear if they relate their current situation to the previous bad experience. Yet horses are honest creatures and if we know what they are telling us, there are not many surprises. With Chance, I remained acutely aware of all of the cues he gave me so that he would invite me into his space and be comfortable with me.

So what do I look for? The best place to start is at the head. Specifically, watch a horse’s ears and eyes. They tell an interesting story. When a horse is alert, his ears stand erect, aimed towards the scene that is holding its interest. Horse ears move independently, so if a horse has one ear pointed straight ahead and the other ear to one side or another, it is splitting attention. If a horse pins its ears back tightly against is head, look out! This horse is fearful and may act aggressively towards you. If a horse’s ears are drooping and almost flopping out to the sides, the horse is relaxed and comfortable, maybe sleeping.

The positioning of a horse’s ears is so critically important that whenever I approach my horses, I look first at their ears. If the horse moves one or both ears in my direction, he’s paying attention to me and knows that I am there. If the ears are drooping, I speak softly and calmly to awaken his interest slowly to my presence. And if those ears are pinned back, I observe intently what is happening with the other horses and me, and I approach slowly until I can see more of the picture.

A horse’s eyes can often complete the picture for me. Horses’ eyes are on the sides of their head, a common attribute of a prey animal that is prone to flight if startled. Horses have terrific peripheral vision and can see for long distances. This is great for seeing the dangers far away, but they cannot see directly in front or behind without turning their heads. This can be a challenge for close-in work with horses and why it is important for people to be great observers. When looking to the eyes, a calm horse shows soft, friendly eyes. An alert horse has a look of strong, focused intention. A frightened or fearful horse shows the whites of its eyes. If this is the case, be extra careful.

I can approach my horses with confidence because I know how to handle any situation by the clear cues I get from the ears and eyes of my horses. This is one of the many lessons that I have learned by Chance.