If you are involved with equines, it is absolutely critical that you
develop a good understanding of equine body language!
First, it is important for your safety. I'm always floored when I see photos of people with horses and it is clear to me that the horse is unhappy, fearful or even looking aggressive while the people are smiling and oblivious to the potential danger. So many injuries and accidents can be prevented if people just take the time to learn about equine body language, then be aware of it and respond appropriately.
Secondly, equine body language can tell you a good deal about your herd dynamics. Knowing that can help you make important decisions about keeping certain horses together, how to handle feeding times and much more.
Next, it's how you assess what your horse is feeling at any given time. Since they can't "talk", this is one of the ways we receive feedback as to what is going on in your equine's mind. It's invaluable to know the horse's mental and emotional state when you are working with them on the ground or in the saddle. When you know how the horse is feeling, you can tailor your activities to help create a happier, more co-operative partner.
Let's look at a few examples.
A bite, strike or whirl and kick could follow a face like this.
Features to Note:
Ears ~ pinned back tight
Eyes ~ narrowed/squinty
Nostrils ~ pinched
Mouth ~ tightly pursed
Muscles ~ tense in face and neck
What to Do? The mare (our Raya) in this photo is addressing another horse, so if I wanted to "break it up" before violence occurred, I would use a tool to apply pressure to the horse from a safe distance. Never walk into this horse's space. (I've seen people try to pet the horse on the neck and talk softly to calm him/her and the horse turned on the person. Just because you weren't the original target of the warning, it doesn't mean you couldn't become the "main event" in no time flat.)
Recommended tools would be a stick and string or stick with a flag. If all you had was a halter and lead rope, you could flick the end of the rope toward the horse to apply pressure. Since you don't want the horse to turn toward you, you wouldn't want to put pressure on the hindquarters. Conversely, you wouldn't want her to kick at you while wheeling about if you pressure the head. I'd throw pressure toward that left shoulder or even under the belly to move her laterally away. At the very least, you can make a general commotion....flapping, swinging, smacking the ground... to get the horse's attention and break the focus.
You're on the bubble here. He could leave or settle in.
Features to Note:
Body position ~ curved away from me
Location in the round pen ~ away from the fence
Hind legs ~ close together for a speedy departure
Ears ~ pensive, thinking
What to Do? Proceed with caution. Two of the above features (location, ears) were encouraging, while two were not (body position, hind legs). I was looking at his eyes, mouth and neck position. His eyes were soft, his mouth was pretty relaxed and his neck wasn't real straight up. This was the first time I touched Mica (a wild mustang from the Hallelujah Horses) with my hand. I'd already touched him with a telescoping pole, the flag, and a stick and string to prepare him while I was at a safe distance.
Features to Note:
Ears ~ totally relaxed
Eyes ~ so soft
Nostrils ~ relaxed
Mouth ~ almost floppy
Neck ~ fairly level for a Friesian cross
Legs ~ comfortable placed under him
What to Do? Enjoy! These students can continue their lesson with our Dan (adopted by Marcy Waelti). Of course, they'll want to be aware of changes in Dan's body language as they proceed.