If you think your horse is oblivious to the world, then you would be oblivious to your horse. Horses always know what is going on around them. They have to. It is instinct fueled by the need to survive. And if you are watching them, you can catch their incredibly subtle responses to their environment.
Let’s set the stage; one gelding, one man, one 16 x 8 water obstacle. The horse is being asked to cross the water obstacle by the man via a connected rope halter and lead. He stands at the dirt in front of the water and is driving the gelding through the obstacle by sending the rope forward. But the gelding is refusing and, in fact, sucking up its back feet as close to the front feet as possible looking like a circus act on a small round pedestal. He is staring across the water and preparing to jump. This is a defining moment for the man. Does he push the gelding to cross now or does he wait for the gelding to figure it out, to relax and think?
I stood quietly a few yards away watching the situation unfold, waiting to see how the problem would get sorted out. About 20 minutes of coercion later and an excessive use of pressure, the horse walked through the water. It took the man at the end of the rope and, at the cost of softness, three people deftly positioned in a fan shape at relatively safe distance from back hooves. They used repetitive assertive pressure by swinging ropes, making loud sounds and sometimes stinging the horse with the ends of their ropes. The scene was predatory and smelled of anxiety. When the gelding crossed, a unified cheer arose from the crowd and kudos were offered the man.
But everyone else watching and those participating in helping, missed why the horse even crossed the water at all. They were focused on the show. The horse had braced, balked, reared sideways, struck out and attempted to run backwards to escape the predatory pack around it. It was not a bad horse. It was just a horse, acting on instincts when faced with a lack of confidence and little support.
The gelding had actually crossed because a little quiet mare standing behind and about 6 yards away issued a command. She lifted her eyes, tossed her head in the gelding’s direction and made a “baaaarummmpt” sound that was assertive and bothered. It was a sound an alpha mare would make. Her command was only loud enough for the mare’s handler and me to hear. But it was enough. The gelding had heard it and his response was immediate. He lowered his head, culled his braces and with both bravery and nervousness crossed the water at a walk. I looked at the mare. She had her head down so far her nose was touching the ground. It was like she was conveying a message of safety. “Look. Look at me. It is safe enough for me to eat and relax. Trust me. Pull courage from me.” Through the whole event she never moved her feet or got excited. I suddenly had great respect for this passive leader. She inspired me to follow her leadership demonstration in my future.
Bloated by their success, the man encouraged the gelding to repeat the exercise. The gelding paused at the edge of the water and suggested another balk. The mare’s head rose level to her back. She flattened her ears and snaked out her neck towards the gelding. Her feet were still and her body was relaxed. But again, the mare’s encouragement was enough and the gelding walked slowly across the water with more intention and confidence. A rumble of approval and pleasure trembled through the crowd. And the mare stood quietly with her head lowered to the ground.
It was amazing to watch the power and encouragement delivered via equine language. And it was easy, very easy to miss. I had been standing in the right place at the right time. I had been fortunate and it made my heart swell.
The story could end here but another equine was also responding to the situation. I realized the full meaning minutes after the gelding first crossed the water obstacle. During the event I had been holding the lead rope to a mid-size mule. The mule had responded to the gelding’s stress and anxiety also. He had set himself up to protect us from the commotion. When I started watching the gelding attempt the obstacle, the mule was standing quietly with his head low at my right shoulder. But as the pressure rose and the gelding’s reactions got bigger, he got bothered. His head lifted and he watched intently. Slowly, a step at a time, he moved forward just a few feet. It was so stealthy and calm that I didn’t take notice until I realized I was staring over his back at the gelding. He had placed himself in between the escalating situation and his herd; the mare, her handler and me. After the gelding had crossed twice and the pressure was diffused, the mule backed up, on his own, and placed himself in his original position with his head by my shoulder. I hadn’t given him a cue to backup. He had just put himself back where we started. His job was done and now he stood calmly with his eyes at half mast, relaxed. I gave him a quiet thank you by taking a deep breath and a long exhale relaxing myself. He lowered his head more, looking as if he would fall asleep. The danger had passed. This was his time to conserve energy.
How much of this quiet language do we miss? The mare and the mule were truly great examples of well-timed encouragement and staying calm in the storm. I’ll never forget that day.