The Downside of a Good Horse
You know what worries me? Horses that work hard to please their owners.
You know what scares me? Unobservant or uninformed riders, owners, and caretakers.
There are some horses that communicate their feelings very clearly. If they are having a bad day, you know it pretty quickly. If they are in pain, they will bite, buck, kick, pin their ears…you get the picture. There will be no mistaking the fact that something’s wrong. These horses may be labeled as “challenging.” They may not necessarily comply the first time you ask them to do something. Some may say that’s what makes these horses fun to work with.
I don’t worry about those horses. They are perfectly capable of making themselves heard…and they will do it.
I worry about the “good” horses. These are the horses that do what you ask without complaining. Maybe they are your “go to” horse for inexperienced riders. Maybe it’s your trusty, level-headed trail horse. Maybe it’s your blue ribbon show (or 4H) horse. In any case, you don’t have to worry about these guys much.
And that’s what worries me.
Because these horses are so awesome, I fear that their caretakers or riders may be missing subtle signs that their equine friend may be hurt, unhappy, or in pain.
Before I go any further, I want to be clear: I am not accusing anyone of intentionally riding horses even though they know the horse is in pain. I am not talking about people who identify their horse’s needs but don’t do anything about it. What I am talking about is people who simply don’t know or don’t understand how to decode the more subtle behaviors of equines. Horses are incredibly complex creatures, and it takes education and careful observation in order to figure out what they are trying to tell you.
4 Ways to Read a Horse
Here are four basic areas of the horse’s body where you should look when you’re trying to figure out what he’s saying. Disclaimer: I am not saying that every time a horse does one of these things he is in pain or something is wrong. What I am saying is that you should watch for these behaviors when you’re riding or working with the horse. If you see one of these signs, you should continue observing his behavior closely for other signs and the specific situations when it is occurring. See if it happens every time you ask for the behavior that originally triggered it or if it was a one-time thing.
Specifically, you should be looking at the position of the ears. Signs of unhappiness or pain would be ears that are pinned flat (or very close to it). If one or both ears are still upright but rotated toward you, that means the horse is listening to you. He isn’t necessarily upset or in pain.
2. Head and Neck
First, look for head carriage. If the horse is carrying his head high (the poll is significantly higher than the withers), even if you’re riding on a loose rein, he could be indicating tension, nervousness, or even pain. Do his neck muscles look tense? Does he keep shaking his head? Is he reaching around to touch his nose to the stirrup? These could all be signs that something’s not quite right.
This one’s a little harder to put into words. Just like you can learn a lot about a human’s emotions by looking in her eyes, the horse’s eyes can tell you a lot. You can tell if they are relaxed, happy, worried, nervous, or angry from looking them in the eye. Really, it’s best to read the eye in combination with the ears. This will give you a more complete picture of his thoughts and feelings.
Most often, this will come across as a quick tail swish. You might observe this when asking the horse to move up to the next gait, or you may see it when you ask for lateral movement. Something not quite as common is tail clamping. If the horse is holding his tail closely against his hind end, this could indicate tension, pain, or he may even be cold.
In the end, I would like to encourage you to start watching your horse closely, whether he’s well-behaved or a bit ornery. Try to make a connection between your action or cue and his reaction/body language. Be intentional in decoding his communication, and it’s likely your relationship will improve!