There’s an old saying that goes, “be casual with your horse and your horse will be casual with you.” This is one of the basic essentials of using body language as a tool for communicating with horses. The converse of this statement would be, “never approach a horse in anger. If you can’t control yourself then you cannot control your horse”.
There have been many books written on the subject of body language and horse-human communication. Most of them are based on valid and sound theory but most of them concentrate on and get lost in the methodology. When one gets lost in the method, the theory often gets lost or otherwise forgotten. Since ‘how too’ books on how to use body language when working with horses are somewhat ubiquitous and generally present sound methods, I’d like to talk here about some philosophy and theory I have found to be true as a result of many years of experience that sometimes get overlooked.
One of the first things that is important to remember is that horses (and that I have found from experience) is that horses innately understand human body language. The reason that horses understand human body language is because both horses and humans are basically, on the grand scheme of things, ‘wired’ in the same way and share a lot of traits imparted by the common aspects of evolution that both species share. In this sense, horses and humans are more alike than different. Whether this is the result of selective breeding imposed upon the horse by the several millennia that horses and humans have been working together is irrelevant. Even ‘wild’ horses like mustangs descend from domestic horses gone feral, but the human influence on their genetics and breeding is still there. Either way, domestic and wild/feral horses behave and respond to body language in the same way despite the latter having regressed somewhat to a more natural and ‘wild’ state.
Humans, on the other hand, do not usually innately understand the body language of horses let alone the body language of other humans. The reason for this is that the horse, lacking language and the ability to ‘intellectualize’ has to rely on reading body language. This may or may not be an entirely innate skill on the part of horses given that horses in a ‘wild’ environment have the advantage of living in a horse ‘society’ in which ‘family’ ties exist as something not imposed in an unnatural fashion by human control. Horses such as mustangs have their own ‘social’ structure dictated by nature which makes them, in my opinion, more sensitive to the body language of other horses and when the opportunity arises, with humans also.
Horses, on the other hand have a human pegged in terms of body language before the human gets halfway across the pasture. Have you ever noticed that certain horses don’t like certain people from the get-go? It’s exactly the same phenomenon as when you for some unknown reason dislike a certain person within seconds of meeting him. There’s nothing mystical about it – you, like the horse, are ‘reading’ a certain individual’s body language below the level of conscious understanding.
Learning to read the body language of horses usually takes having a lot of experience. Some people can do it innately and usually without actually being aware that they are doing so. Experience with horses and careful observation of horses in the context of the herd and in the context of interaction with humans is the best tool in getting a deeper understanding of the body language of horses and how to use it to your advantage when working with horses.