A Guide for Interacting With Horses
A Guide for Interacting with Horses, and Other Prey Animals
By: Vicki Aldrige
Animal & Wildlife Council
Horses are herd animals so their primary need is open communication and socialisation, and as a prey animal their primary role is to be alert to change and inform others of any imminent threat. Therefore, they are constantly communicating if you are interested and open to it. It is worth acknowledging this can be very subtle form of communication. It can be a change in their body language such as eyes, lips, ears, energy levels, breathing patterns and ultimately the need to move their feet.
If you are unsure of being around the horse(s) it’s ok. They are big powerful animals that can be ‘unpredictable’ even for knowledgeable horse masters. Their nervous system is seven times faster than ours so they can change in an instant! It’s worth remembering, they are a prey animal and in essence we are still a predator. If they are scared or unsure, they will most likely need to move their feet, or even run away. Even the most docile horse has the ability to move quickly and knock you over which can inevitably hurt you. If they do run don’t try and stop them unless you have the skills or a strong enough relationship with them to be effective in that moment. As a general rule they will only run as far as they need to find safety then they should stop and turn to face you to assess the danger. They will most likely head for known safety; the herd, the stall or place in the field they feel safest. However, sometimes this does not happen if they are in panic mode. Often this is when they have pushed beyond their limits. Panicking horses have been known to run into walls and even mirrors to escape. So always be alert and respect their ability to change energy in a millisecond. Never block there exit unless you HAVE to! They can easily run you down and will keep going if they feel threatened enough.
Generally, when being around horses it’s good to be steady and predictable particularly with a horse you don’t know well. Make your presence known and be at peace. Ideally stay in your heart space so you can connect and be in tune with them. It is important you breathe continuously, and remain calm and confident in your own space and respect them in their space. If you are scared of them, or the presenting situation, it may be best not to approach them, you cannot fake it. They will know if something is wrong. If you are scared, your energy will be up and your breathing pattern will change. That will make them alert and even scared of you, or what you might know, or what you are about to do, and therefore they will become reactive.
What are horses’ basic needs.
Horses’ basic needs are Safety - Comfort – Food – Play. They also need to 3 F’s; Friends, Freedom to move and Forage. They often do not need shelter but they need continuous access to hay or mature and ideally diverse meadow grasses (not the modern intense artificially fertilised diary grazing.) Unlike us they are designed to continually graze for up to 16 hours a day. They don’t often need ‘hard’ feeds apart from to supplement the lack of nutrition, variety and rotation within their grazing area.
Horses only need 4-6 hours’ sleep a day. Most of which they can do standing by locking a leg. They only need an hour or so sleep lying down for deep REM sleep. It is very unlikely a horse that you do not know will let you approach when they are lying down as this is vulnerable position for them, even in REM sleep. The rest of the time is for relaxation, socialisation and play.
Horse like us have different personalities, and ideally need to be handled differently. Most horse are alert to change but some are more nervous than other. They will notice all and any change of environment, or even a bag in the hedge that wasn’t there yesterday. There personality will depend how they will manage the change. If they appear unsure, it is important to go slow and be predictable particulalrly the first time you meet them. Some just need to hang out until they are confident enough to communicate with you. Most nervous horses thrive on repetition. When interacting with them ideally do the same thing up to seven times in a row and stop at a positive place. These are considered right brain horses. Some need a more confidence, playful or challenging relationship to gain their respect. These are considered left brain extroverts. Some need reward for their slightest effort and for you to get their interest. These are left brain introverts. However, much as you know their innate characteristics they can still change within different environments. This is part of mastery of working out what makes the individual horse tick on each minute of each day.
Body Language and communication
When being around horses it’s worth taking time to get in tune with the environment, the horse(s) and yourself. If the horse feels threatened, they will want to move their feet and may even want to get out of the situation. Therefore, it’s good to acknowledge your own feelings and take it as slow as you need to. Only move up to the edge of your comfort zone and breathe, but don’t step over until you and the animal is ready. The horse will guide you and tell you what is acceptable to them if you ask and read their body language (unless they are traumatised/ shut down or over familiar/ bored with humans then they may react differently).
Apart from general demeanour one of the most informative areas of communication is through eye contact. Like us it is the window to their soul. Whilst in their presence try and keep regular eye contact so you can read their mood and opinion about each situation. As a general rule;
A wide wild eye is a sign of panic/fear. Unless you have to approach, I’d keep away as they can be dangerous and very unpredictable. The best way to bond with them is to offer them water when they are thirsty. This is their most basic need. You may initially have to put the water bucket down and back away, but hopefully in time they will associate you with something positive and start to trust you.
A deep staring eye can be a sign of being scarred or zoned out - it is import to go slow and probably just hang out, or ideally do some hand grazing, but be aware they can unexpectedly freak out and even explode. Do not put any sudden pressure on them.
A blinking eye means they are processing. They are coping but go slow and respect they are on the edge of change and working out the state of affairs.
A dull blank eye could be boredom or depression. If you believe it’s boredom, try and play/interact with them gently; become interesting. If it’s depression I would take that as zoned out so just hang out and don’t ask too much.
A sleepy eye can be a state of sleep or complete relaxation. This is great but remember it can still change in an instant.
Another informative area of the body is the jaw. It is a nice sign to see a relaxed jaw or even lip licking. This generally means the jaw is relaxed and moving. Licking lips can be a sign of relaxation after a moment of tension. Alternatively, a clamped jaw or tense/pursed bottom lips can be a sign of holding tension.
The tail position is a sign of the current energy/spirit level. A high ‘J’ tail means they are on adrenaline. They are likely to need to move their feet. A clamped tail is a sign of fear. Be aware they can freeze and or explode. A relaxed tail, especially if you can easily lift it, means they are physically relaxed and all is good.
If they have one cocked/ bent back leg this is also a sign of rest and relaxation but again this can change in an instant.
It is important for you and the horse that all experiences start and end with relaxation and positive communication. This build rapport and trust.
It’s worth noting our primary energy comes from our belly button area. Think of it like a loud speaker. If you turn toward them, they will feel and hear you. For some sensitive horse this can be too loud. If you notice or suspect this just turn or even look away and you take the pressure and your intention off. Then gradual reduce your energy and try to turn toward them again. If this is still too much then step back and give them more space/distance between you. This is a good technique for building trust.
If you are not sure you should approach a horse or how they are with you in their space you can try mirroring their actions at a distance to show you are in tune and respecting them. If a horse walks toward you try and mirror their walking rhythm throughout your body or walk backwards with the same rhythm. Mirroring them also works well when walking with them and is essential when riding! It encourages harmony and unity.
If your aim is to communicate directly with them then it is important to stay in your heart space/be true whilst continually breathing. If you are holding your breath, they may think you are planning an unpleasant surprise. Also try to think and/or say and/or visualise what you intend to do. When approaching you can think acknowledge their presence or say ‘I see you’, and ideally ask their permission to approach.
On approach you ideally you want 2 eyes and 2 ears for green lights for acceptance of your presence and interest in your energy. If you are lucky enough to get this straight away be aware it can change in an instant. Many have different space tolerance/bubbles and may suddenly lose confidence. Watch them for any signs that they are unsure. The quicker you notice and respond to it the more respect and confidence you will get. It may a weight shift, a flick of an ear, a blink, a break in eye contact or even completely looking or moving away. If you can show them, you have seen that, respect it by hesitating, stopping, stepping back or turn away and breathe to reassure them you are not a threat they will are more likely to trust you again. This can take some time to approach but should make it a safer interaction, and an easier process for next time.
If they have accepted you into their space and you are allowed to approach then offer them the back of your hand to sniff. This is called a horseman hand shake.
If all signs are good and they are happy to allow you to approach them enough to touch them, the safest place to touch them is on the shoulder or withers (top of the shoulders). Most horses would prefer to be stroked rather than patted. Have love in your hands and heart. Remember horses can feel a fly so soft touch is often better more but it’s also worth matching their energy. Don’t be too soft be postive. Keep an awareness of their energy, and respect the ability to change at any moment. By all means talk or sing to them. This also helps you breathe.
Horses most like hanging out. Just being with you may be enough. In a herd contact is only really for grooming or play. Often, we want to touch them but remember they don’t need that!
Be aware of giving treats. Not only can it put a horse’s health at risk but it can encourage biting which is part of dominance behaviour and even cause in-herd fighting. Always handle food with respect and ideally ask any owner’s permission.
Once you have made the initial approach and built trust being in their space you need to maintain and build on that trust. Be present and communicate your intention. They like to use pictures and visualisation a lot to communicate with us so try and show them what your intension is or what you would like. If this is too challenging then just say what you would like out loud to start with. Be aware of changes in environment so you notice what the horse might. Maintain your confidence and peace of mind so they connect with you and get reassurance from your presence. Eventually they will learn that they are ok when they are with you.
When leading a horse try to not hold it too much as this can cause claustrophobia and lack of respect. Ideally keep in contact by a feel on the lead rope and lead them from your intension, space and energy. They will know you are there but may need reminded and guided. Remember less done sooner is better than more too late.
If you ask them to physically move you can use your energy to push their energy bubble/ space around them; to drive and draw their energy. The best way to do this is using visualisation, your intension, your breath and your energy from your belly button and/ or your hands. Ideally visualise what you want as you ask for the movement so they can see what you mean/ would like.
If you need to use direct touch contact start light and gradually increase the pressure. Remember they can feel a fly land. If you don’t response you may need to back it up with drive/ draw energy particularly the first time of asking. They will know you are there but they may not understand, choose to ignore you or not want to move for some unknown/ seen reason. You will have a decide how much you want/need them to move.
If they do what you ask and move remember to say thank you with your thought, a deep breathe, a smile and/or respectful stroke on the area of direct pressure. This should be payment enough that next time it should be easier and lighter.
As a general rule. Only ask what’s fair and reasonable. Always reward and acknowledge a try. Less done well is good for building confidence and communicate. Repeat learned activities between 4-7 times to build understanding then move on to something else to avoid boredom and them making assumption of what you are going to ask for.
Like any good friend love and respect them and usually that will be reciprocated.
Happy horsing around!