This article was originally published in the August 2011 issue of Savvy Times magazine. Recent back-issues of Savvy Times are available for Parelli members in the Resources section of Parelli Connect.
How to Tell If Your Horse is Happy
-by Linda Parelli
How do you know if your horse is happy? He can’t wag his tail like a dog, smile like a human or purr like a cat, so how can you tell?
Being a horse lover, I really care about how my horse feels in his relationship with me. Does he like to be with me, be taught by me, perform with me? So I put a lot of effort into seeing life from my horse’s point of view and setting things up for success. Does that mean sometimes my horse is unhappy? I’m sure there are times, but I’m not paralyzed by that. I try to catch it early and then become more conscious of how I caused it in order to avoid it next time. Most important, I take responsibility for my horse’s behavior when with me, because he was fine until I showed up!
Things that make horses happy
What makes one horse happy is not necessarily what makes another horse happy. Horsenality™ is going to be a huge guide for you here. For example, my horse Jazzy (Right-Brain Introvert) needs me to go slow in the warmup, waiting for him to relax and then want to offer more, whereas my horse Allure (Left-Brain Extrovert) needs me to encourage him to have fun and keep things pretty lively. I’ve made the mistake of going slowly with Allure, and he either takes over and takes off (doesn’t want to be with me anymore) or just shuts down and resigns himself to what he knows is going to be a really boring time. So get to know your horse’s Horsenality™; it’s an important key. Find out what makes your horse tick — a Horsenality™ Report can help you if you’re struggling with this — so you can bring out the best in him or her on a more consistent basis. Remember, most horses don’t like being told “no,” so learn how to become the Ambassador of Yes by taking care of his needs first.
Most people have learned that ears back means watch out, that the horse is going to bite, charge, kick… but reading a horse’s body language is not something many people learn to make an art of. I think it’s vital to become good at reading horses because the sooner you can tell what’s going on, the sooner you can adjust your approach for more positive results.
As you learn to read horses at increasingly refined levels you start to notice the little things like the position of your horse’s head and neck, ears, tail, the way he moves… and then progressively more subtle things like the eyes and nostrils.
You need to get to know and learn to read the signs of negative thoughts and emotions in your horse as well as the positive ones, both on the ground and when riding.
Know that every horse is capable of having all of these emotions and behaviors given the right situation, so it’s our job to bring out only the positive ones.
Unhappy, Upset, Disturbed
Horses tend to have unhappy expressions when they are afraid, bored, irritated, have lost respect for the rider/handler or feel pressured against their will, to a greater or lesser degree.
Happy, relaxed, willing
Horses tend to have a positive and inquisitive expression when they are doing something that is their idea. That’s why the Parelli psychology of “Cause your idea to become their idea, but understand their idea first” is so powerful. It’s not just about doing nothing or giving them treats. It’s about how they feel about you in the relationship as their friend, partner, protector and teacher.
What to do
When you see your horse’s expression change from positive to negative, what should you do? The first thing is not to panic! If you start to worry, you’ll find yourself shrinking back and relinquishing leadership, and that brings on a whole other set of behavioral changes in your horse. Right-brain horses get more worried and distant, and left-brain horses seize the opportunity to get the better of you. You have to maintain your composure as your horse’s leader, so don’t worry or feel sorry for him; just change what you are doing. Know that horses are not like people; they live in the moment, so they react quickly to what they perceive as negative or positive. Although their primary emotions are a lot like ours (fear, frustration, anger), they don’t get upset at themselves or feel sorry for others. Those are what humans do. Feeling any one of those negative emotions will instantly undermine your status as a leader with your horse, both in the moment and in the longer term.
Nine times out of ten, when a horse gets upset, backing off the pressure is the right thing to do. And don’t let anyone tell you that the horse will think he’s won. He’s a prey animal, and if his safety or dignity feels threatened, he’s going to run or defend himself. So back off, help him settle down, restore the trust and make a fresh start. It will work better that way. And can you see how reading the telltale signs as early as possible will help? It’s easier to snuff out a little spark of trouble than a wall of flames.
But here’s the real savvy: Learn to not make your horse go there! How can you keep a smile on your horse’s face, have him want to engage, to communicate, to play, to perform? That’s the question that keeps me fascinated with horses and completely enthralled with never-ending self-improvement. If we do what the horse needs, he’ll give us what we desire.