Posture applies to both the human and the horse. To the horse, we humans look like a prey animal. We stand upright, tend to walk straight at them, our ears are flat against our heads, and we make direct eye contact like a predator. Horses can overcome these issues with us, but we have to earn their trust. In contrast the horse will carry itself differently when relaxed, stressed, or fearful. You need to be able to carry your posture differently for training situations and read what the horse’s body language is telling you.
When you work with the horse are you standing square or are you slouching a bit? Do you walk fast and directly at the horse when you go to catch them in the pasture? Think about how you come across to the horse, switch places with them. If someone came at you the way you go after your horse what would you do? We’ll give you a couple of examples where your posture can assist in training:
The backwards yield: When asking the horse to back up by wiggling the rope side to side, and the horse responds correctly by backing up. Lower your shoulders, move towards the horse with you body sideways, offer the back of your hand (see the Senses “Handshake”) and reward your horse. You just gave your horse the “good deal” and showed them that correct responses are met by low stress rewards from you. The horse doesn’t understand speech, but does read body language better than we ever will. If you did the same exercise and then moved directly and quickly at the horse, how successful would you be?
Stopping when leading a horse. When leading a horse and you want them to stop you can reinforce the stop by getting big. By this I mean squaring up your shoulders, standing tall, even jumping up a little into the air. You make yourself appear bigger than you actually are. The horse is going to notice this and pay attention to your posture. Walk forward with the horse on the lead rope, stop abruptly with a “big” posture. Did your horse stop? If not you may need to reinforce this with an up down movement in the lead rope at the same time. Over time, the horse will watch you to see when you stop and you won’t need to get “big”. For training purposes, properly using and reading posture can increase the quality of your training.
Another thing you will learn is to draw your horse in to you with posture. You can use this to your advantage too. When round penning your horse you can step back and draw a horse into you.
Posture carries over into the saddle. If you tense up your muscles and get “stiff” you send a message to your horse that something is wrong or you deaden them to the feel of your seat.. If you stay relaxed and don’t over react you will teach your horse to be calm.
When you know what to look for the posture of the horse can tell you whether you are making progress or how the horse feels. Since you can’t ask them if they understood something or what they are thinking, this is a valuable tool. Posture can be as subtle as the worried wrinkles around they eye or as obvious as a strike or kick. Experience is the best way to learn to read the horse’s posture. Posture is situational, which means that the posture you see in a certain situation may not apply to a different setting. These are some of the easy things to see:
Licking and Chewing – submissive behaviors which means that the horse is willing to take direction from you. Head down – licking and chewing “I am a grazing animal, I don’t want to challenge your position”.
Head Down – relaxed, the horse is comfortable with the situation at hand. We call this “turned off”.
Yawning – an extremely relaxed posture which means that the horse had “soaked up” what you were working on. Yawns are “gold nuggets” in the training field.
Head up high – “I am resistant” or “I don’t want to do this”. We call this “turned on”.
Teeth showing & ears back – “I want you to yield to me, get out of my way”, this is usually a warning.
Turning rear towards you – “I told you to move, now move”, this is another warning – soon to be followed by a kick.
Rearing and striking – “You didn’t listen, and now I am going to hurt you!”