What Are My Horse’s Ears Telling Me?

To be a good horseperson  you have to learn to listen to your horse.  Horses are very good at communicating with us, if we know what to look for.  Body language is the main way your horse talks to you, so you need to understand it to be able to respond.  In this post, we will look at some of the ways that a horse uses his ears to tell us how he is feeling.

Alert and Erect

Alert ears

Alert ears

Ears which are forward and pricked upright, as shown above, indicated a horse who is focused and aware of his surroundings.  He is ready to react to whatever comes his way, or whatever he thinks is coming his way.  If your horse is this focused on something, it might be difficult to divert his attention.  Try to turn him elsewhere or give him a job to do if he seems to be getting tense.  When your horse is alert, you must be as well because you don’t know how he might react to whatever has his attention.

Relaxed

Relaxed ears

Relaxed ears

Here is a horse who is completely at ease with his surroundings.  He is aware of what is going on around him, but is content to simply munch his grass. When you view a horse whose ears are a little floppy, you’re viewing a horse who is comfortable with his environment and whatever is going on around him.  This is something that I love to see when I ride, because I feel like my horse and I are truly connected.  If my horse is relaxed enough around me to let his ears flop a little, I feel that true trust has been established between us.  One thing to be aware of when your horse has his ears relaxed is that he might be napping.  If he’s by himself and seems relaxed, make sure you talk to him to let him know you’re there so he doesn’t get spooked or taken unaware when you get to him!

Attentive

Attentive ears

Attentive ears

These are ears which are attentive to what is going on, but in a way in which will keep the horse responsive to you as well.  Unlike the alert ears in the first example, this is something you will see when a horse is focused on you.  Often times, if you talk to your horse from the saddle, or as you walk along beside him, you will see one or both of his ears twitch in your direction.  It is good to see him respond to you like this. Its a good way to know you have his attention.

Unhappy

Unhappy ears

Unhappy ears

When ears start to tilt backwards, you’re getting into unhappy behavior.  Sometimes your horse will give you a warning that he is uncomfortable or unhappy with an action.  You may also see his ears twitch rapidly back and forth which could be a sign of uneasiness or tension.  Pay close attention to ears that start to go back and adjust what you are doing or stop altogether and do something new.  If ignored, this signal could lead to more aggressive behavior, like biting or kicking.

ANGRY!

Angry ears - pinned

Angry ears – pinned

Beware of a horse who has his ears pinned! This is an aggressive behavior which is often the precursor of a bite, kick or charge.  Pinned ears equal an angry horse.  Stop whatever action you are doing immediately and if he does not calm down, get out of his way.   If you are riding and he has his ears pinned, he may be showing signs of pain, if the action doesn’t cease when you change your activity.  Check to make sure there is nothing poking him from your tack, make sure everything fits him properly and if he’s still pinning his ears, have a vet out to check him over — he might have back pain or something else causing him discomfort.

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Happy Trails

There is nothing more dangerous or annoying than a person who is unaware of proper trail etiquette.  To be fair, there are some things that many people do not think about while having a lovely ride on a sunny day.  Here are some of the basics to remember so that your trail experience is pleasant for both yourself and the people you ride with and encounter on the trail:

  • Stick to the edge of the trail.  Even if you can’t see anybody in either direction, its wise to keep your horse towards they side of the trail.  Bikers and joggers can come up quickly, seemingly out of nowhere.  Avoid collisions or a spooked horse by allowing room for other trail users to pass without issue.
  • Always walk when passing someone.  Whether you are passing another rider, a bike rider, walkers or joggers, take the pace down a notch.  By slowing your horse down to a steady walk, you allow him to evaluate the situation and will have less chance for a negative reaction from him.  If your horse spooks while you are passing someone, it becomes dangerous for both yourself and the other party involved.  Keep it safe by slowing it down.
  • Ride to the ability of the least experienced rider in the group.  If you are in a group of riders, no matter the size, do NOT do anything that any single person in the group is not comfortable with.  For example, a group of 4 riders go out and 3 of them are comfortable doing walk, trot and a little canter if there is a clear patch (which I will address later) but the fourth rider is not comfortable doing more than a little trotting here and there.  Don’t bully the fourth rider into trying to canter.  By asking a member of the group to do something they don’t feel comfortable with, you put everyone in the group at risk .  Ride to the lowest ability level or find a different group to ride with.
  • Along with the previous point, do not be afraid to admit that you don’t want to do something on the trail.   Your group should respect your request and not push you.  Gently remind them that you feel you may compromise the groups safety through a particular action and that you just want everyone to be safe and smart.
  • If you are going to head out on trail in a group, determine the ability and comfort level of the participants BEFORE leaving so that there are no shocks on the trail.
  • Do not canter in groups. Unless you are a very experienced horse person and everyone with you is also very experienced, avoid group canters on trail.  Horses are competitive by nature and will often try to be in the lead.  This can cause matters to get out of hand and cause injury.  If you are alone, and you feel like you just have to get in that one good canter, do it in an area which you can see for a good distance in each direction and only canter if there is no one within sight.
  • If it is starting to get dark when you are on the trail, make sure you have a flashlight and reflective vest so that people can see you.  This is especially important if you have to cross any roads to get to/from your trails.  There are reflective bands that you can put around your horse’s fetlocks as well, which may be useful.
  • Keep your cell phone with you in case of emergency.  Whether you keep your phone in your saddle bag or pocket, let it always be easily accessible in case something comes up.
  • Fly spray your horse and bug spray yourself.  The bugs can be much worse on the trail than anywhere else and I don’t know a single person who wants to be eaten alive while trail riding.  If you are focusing all of your attention on obnoxious bugs it leaves little ability to focus on what is going on around you.
  • Wear a helmet.  I know that it may seem silly on the trail, but you never know what is going to set off your horse and how he will react.  It only takes a fall from 3 feet to make someone a vegetable or kill them.  Protect your head!

I’m sure there are things I missed out on, but think these through and just remember to use your brain on the trail.  If you have to think about whether or not you should do something on the trail, its probably a fairly good indication that you shouldn’t. Best of luck and fun to you all! Happy Trails!

Wash Stall Woes

Even though it is coming down to the end of the summer, there is still a little time to get in that last good bath before hunkering down for the long, bath-less winter. Unfortunately, some horses love that winter period when they aren’t asked to go near that awful wash stall.

What can be done for a horse who doesn’t want to get in the wash rack for a bath? Here are a few tips to try. Depending on how stubborn your horse is, be prepared to spend a good amount of time with these to find one (or a combination of several) that works for you and your horse.

  • For ANY horse that isnt’ keen on jumping right into the wash stall, be certain to stay relaxed and patient and allow him to take his time.
  • Some horses get nervous if the washstall is dark and/or small and confined feeling.  Make sure all of the lights are on, so that the wash stall is as bright as possible and clear as much away from walls and off the floor as you can to make it feel like your horse has a ton of space to manuever.
  • Be willing to let your horse check out the wash stall.  Ask him gently to take a step towards it, then release pressure and let him adjust to the ‘new’ surroundings.  Then ask him to take another step with just enough pressure that he knows you are asking him to move.  Let him take a few minutes to discover that the wash stall is not a pit of doom and that he will be safe.  If you let him investigate, you might be surprised at the willingness to walk into the wash stall that he exhibits when he realizes he won’t be eaten by it.
  • The easiest thing that comes to mind for a horse that is merely apprehensive about the washstall is bribery.  Get a bucket of oats or treats or grab a handful of rich alfalfa and hold it just out of reach in the wash stall for your horse.  Give a small nibble then pull it back a little further, coaxing him further in.  Do this until he is standing with all four feet in the washstall, and give him the rest of the snack.
  • My horse would not walk into a wash stall head first if his life depended on it.  Instead, I turn him around and back him into the wash stall and then he is fine because he does not feel boxed in.   If your horse backs fairly well, this is an easy way to eliminate the feeling of confinement which seems to bother many horses.  Just line him up and back him in!
  • If you and your horse have a relationship built on trust and respect, then he is most likely willing to follow you wherever you lead him.  However, even the most loyal, well-trained horse who never acts up may show resistance to following you into a wash stall.  You can ‘trick’ him into following you in though by blindfolding him.  ***You have to make sure that you are super aware of both you and your horse’s surroundings to make sure that he is not going to trip on a ledge or step, fall in a hole, or run into a wall.  Use a towel tucked into the sides of the halter (don’t EVER tie anything over the horse’s eyes) and practice just walking him up and down the aisle and getting him to trust your leadership.  If he is smart, he’ll know where the wash stall is in relation to where you put on the blindfold, so take a little walk before heading straight in.  Take your time.  It is understandable that your horse may move a little slower than normal since you have suddenly taken away one of his senses.  Once you end your blind walk in the wash stall, reward him with a treat and a calm rub then take off the blindfold.  For one particularly stubborn horse I worked with who would not tolerate being in the wash stall for ANY reason, I actually left the blindfold on when I gave the bath.
  • Use a different water source.  Some barns have a hose outside that is not in a wash stall.  If it is nice outside, find a patch of grass to let your horse munch and just give him a bath out of doors to eliminate the wash stall altogether.
  • If you can have someone help you, you can actually annoy your horse into the wash stall.  One of you should stand in the wash stall, holding the lead rope.  You want to have mild pressure, but not be yanking on the rope.  The second person stands behind (and off to the side) of the horse and uses a longe whip behind the horse.  Some horses just need to see the whip to go forward.  If your horse is not one of those, then take the whip and gently tap the hind legs above the hocks.  The key to this is that the whip is meant to annoy, not harm the horse.  The whip is acting as a guide saying “MOVE.”
  • Some horses might walk into the wash stall, but don’t like turning around.  That’s fine! Give your horse his bath backwards.  At my barn we have a set of rings at the back of the wash stall in case people don’t want to turn their horse around.  Then they can just moved the quick-release cross-ties to the back rings and not have to fuss with trying to get their horse to turn around and face the big open space he could run out into very easily.

Use one or two of these methods and hopefully your horse will be squeaky-clean in no time!

Nothing seems to work?  Email me and I can help you form a specific plan for your horse to help get him in the wash stall:  kristen.wieland10@gmail.com

Confidence is Key

It is natural for every horse person to feel slight apprehension at doing something on or with their horse which has previously not had a pleasant outcome.  However, what many people don’t realize is how strongly our apprehension can affect our horse and the performance they give us after that point.  For example, say you are a trail that you have ridden on without incident more times than you can count, but one day something unforeseen scares your horse and he leaves you sitting in the dirt while he high-tails it home.  It is only normal that you would feel a little timid at that spot or throughout your ride the next time that you are out on the trail.  Unfortunately, if you get tense, so will your horse.  It is very important to look at each ride or time spent with your horse as a fresh start.

Your horse will react to your emotions and feelings.  That is because your body automatically (and sometimes involuntarily)  conveys your mood and emotions.  If you are nervous, your muscles tense and your body curls in on itself ever so slightly to create a barrier  against the thing causing the nerves and to give you a “safe” space.  Your horse will be able to feel that defensive position that you are in and become tense himself, since [clearly] there is something to be nervous about near him.  So if you are nervous when you go back out on that trail, fixing the problem from last time will be infinitely more difficult than it should be since your nervousness will likely cause an unwelcome reaction, which could in turn just make you more nervous.  Thankfully, the opposite is also true.  If you are relaxed and confident, your posture will straighten and your muscles will relax. A horse will be much more willing to cooperate when he senses this confidence.  If you go back onto that trail with the mindset that it is a new day and this is a new experience, your horse will be harder pressed to find a reason to balk.

One of you has to be confident in order to accomplish any task.

Most of the time, the confidence is left to you since you are the one capable of thinking through a situation all the way to the outcome(s) and acting on a continuing train of thought.  So how will you know if you are ready to go back to that scary trail? After a scary, unnerving or traumatic experience, go back a few steps in your training and skill set.  Either go back to the arena and work on something you can do well to build your confidence back up or handwalk your horse out to that scary spot and work through the issue from the ground where you may feel more comfortable and more at ease in handling him if he gets snorty or spooky. Don’t be ashamed or embarrassed to give yourself a pep talk before returning to the scary obstacle and focus on breathing deeply and steadily to keep your muscles relaxed.

Remember, each ride is entirely new, even if its a ride you’ve done a hundred times before.

Think about the times before that you’ve done that particular thing successfully.  If you’d never attempted it before, the give yourself a pat on the back for trying and take what your learned from the experience to make it better for the next time.  I guarantee that when you get past the nervous bump, the personal reward of accomplishing the task successfully will be the thing that sticks with you for the long haul!

Training isn’t that scary!

Many people think that training is something that they could never do themselves. What many horse owners don’t realize is that every single thing you do with your horse is teaching him something.  You are a trainer, whether you want to be or not! That is an intimidating idea for some people, so I am (hopefully) going to make it seem a little less scary with this little concept:

Effective training gives your horse two options.

Option A: Your horse does what you are asking him to do and is rewarded by not having to work too hard in getting that reward, which may be release of pressure, a treat, simply letting him stand still, etc.

Option B:  Your horse does not do what you want him to do immediately and therefore has to work much harder to come by the reward, until he figures out that Option A is SO much easier for him. For example, you want your horse to lead politely next to you instead of dragging you all over the barn, so you ask him to walk next to you, then stop, which he doesn’t think is something he needs to do immediately, and he yanks you several more feet before deciding to stop.  Your response should immediately be to turn around, become large and in charge and make him walk backwards briskly to the spot where you wanted him to stop, then release pressure and let yourself relax to let him know “this is good”.  Backing is hard work that requires a lot of muscle, so it is a good way to discipline your horse through hard work without being mean or overbearing.  He might pull one or even a few more times, but after this harder option occurring, each time will get better until he does what you want [Option A].

Horses are very smart and very reward driven, so when he figures out that Option A gets a quicker reward, it will become the standard instead of the exception.

  • Just remember that you have to respond to anything he does wrong (or right, for that matter!) immediately! Horses have a 3 second window during which they will connect your reaction to their action.  After that, anything you do serves no purpose.

“I’m not crossing that! It might eat me!”

The Scenario: You are out on a lovely trail ride or coming back to the barn after riding in the field and all of a sudden there is a (very scary) ditch/grate/crack that your horse thinks will come alive and eat him if he tries to cross it. This results in a dead stop or backing or something worse.  For my horse, GQ, this occurred when we tried to take a different route back to the barn from the field than we normally do.  While walking along the sidewalk, we came to a drainage grate that seemed like the scariest thing in the world and he stopped dead in his tracks, snorting, and wouldn’t budge an inch towards it.

The Fix: To fix this problem, you have two options. The first is to work through it from your horse’s back.  ONLY do this if you are a strong, confident rider.  The second is to get off, work with him from the ground and THEN get on and tackle it from the saddle.

The most important part of this fix is that you have to be confident, but also patient. Your horse is nervous, so if you are also nervous or timid, nothing will get accomplished.  You need to allow your horse to assess the situation for himself, so get him to a distance away from it where he can focus on it, but he will stand still. When he lowers his head and relaxes his muscles, ask him to take a step forward. As soon as he moves even a step towards the object, stop asking him to go forward and allow him to readjust to the new distance.  Take it slowly — one step at a time and then relax.  If he freaks out and tries to go backward while you are riding him for this, release pressure on the bridle and keep using leg pressure until he stops moving.  If he freaks out and tries to go backwards while you are on the ground, keep light pressure on his halter/bridle and move with him until he stops. (By letting him step back a little and not inhibitting his retreat completely, you reinforce that this is not a scary place.  Allow him to relax, get him perpendicular to the object again and start over. (This is why patience is so important.)

It may take more than day or session to fix a problem like this, or it could take mere minutes for your horse to realize that crossing that drain/grate/etc. is not as scary as they think. The key is to always keep it positive.  Never end on a poor action. For example, you are getting tired of trying, and you get frustrated at your horse which makes him step back and snort.  This would not be a good time to quit because you will just reinforce that this is a scary situation.  End on a note where your horse is relaxed and happy.

If you choose to try this from his back and it ends up being more difficult than anticipated, ONLY get off when he is relaxed and has just done something worth rewarding.  If he flips out and you immediately get off his back, he has won this little fight and now he knows that he can get you off if he gives a little attitude and you’ve just created extra work for yourself.  Instead, ride out the stupidity (as long as it is safe, meaning no bucking/rearing/generally dangerous behaviors) and wait for him to stand calmly, facing the scary obstruction and then get off and try from the ground.

If your horse won’t budge with you on his back, try doing it from the ground.  Many horses will be more willing to try something if they see someone else do it. (Thank God for the herd mentality, right?!)

“Don’t Beg!”

The Scenario: One of my biggest pet peeves with horses is when they are pushy for treats.  If you enjoy hand feeding your horse, like I do, you want them to be polite because it can be dangerous to have a horse who turns into a bully when the treats come out.  When my horse, GQ, (who is spoiled rotten with cookies[!]) began exhibiting signs of bullying for treats, I knew I had to kick that habit before it got bad.

The Fix: I taught GQ “Don’t Beg.” This was actually a very simple fix that didn’t take more than a few minutes each day for about a week until he caught on.  I would hold a treat in my hand.  When he started pushing my hand or shoving me for the treat I would say “don’t beg” and wait for him to turn his head to the side. As soon as GQ turned his head, I would offer the treat. The key to this is that you are teaching the horse to not bully you for treats, so you are rewarding the behavior that is safe for both of you.  When you offer the treat, offer it at arms length away from yourself, which will help enforce that your horse should not expect to get treats if he is too close to you.
GQ has gotten so good with this action that he will actually use it to ask me for treats now.  Occassionally when I am grooming him, he will turn his head away from me and hold it there until he gets a reward (which I usually grant readily since I am a huge sucker for a cute face like his!)

Tricky Trails: Bikes, Runners and Baby Strollers

The Scenario:  You are out on the trail for a nice, peaceful ride and a biker rounds a bend in the distance, heading in your direction.  Your horse spots the biker and his head pops up, he begins to get ansty and as the biker gets closer, he pivots and bolts for home.

The Fix: Regardless of the cause, it is never a feeling that we like to experience when our horse turns tail and heads for home. Thankfully, when this action is brought on by something man-made, it is generally easy enough to fix with a little training.

To deal with a horse who spins and/or bolts when presented with something scary, start in a controlled enviroment.  If you don’t have an arena available, a small paddock will do just fine.

The first step is to get the horse listening to you while you are riding.  Before introducing the scary object or individual, warm your horse up, asking him for leg-yields and haunches in.  If you don’t know how to do these elements, find someone who does and have them give you a short lesson because they will be incredibly useful.  These are good tools to get your horse in tune with and focused on you.

The second step is to introduce the scary thing in the controlled environment from the ground. Starting from the ground, have someone slowly ride a bike, push a buggy or jog towards you and your horse, leaving a wide gap.  If your horse gets too worked up  and makes you nervous from the ground, ask your helper to stop and allow your horse to observe and investigate the scary object.  Give him as much time as he needs to calm down and then ask your helper to continue on, slowly(<–this is the key, if you go flying past the horse, you will do nothing to help him see that the object will not hurt him.) It is important that you give your horse a long rope and that you, yourself, remain calm.  You horse will pick up on your emotions, so if you tense up because you think he is going to react poorly to a situation, it is far more likely that your horse will feel stressed and act out.  When you relax and act like the bike/jogger/buggy is nothing to worry about, your horse may be more inclined to have a calmer reaction. Remember though that you need to remain attentive.  ‘Relaxed’ does not mean ‘inattentive.’ Be ready to move with your horse as he reacts.  Pass the horse as many times as it takes until he has no negative reaction to the object or person passing him on either side.  Then repeat the whole process as you walk alongside your horse.
[Quick tip: If you are standing on the left side of your horse, have your helper also pass on that side.  If you are standing as a barrier between your horse and the scary thing, his reaction may not be as negative.]

Once your horse allows the scary object to pass him with no reaction while you’re on the ground, it’s time to get on him.  While you keep him halted, allow your helper to pass your horse. Hopefully the ground training has helped him realize that the object coming at him is not quite as scary as he thought. This doesn’t mean that he won’t react however, because now you are not there to act as a barrier.  From his back, you can act as a barrier in a different way. Remember the leg yields and haunches in from step one? Now those are coming into play.  As the scary object comes toward your horse, ask him to tilt his nose away from it. Don’t take his eye completely off of it, but don’t let it be the center of his vision. By giving your horse a job to do (turn his head), you are giving him something to think about other than how scary that thing coming at him seems.  When he will stand for your helper to pass with the scary thing on both sides, move him into a walk. With the movement, you can ask him for a haunches in (which, assuming the scary thing is the ‘inside’, will put the thing farther from his line of sight), turn his nose or leg yield away from the object. It is your choice if you want to practice this at a trot, but to make things easier and safer on the actual trail, you should always be walking to pass someone else during the ride.

Once your horse is comfortable in the arena, its time to take what you’ve been working on to the trail. To start, pick a quiet time of day and/or a more secluded path to practice on and have your helper come along again. Have your helper move up the trail a ways and then come back towards you.  Think about the relaxed movements that you used in the arena.  Going out on the trail may seem a little stressful at first, so remember to keep breathing and stay as relaxed, yet alert, as possible in the saddle.  When you and your horse are relaxed on the quiet path, you should be ready to try something a little more crowded.

Just remember:

  • Safety first! Your horse may learn to accept the ‘trail monster’ quickly or it may take a bit of time. Don’t take shortcuts in getting to the end result because it will never give you the results you hope to achieve and can get both you and your horse hurt.
  • Never be ashamed to admit you moved on too quickly.  No step is ever finished.  If you feel you rushed any part, go back a step or two until you and your horse are truly comfortable.
  • You may have setbacks. Things may be going well and then a biker may come flying around a turn and frighten your horse, causing his old behavior to surface to some degree.  Go back to the start and work through it again.
  • For horses, the faster something occurs, the scarier it is likely to seem to them. If your horse is getting worked up, ask him to slow down either within the gait or through a down transition.

Welcome to 15 Minute Horse Fix

My name is Kristen Wieland.  I have been an active Equestrian for almost 10 years.  In the last year and a half since I graduated from University, I have delved into the ‘how’ and ‘why’ of horse behavior.  It is something that has always fascinated me and this is a place where I hope to pass on tips and training methods that I know of and have used successfully. Enjoy!!