Saturday, 9 January 2010

Horses and Body Language

I have been asked - what do you mean when you say that horses move each other around the field? This brings me on to the topic of body language. How much do we as humans give away just from the way we walk, stand, or sit? Can we manipulate other people’s behaviour just through the movement of our bodies? Horses are very sensitive to body language and certainly they are particularly sensitive to the silent messages they get from their fellow horses in a field. A dominant horse only needs to move near another horse, who is lower in the pecking order, and that horse will quickly move out of the way. This, essentially, is what I mean by horses moving each other around the field. Of course, as soon as you know this you can cash in on this sort of behaviour by moving your horse around i.e. you become the dominant horse. There is no bullying or cruelty involved in this as we are just capitalising on the horse’s natural behaviour. Surprisingly, what you will find is that rather than the horse getting irritated with you (wouldn’t you get irritated if someone kept moving you around?) they become more and more submissive, making licking gestures and keeping their heads down. Even Tally, who is never one of the most submissive horses, will stand perfectly still for long periods of time, move backwards, swing his hindquarters around on command, and allow a rope to be curled around both his fore and hind legs without moving an inch.

There is one area where a horse’s extreme sensitivity to body language can sometimes work against us. That is when we are riding them! How does your horse know that this is where you are going to speed up? - especially, if you are crossing an unfamiliar field. I tend to try to keep the idea of galloping or cantering out of my mind unless that is actually what I want to do. A couple of years ago Tally managed to deposit me in a clump of long grass and nettles. I really hadn’t had the intention of moving any faster across that particular field. But Tally picked up on some message/body language, became extremely excited, leapt in the air 3 times and then at the 4th flybuck I became unstuck. Of course, then Tally’s plans changed – he no longer wanted to gallop off but rather moved around me in an embarrassed circle. ‘Oops seemed to have lost my rider!’ I am not sure whether he understood my body language/expletives but he certainly behaved a little better on the homeward journey.

28 comments:

Anonymous said...

Hi there - I randomly stumbled on your blog while searching for photos of the Glynde charity ride from last year. Had a little read - very interesting! Then got even more nosy (sorry) and realised we work in the same building at Sussex. I am in the animal vocal communication and cognition group with Karen and David. Just in case you didn't know, the group is doing some really fun research on horse cognition. Leanne, who is doing her Dphil at the moment, is focussing on individual recognition and other socio-cognitive abilities. I'm not doing much at the moment, just waiting for a grant to come along while doing way too much teaching. Anyway, thought you might be interested in our work if you're not already familiar with it. Feel free to drop me a line any time.
Kind regards,
Anna
a.m.taylor@sussex.ac.uk/anna.magdalena.taylor@gmail.com

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