Communicating with horses

From Cathi

Hello Doc…

Just thought I would write to you about a little work I have been doing lately with my Welsh pony JayJay. I recently brought him home; he had been away for a few years, and as it turns out the last two he spent languishing in a pasture with his older equine companion and a goat. He is “Mr. Personality”, a beautiful dark bay, 13.2HH, driving pony. In harness and cart I’ve thought of him as my sports car; he is quick, agile and flashy. He had very little contact with people for the last two years, was down on his weight, had forgotten his ground manners, and was very much in need of some attention and ‘tune-up’ time.

I feed him grain and hay in a large feeder that is placed about 10 feet inside an open ended run-in shelter inside his paddock. He is very interested in that grain, and the good hay he is now getting. So interested that he charged in on me to get at the feed. He saw me as merely part of the food delivery system, showing no respect for me or my space; he just wanted his food. This sort of behavior was unnerving to me, and felt dangerous and unnecessary. I decided that it was important to start working on boundaries with him at feeding time.

On the first day of boundary training, I walked into the shelter, carrying the grain canister in one hand and my 4 foot long, 1 inch diameter stick in the other. JayJay rushed along behind me and crashed ahead of me to the feeder. I set the feed canister on a high shelf and turned, facing the pony directly. Coincidentally, there is a railroad tie on the ground across the opening of the run-in shelter. I decided that rail road tie was the ‘boundary’; It helped me as much as it did him to have a very real physical boundary to work with. My intention that morning was to drive him back behind the boundary and wait until I gave him a signal to come in and eat.

This took some doing, as he was used to getting the food right away; not getting it made him even more focused and somewhat anxious about getting to that food. I got his attention with my voice and used body language to drive him off. Not being completely successful with the body language, I also used ‘eyes on eyes’ to reinforce that I wanted him to go away from the feeder. Once he was on the other side of the boundary, I used the stick as an extension of my hand and arm (not touching him with it) to keep him back.

This exercise was awkward and probably confusing to him, still, I persevered in holding him back. He was so persistent to get to that feeder, me just as persistent to keep him behind that boundary, using all the body language, eyes on eyes, and arm and stick waving and loud a voice as I could muster at that early hour of the morning. Finally, I saw my opportunity to reward a behavior; his feet stopped, his head went down, he licked and chewed-showing me his submission. Whew! I said, “O K”, to him, grabbed the canister, dumped the grain into the feeder, and let him walk in quietly to eat. I scratched him on his rump and left him with a verbal “Good Boy!”

Each feeding since, I’ve asked for quiet feet and quiet signs of submission from him, before dumping the food and giving him permission to enter the area and eat. One day I was on the phone to you, Doc, while going through this procedure, giving the “O. K.” after JayJay lowered his head, licking and chewing. I said to you then, Doc, “I feel like he isn’t telling the truth, that he is going through the motions, but only to get that grain, not truly giving in.”

You suggested that it was time to bump up my request from him. At his next feeding time, I waited until his feet were quiet. He put his head down, licked and chewed, but I didn’t give him the verbal approval he expected, he tried to move over the boundary. I had to use body language again to keep him behind the boundary. He again quieted his feet, look at me, and then put his head down licking and chewing. I knew that he was getting frustrated; this exact behavior had been rewarded before. I thought to myself, “What am I looking for, and how am I going to let him know what it is? And there it was, the behavior I was looking for! His feet and body had become quiet; he looked at me, and randomly and quietly turned his head away and he looked over at the neighbors’ horses. I gave him the verbal cue, “O K” and dumped the feed into the feeder. He quietly walked in to the feed area and began eating. I’m thinking, “Hmmmm, this is working, we are shaping this pony’s behavior.”

He and I have worked this way now for about a month. Some days, he walks with me to the barrier, stands and waits, looks at me, looks away (as if casually looking over the landscape). I say “O.K.” and he gets his food. Other days he doesn’t show up right away. I now wait t see him, dump his feed and wait for him to come to the barrier and stop. I now say, “Woah!” as he gets to the barrier. He stops, looks at me, calmly looks away, and I give him the “O.K.” signal. JayJay is such a good student. This training is fun and thrilling for me.

Doc, I am so delighted with how this has worked. It feels good! It feels good because this relationship is based on clear communication, trust, and respect; it also feels good because I have a gentle and kind working relationship with this pony. There is a deeper reason for this to feel good.

Have I ever told you about my communication resolution? Several years ago, on New Year’s Eve, I was in my barn feeding the Fjords their Holiday evening meal. I was touched and moved by their gentle spirits and felt fortunate to be in their presence and spent quite a bit of time that evening observing them eating and enjoying the sound of their munching.

I could see that they communicated information to each other, moving one another over, away from the food, inviting one to come in closer. Was it a look, a tail swish, what? The communication was so subtle, I saw it all, but I didn’t know what each movement meant. Another big question for me was what was I missing that these equine were communicating to me? The understanding was not intuitive for me and seemed both mysterious and sophisticated at the same time. How did they share information with each other without speaking! I realized how fascinating this was to me, and I made a New Year’s resolution to seek understanding of equine communication. I have since followed a path that has given me wonderful communication opportunities for a higher connection with these equine I am privileged enough to spend time with daily. This is just the beginning! I am excited and imagining the opportunities, they are the previews to coming attractions. Thank you for your help and guidance. This has such meaning for me.

JayJay and I are interacting gently and quietly, and we are both getting what we need. Doc, You tell me that this ground work all transfers to working with horses in harness and under saddle, wow…I get energized at the possibilities! Do you know I think this sort of communication transfers to human relationships too?