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Change It Up - Body Language IS Communication!

Thought of the Day:

When working with our horses under saddle and on the ground we have different positions and cues to make it clear to the horse what we are asking them to do. While lunging we may be angled behind the shoulder and more towards the hindquarters to encourage a horse to move forward. We may step towards their front to ask for a halt on the lunge. While in hand, we may be in front of the horse walking backgrounds in front of their nose/face/the horse while doing a serpentine in hand. We may be walking briskly straight at the base of their neck/shoulders facing forward asking for them to walk big in step with our strides, perhaps with a cluck or a light tap on their hindquarters to engage more and move more freely forward. We may have to slow their pace and our pace to open our hand/arm and step closer to their head to make a smoother turn.

We may also work in a bridle, lunging cavesson, or halter - all of which have very different mechanics.

Even minute details may be slightly different from individual horse at the same farm under the same training program.


With each position and each way of communicating we have, I think clarity and consistency are so important. If a horse halts when you want them to move forward - what is the reasoning? Are they thinking you are asking for a halt? Where was the confusion? Are you too far ahead of the horse or too far behind? Were they following your pace and slowed when you slowed down? Were you hesitant so they hesitated? Did you look at the horse in the eye and when you usually do that do you ask for halt at the same time? Did the lighting or footing change and they wanted to adjust their eyes or get used to the new terrain? Is what we asked too difficult or maybe even not engaging enough to keep their interest and focus? Did they lose motivation OR are they tired or sore? Did a piece of tack/equipment shift the wrong way? Or did they loose balance and stop to catch themselves? Or are they “stuck” mentally or physically and need us to help them become more supple?

Just like with under saddle work, there are so many nuances between horse and rider that we have to be aware of. Sometimes I miss out on a signal from the horse and sometimes the horse may be confused by my cue. With a new relationship, the horse is getting to know you and you are getting to know them so it's a fantastic learning opportunity and a great time to train your body and eye to the little details.


I fully believe horses adjust to their handler/rider. They will also do what brings them to most comfort. The more clear and concise you are, the more responsive they will be. The more confident you are, the more confident they will be. The more relaxed you are, the more relaxed they will be. Your energy and intention will be reflected in the horse. If you are less confident or clear with your communiction, the horse will usually pick what they think is best in the scenario essentially guessing or picking their own way, usually with survival, comfort, or stability in mind. If you brace, the horse will brace to protect itself. If you create resistance, more resistance will be created. If you are supple, the horse can become supple.

Though I’ve known several horses that are so trusting of their humans that they have run into fences and walls because their humans didn’t give them direction when under their “control” - under saddle or being led. We don’t want machines, but sometimes horses have been conditioned to always listen to their “human” or to “just do their job” so it happens. I’ve put a crazy example of this in the comments.


Also, seriously consider the fact that you may have taught the horse that “whoa” actually doesn’t mean halt anymore. The signal/cue may have become muddled or worse, have a new meaning that you’ve taught the horse. Or even “extinguished” the aid or cue - for example the word “trot” or “cluck” no longer has a meaning to the horse. Clarity is your friend. A clear "aid/cue" and release and/or reinforcement is so important so that there is no confusion for the horse.

I personally see it happen mostly with “dead broke beginner” horses. A lot of people prefer this, but then get frustrated when the horse has no “survival” instinct or mode left. It may even happen when a horse jumps when it should have refused instead and as a result crashes or trips. They become almost “machine” like.

Just remember the horse’s “freedom” is in our hands and it’s a big responsibility. Do we want them to have freedom of expression or the ability to say “no” when something seems wrong or would we rather have them follow us blindly? What if their trust in us could prevent injury or help them or save their life? What if our trust in them could prevent injury or save our life? What if their trust in us could mean they become more relaxed or gradually become more balanced and more supple and stay sounder longer? What if our trust in them could allow us to be better communicators and have better timing, patience, compassion, etc.?

Some in hand philosophies that are the same in many ways, but also different:

In Hand Work for Better Dressage: Learn how developing a working relationship on the ground can progress to introducing lateral movements that will benefit under-saddle work. https://horsesport.com/magazine/training/in-hand-work-for-better-dressage/

In-Hand Work for Dressage Training Former chief rider at the Spanish Riding School of Vienna, Arthur Kottas-Heldenberg, explains unmounted dressage training. https://dressagetoday.com/instruction/in-hand-work-for-dressage-training-12542

The Ins and Out of Working In-Hand by Manolo Mendez https://www.manolomendezdressage.com/2014/02/06/the-ins-and-out-of-working-in-hand-by-manolo-mendez-with-caroline-larrouilh/

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