Updated: May 3, 2021
A young woman named Clare brought in a new young mare (Siisy) to our barn for boarding. The day was beautiful. Clare had asked me to assess her new gal and I was happy to watch them work in the round pen. Clare’s goal that moment was to get the horse to face up to show her respect.
When Siisy came towards Clare about 3 feet Clare would wiggle the rope for her to back off then wait while she kept her head facing hers. When I see someone working with a horse like this getting them to “face up” and show “Respect”. I asked Clare why she had done that and she said she was a little intimidated by Siisy, not knowing her very well yet. I asked Clare if she was curious what Siisy was thinking when she wiggled the rope. "Of course I am" was her response.
The real question is, “What do horses think- and why?”.
I asked Clare if she was getting the response she wanted with this “faceup and respect" technique. "Well, yeah, sometimes, not always, not so much" was her answer. I suggested that it might be better to ask Siisy to acknowledge her by using the “Go Away Face” button to keep her from running through the boundary Clare was trying to set.
Acknowledgement is a synonym for respect but does not demand that one holds the other to a higher standard like respect does. Horses have no use for the concept of “I’m higher ranking than you”. That would be a “story” and horses cannot create stories in their minds.
One of the most fascinating things about Horse Speak is that it can be done from a distance.
Horses talk to each other all the time. They talk from nearby and from across the pasture. From a young age they learn not to just slam through another horse’s boundary because they are likely to get bit or kicked if they do (operant conditioning). The young horse learns very quickly to acknowledge the boundaries of the other horses around them.
I asked Clare to come out and practice the “Go Away Face” from outside the round pen. By standing outside you give the horse the space needed to establish your boundaries. With Clare in the round pen, it had been difficult for Siisy to understand just where the boundary is on a person. It can be confusing for them because we look like skinny sticks to them. They are used to communicating with their herd mates using the buttons on their much larger bodies. On a horse, the buttons are more spaced out and distinct than on the smaller human body.
It’s Just Science
In recent years there have been some major breakthroughs in studying the brain, mostly with the help of the fMRI neuron imaging machine. This machine looks at the blood flow in different areas of the brain. Increased blood flow indicates increased activity. We can now see activity in specific areas of the brain- either at rest or when the person is doing some mental or physical task. Concert pianists have certain patterns of neuronal activity, while athletes and mathematicians have different patterns. It has given us insight to which neurons are firing in the brains of other mammals during various activities. We cannot put a horse in an fMRI- yet- but we can now better understand how the brains of all mammals work.
Humans and their brains have evolved over millions of years to use a certain part of the brain more than any other animal. Thus, our prefrontal cortex (front part of the brain) is bigger than other mammals and allows us to perform complex mental tasks like playing chess, writing, or composing music. These activities demand that our brain be able to remember and analyze the past, allowing it to strategize in the present and plan for the future.
Horses can’t do any of these things because they lack the basic hardware. Their prefrontal cortex is much smaller than humans which keeps them from forming stories in their minds. They do not have the mental capacity to “have a bad attitude” or to “disrespect” you. Understanding the concept of “respect” is beyond them.
A horse can, however, acknowledge you as they would another herd mate. They are more likely to do so if you are authentic, invested, have clarity of purpose- if you are “in the moment” with them. If they don't feel you “have their back” they become anxious, insecure and stressed and proceed to take matters into their own hooves. For a stoic horse this might not be as important but for a hesitant horse this will be of the utmost importance. Their autonomic nervous system will go sympathetic (stressed). They will have no reason to trust you and might very well be distracted, stop acknowledging you, and become uncooperative.
This is very different than a lack of respect- it is their very real instinct for self preservation kicking in. Fortunately, this situation is something we can fix.
A good way to see if your tools / techniques are working is to take your horse to another barn, trail ride or event and see if they are still "respectful”. I am convinced that you will get a better, more reliable result if you take time to learn their language and acknowledge their concerns to help keep them focused on you.
My class, called “Respect Me!” deals with the causes of, and cures for, insecure worried horses that seem disrespectful. There is no such thing as a spoiled or naughty horse those are human concepts that the horse knows nothing about.
In all classes we cover the whole Equine Mandala.
Their Central Nervous System and Brain
Their Language- Horse Speak
How horses learn Operant Conditioning, better known as pressure and release as used in Natural Horsemanship.