Saturday, March 6, 2021

Observe, Observe, Observe!

by Mary Gallagher

Pecan responds to Mary while keeping an eye out

Imagine standing on the ground, watching a horse in the process of spooking. What can we observe?

  1. Thought exits: “Yikes! What is that spooky thing?!” Their mind goes blank—run! They turn around, get ready to run again—head up, lots of blowing.
  2. Thought returns: They turn around, freeze—stand still (testing the stop) run again, stop without freezing, take a few steps. Then—
  3. Extend nose, while blowing and smelling.
  4. Stretch and reach with nose and neck.
  5. Cautiously move in the direction of the nose, engaging the feet.

Spooking is something all horse people have witnessed, but I’ve made a point here to break it down to predictable components—sort of a slow motion camera to show the process. We can expect this pattern in a spooking situation, and that kind of predictability gives us options, if we can train ourselves to 'observe, observe, observe'. Now extend that expectation to all horse behavior. What if every movement is the horse testing to see if it is safe to linger or better to leave...?

An expression of body language. An especially clear example of communication through body language, spooking is helpful here in its exaggeration of the horse's thought process. Horses and humans both have body language, except that unlike the horse, the human has lost the habit of observing body language as a survival tool, and isn’t aware that it is going on 24/7.

I call the horse’s process described above testing: I have found through long observation that they are always testing outcomes before they commit. Always. I believe this is a survival instinct, written in their genes, deep in their most primal DNA. Being observant of the changes horses make in their bodies can give us insight to what they are thinking and setting up to try. Likewise, horses are great anticipators and keen observers, themselves. Even domesticated horses are constantly observing the environment, reading and anticipating movement in their perimeter in a way once crucial to their survival. 

Testing through movement is how the horse learns. What is he testing for? Safety and comfort, all the time.  How does he determine all is well? By testing what he knows—is it still safe? Have you ever had a horse do exactly what you wanted, three times in a row, and then the fourth time he changed his response? In my observation, the repetition caused his instincts to kick in, triggering some survival concern, and the horse chose to test the outcome to make sure all was still safe. In a natural setting, horses test everything, all day long with their herd mates, such as, who’s on top today?

Direction and response. As the leader in most horsemanship scenarios, the human directs the horse, and the horse responds to the best of his knowledge. But it’s an exchange: around and around the arena we go, and if there are no changes, the horse will create change, just because he is a horse. We can anticipate that natural response to improve our leadership and introduce changes that make sense for what we are doing, and help our horse move forward with confidence that all is well.

Becoming better observers of our horses is key to deepening our leadership abilities. This is why I challenge you to be an observer before the horse acts on something in an unanticipated and undesirable way. Of course, that’s the ideal, but the point is to keep our skills alive and in tune with our horse’s reality. Observation is the first step toward synchronization, which is the next step in operationalizing body language in horsemanship, and the topic I’ll discuss in next month’s blog post!

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