How many times have you wished that you could read your horse’s mind or longed for a magic spell to make your horse talk, even for just a minute? I don’t know about you, but if I had a penny for every time I’ve made that wish, I’d be a millionaire. Being able to know what a horse is thinking or feeling at a given time would be like the magic key to the equestrian universe, but sadly, no such spell exists. There is something that’s close, however: tiny changes in your horse’s behavior, tiny signals that, when you listen, can be the magic key we all wish for.
Horses communicate with their entire bodies all the time. They use posture, facial expressions, and breathing rate as well as vocalization to communicate with each other, and they use the same system to communicate with us. Sometimes, it’s easy to decipher: a nicker in greeting, ears pinned in annoyance, a flying hind leg as a warning, the fear response of a spook, impatient pawing…. You don’t have to be around horses long to pick up on the basics; my students start to learn to read horse behavior from day one. But sometimes, there’s more to it -- far more than seems possible, in fact -- and if we aren’t paying attention, it’s all too easy to miss the tiny signal that tells us what we need to know.
It was subtle changes in Grimm’s behavior last year that told me he was injured -- even when he was showing as sound on the longe line. A couple weeks ago, it was his uncharacteristic resistance to bending that told me his SI and right hock needed more support for this next stage of his rehabilitation. However, just after that, just after he went back into work with an exuberance that told me in no uncertain terms that his back and hock felt SO much better, Grimm started acting … off.
And it hasn’t been subtle.
In the last couple weeks, his temper tantrums have escalated to monumental levels, hearkening back to the early days of his training. Between tantrums, he’s alternated -- sometimes within the same lap around the arena -- through some of the best work he’s ever offered and some of the worst. Earlier this week, it got to the point that I called the vet in despair. Maybe he was telling me that he just isn’t able to do it. Maybe it just hurts too much to trot at all. Maybe it's time to call it quits.
The vet wasn’t ready to give up. And so, armed with a new regimen of large circles and perhaps some cantering to help him loosen and strengthen his back, with a hefty dose of doubt, I had another ride on Wednesday.
He was … okay. He definitely enjoyed the new plan; it felt like old times, and he tried. He really did. But something was still wrong. He was still had bouts of sulky, angry, and unwilling. And his stride was just as uneven as before. I went home in tears but vowed to give it another day before calling the vet for what I figured was going to be the last consultation. The day after that, Grimm handed me the magic key, and once I figured out what he was saying, I wanted to kick myself seven ways to Sunday.
Even through all of our rough times, Grimm has always been a horse that wants to work. He meets me at the stall door, puts his head in the halter, takes the bridle himself, and stands at the mounting block like a saint. At the beginning though, before I got his back issues under control, he was awful to groom and saddle. He’d fidget, flinch, and kick out when I’d brush with anything harder than a mitt and soft, natural brush. I thought he was just ‘thin-skinned’. When it came time to put the saddle on, it was always complicated by a game of ‘evade the tack’. I figured he was just antsy. Once the saddle was up, he’d almost always do a downward-dog type stretch just before I tightened the girth. I chalked it up to how clever he was, stretching out his back before we went to work. And then he’d toss his head, pin his ears, and gnash his teeth when I girthed him up … but aren’t all racehorses ‘girthy’? I dismissed all of it.
Then, one day, well into his training and after his back issues were under control, I realized he wasn’t doing ANY of that anymore. I could groom him with a curry and brush with all the elbow grease I cared to exert, and he loved it. He stood like a rock so nicely that my ten-year-old students could tack him up for me without a single issue. No stretching, no aggression -- just a quiet, happy horse, ready to go to work. Whenever something starts to bother him, though, those signals come back. Downward dog is his usual; it means he worked too hard yesterday and needs his shoulders stretched. He’s even gotten to the point where he hands me his front feet to do the stretch. Twitching under the brush means he’ll need a longer warm up and maybe some liniment afterward. Big fidgeting is how I know it’s time to consider bute or a dose of muscle relaxers, or maybe it’s time for another back injection. But even when these signals show up, his girthiness is gone. He never pins his ears or gnashes his teeth at the girth.
At least until yesterday.
Yesterday was the day of that moment-of-truth ride I was dreading. I approached it with grim determination (no pun intended) but had braced myself for the final heartbreak that was to come. I’d know after that ride if it was time to pull the plug.
He stood like a rock as I groomed him, as he has done for the last few weeks, even when I brushed him more thoroughly than necessary because I was putting off the inevitable. We had snuggle time, then I put up the saddle. Still he stood like a statue, a perfect gentleman, as usual. Then I attached the girth and pulled up the slack, just as I always do … and he pinned his ears and tossed his head.
I checked over the blanket and girth, stretched his front legs (which he really didn’t seem to care about), bridled him (he reached for the bridle and put it on himself), and led him out, with that tiny signal writhing around in my head. Girthiness. Odd. And I'd missed the obvious.
He warmed up at the walk really, really well. In fact, he was offering his back better and faster than usual, and he felt truly fantastic. My hope rekindled. Then I asked him to trot.
Half of my brain went for the worst: the work yesterday was too much and that proves it’s over. But the other half refused to go down that road, and on a whim, I stuck my finger into the gullet of the saddle.
It barely fit.
Somehow, the perfect storm of his changing topline, the regular use of the saddle, my weight, and perhaps the change in the weather has changed the way his saddle fits. The flocking that was adjusted just for him, on his saddle that I had carefully checked just a few weeks ago to be sure it still fit … didn’t. It was too wide and squeezed my finger uncomfortably every step. I nearly cried.
Kicking myself for not having checked it earlier, I got off and took him back to the cross ties. Fortunately, I still have the pad we used to use back at the beginning, when the saddle was too wide for him before. I put it on, checked the fit again, and went back out.
He was reticent at first. Every time I asked for trot, he’d start off reluctant, but then he’d slowly relax and build to a lovely floating trot. After a bit, most of the unevenness in his stride was gone for the first time in weeks. He didn’t throw a single tantrum. We even did a little very, very careful canter. He blew his nose every stride.
So, yesterday was NOT our last ride. But that tiny signal -- that little toss of the head -- could have been so easily overlooked. I could have ignored it, assuming he was just grouchy, and then where would we be? Thank goodness I didn’t.
Too often, we attribute certain behaviors to ‘just the way they are’. But the truth of the matter is that sensitive skin and girthiness are signals, not personality descriptions, and they should not be ignored. Like Grimm, horses who hurt somewhere will often behave poorly when tacking up. It’s usually a saddle fitting issue, but it can also be an indicator of back pain, and when we ignore what they are telling us, we continue to make the problem worse, ride after ride. A saddle fitter and a vet can work wonders, and when we pay attention, it’s as good as knowing what your horse is thinking. Pay attention. Listen. Tiny signals, those little changes in your horse’s behavior, are gold. They’re the closest we’ll ever get to a magic key that lets you understand your horse’s thoughts. Don’t let them slip by unnoticed; your horse is talking to you the only way he knows how.
As I'm carefully bringing Grimm back into full work, one important factor keeps coming to the fore: relaxation. And boy, sometimes that's a hard one!
The tension in his back is ever-present at this point because he doesn't have the stamina yet to trot for very long. Without lateral work and the muscles he'd develop and maintain from full and correct work, he starts every ride stiff ... which, understandably, makes him rather irritable, especially at the beginning of our ride. If anything else contributes to his discomfort -- like distractions around the facility, changes in the weather, or any number of things that might put him on the alert and cause tension -- relaxation goes right out the window, and it's my job to put it back. Quick.
My secret weapon is unbelievably simple: I praise him for breathing.
At first, the idea sounds ridiculous. I know. I didn't believe it the first time I was told to do it, either. It was early in our partnership, at my first clinic with Pierre Cousyn, and Grimm was behaving like an absolute monster. His explosive response to everything I asked of him had garnered a full and avid audience of blood-thirsty spectators, and the extent of Pierre's instruction had been "haunches out" and "forward" ... then silence while I worked to keep Grimm in the arena and me still in the saddle. I was about ready to die of embarrassment.
When Grimm finally dropped to a tense and ugly jig-trot for a moment between rounds of Grimm-nastics, and then gave a quick, sharp snort, Pierre shouted at me to "Praise him!" I was pretty sure Pierre had lost his mind. Why would I praise my horse for that?
There are so many reasons.
Tension in horses -- and in riders -- is caused by stress, the automatic activation of the fight-or-flight reaction in response to a perceived threat. It floods the body with adrenaline and causes muscles to tense up, the heart to beat faster, and breathing to become quick and shallow. In this state, the horse and rider are hair-triggered, ready to leap into action to avoid the coming danger, be it real or imagined. Communication takes a back seat to self-preservation, and the longer it goes on, the more tension mounts, and the more dangerous the situation becomes.
Praising the horse for breathing helps to break the cycle.
First, let's look at the physiology behind it. In order to 'blow his nose' as Pierre called it, the horse must take a deep breath and expel it. This will cause the need for another breath. Snorting causes a break in the tense, short fight-or-flight breathing rhythm and increases the oxygen supply, which in turn promotes relaxation. Additionally, the snort is a natural part of equine behavior that includes stretching the neck lower, expanding the rib cage, and releasing tension, which can manifest as a momentary softening of the eye, improvement in the gait, or a new swing in the back. Even an incremental change in a positive direction is an improvement, and this is a behavior we want to encourage. Praising the snort increases the chances of it happening again and reverses the cycle from building tension to reinforcing relaxation.
The rider must remember to breath, just as the horse does. Often, if the horse is tense, it's a natural response for the rider to become tense, and it works the other way as well. If the rider is tense, it could be why the horse can't relax. Speaking the words of praise out loud requires breathing. Doing it loudly enough that your instructor can hear it requires even more air, and thus, praising the snort physically requires the rider to breath, even if only momentarily. But it doesn't end there. Praising the snort causes it to happen more , and the more the horse snorts, the more the rider must praise and thus breath, and thus relax. Both rider and horse benefit when the rider is breathing, too.
Praising the snort has psychological benefits, as well. Tension can be caused by a lack of confidence or understanding. The more tense the horse becomes, the less likely it is that he will feel 'good' to the rider. As a result, it's harder to find anything to reward, especially for riders who are new to feeling and understanding what is happening in response to their aids. The snort is a black and white, easy-to-mark behavior that any rider can identify. And it's NEVER the wrong answer! Praising the snort gives the horse a needed reward, and it tells both horse and rider that something went right. The more success the horse and rider perceive, the better the ride will be. Communication will improve, the gait will get better, both horse and rider will be less hair-triggered and less likely to over-react or to react aggressively to mistakes ... praising the snort is a win, no matter how you look at it.
The final benefit of praising the snort is that horses learn to use it voluntarily. It begins as a praise-seeking behavior, but soon, the horse realizes he feels better when he snorts. I have a video of Grimm from a few weeks ago, before we'd finished treating his back. He stumbled behind, and I know it hurt. However, instead of throwing a fit, he started snorting. He snorted for several strides with his neck stretched down, his ears pinned -- but his eye was soft. Then his ears came up, the swing came into his back, and he trotted out. A few years ago, that stumble would have set the tone for the whole disastrous ride to follow. Here, he took care of it himself. Another example happened yesterday, when our facility became an unbelievable morass of distractions just after I got on. By all rights, it should have been the ride from You-Know-Where. I used praising the snort to keep myself from unraveling in the midst of it all, but Grimm used it too. Each time I praised, I was able to help him center and focus his attention on relaxing instead of becoming increasingly tense and anxious, and by the end of the ride, he was doing it intentionally. He'd tense up, then immediately diffuse his aggression with a snort; I'd praise, and he'd expand his back and offer an extremely expressive -- but beautifully relaxed -- medium trot instead of blowing his stack. Praising the snort was the key to keeping that particular ride successful!
It's like magic. I kid you not.
The snort is a great signal from your horse that tells you when to take note of good things happening, and it's a great way for you to tell your horse how to give you something you want that's EASY. Next time you ride, try it yourself. Pay attention to when -- or if -- your horse snorts. Praise him when he blows his nose, and notice how his performance changes in that instant after he takes that deep breath. Notice how your attitude changes the more you employ praise, and see if you can feel your riding changing too.
Praising the snort is a tool that every equestrian should have in his or her toolbox. Add it to yours; you'll LOVE the results.