I strongly believe that building a relationship with your horse is the key to understanding horses.
Horses always look for leaders. Some horses are much more dominant towards people, but that is mostly because they find people to be incapable of taking care of them. A strong leader is what makes horses feel comfortable and safe. If you give any hint that you aren’t the leader, the horse will feel insecure.
I have already talked about leadership by lunging the horse, and looking for signs of a compliant horse – licking and chewing, ears on you, looking at you, and mowing the ground with his head.
Now you may be saying, “What next?” I have been learning some keys to a relaxed horse. When training, I find it’s really important to keep the horses calm. Whenever you put the horse in a situation that is scary to them, it is hard to maintain control. The horse feels that you are incapable of taking care of the scary objects, and will feel that it is necessary to run. A horse’s instinct is to run when it is frightened.
Learning to take control when the horse is scared is a great idea to practice on the ground. The best thing is to calm the horse down before there is an explosion.
A great thing to do if you think the horse is scared, or a little tense, is to stop what you are doing and stand by their head. Put your finger in the corner of their mouth (not a good idea for a horse that bites), reach in where the bit goes, and wiggle your finger on their tongue. It sounds funny, but it causes the horse to salivate a little, making them lick and chew. Horses always calm down when they lick and chew; it is something they do when they are sleepy or bored. Sometimes when they are really nervous, you may have to keep on wiggling for a minute or two, because there jaw will be locked.
Teaching the horse to drop his head lower is another thing that calms them down. A horse with a dropped head immediately becomes calm; a horse with their head held high is nervous. I like to have my horses drop their heads just far enough so I can hold my head higher; this tells them that I am in charge.
There are other signs that a horse is tense that are good to be able to recognize. One of my horses sometimes will not look tense or nervous at all, but she will hold her breath. When horses hold their breath, there is a little ridge on their stomach that shows up. So far, I have found that just calming the horse down is the best thing for this. Some horses will clamp their tail down when they are nervous; I haven’t noticed this in my horses much.
I really like knowing these things, because it makes me feel like I can tell the horse that I will take care of it, that I am in charge and he doesn’t have to worry.