BY DEBORAH JANE NICHOLAS
I had a moment of confuzzlement recently. Reading equine body language does not come from watching several horse videos or from owning horses for many years. It comes from watching domestic and wild horses in person, online, studying images and experiencing a million moments on yards and observing how humans respond to horses, and vice versa. It takes all those things, and over a lifetime.
Watching show jumping is border-line ruined for me now. I see the slightest slip of a hand accidentally jab a horse in the mouth. Unbalanced crooked landings and unintentional leg aids in which horses are forced to learn between whether it means something or nothing…horses are clever like that. I see swishing tails, and not the sort you see that lazily batter a fly away on a July afternoon. But tails that have a left to right snapping motion, add that to the tightly pinned ears and I read pain. I see mouths that open, and heads held high. I see horses that are willing to jump but ask the rider to release the reign just a fraction more.
Riders post the videos on various social media platforms so that their friends can see how well they performed at the local show. Comments invariably pertain to whether they jumped clear, had a pole down or Ooh thought you were coming off there for a moment. Well, everyone had fun, and that’s fine and dandy.
In the higher level dressage and jumping competitions that I have watched, it has to be said I see less pain being endured by the horse. The rider obviously has become very good by this stage, the clumsy hands and misplaced leg aids have usually been eliminated. I only see less pain in these circumstances because I have yet to see a horse compete at this level without past, ongoing, or future damage caused to the tendons, muscles and bones. I see less discomfort in dressage, most of the time anyway.
There are another group of equestrians where I struggle to identify pain and discomfort very often, and that’s with children. That was the cause of my momentary confuzzlement. On one end of the scale you have brilliant riders that have spent years perfecting their craft, on the other are a group of people that, in a nutshell…have not!
So what is going on here?
Watch a child when they are around their pony. Even better look at how they are with a group of horse-mad 8 year olds when they have all day to play with their ponies. They groom, skip about, and share their sandwiches with Daisy the Shetland. They usually run off to the hay barn to mess about on the bales for an hour. They also intermittently leave their ponies to graze hay because there’s some sort of drama occurring in the outdoor school. Madeline has fallen off, and there might even be an ambulance coming! Someone else is crying because their favourite glittery crop that they got for Christmas is missing. Then they do that delightful thing where they all argue amongst each other until an adult walks by, then fall quiet and look shifty.
To an 8 year old, a day lasts forever.
Compare that to what adults do. We have a limited amount of time usually to sort the horse and stable out, especially if we plan to ride, as well. We groom the horse, move around the horse and tack up the horse. We continually ask something of that horse, we add pressure even when we are not aware we are doing so. We don’t take our horse over there because its sunny, we don’t sit beside our horse in the grass making daisy chains. We are unlikely to balance a pole on a bucket and try to see if our horse will in-hand jump it. We don’t then stand about laughing when the pony then just kicks over the bucket, and stumbles lazily over the pole.
I can read what those ponies are saying. Those ponies look bored, but accept all the nonsense that comes with 8 year old children because it’s at least comfortable for them. There is a certain amount of pressure at all times obviously, but it’s far less than it would be with an adult. The balance of pressure and comfort is not equal, it’s actually skewed in the animal’s favour, but that could work while the child is 8. Many, not all, but a lot of youngsters this age are not at a level where they start to really push the buttons of a horse. By the time children have got to a stage where they are asking more complicated questions of their equine, Daisy the Shetland has been outgrown, and is now looking after the next bunch of youngsters.
Adults could learn something from the 8 year old. I’m not suggesting you go and make daisy chains in the jumping field when it’s not in use, but hey, I don’t mind if you do!
But some balance could be accomplished by adding less pressure when doing something with your horse. Take the opportunity to take your horse in-hand hacking, let them stop and sniff a plastic bag caught in a bush. Stroll along and be visibly relaxed when a pheasant comes flapping out of the long grass. There’s actually a lot you can accomplish from the ground. Hide some carrots in the arena and lead your horse around while he tries to find them. Work but with less pressure as opposed to 100% pressure and always striving for your horse to get it right.
Sometimes, for the sake of balance, and your horse’s mental health…chill out and act 8.