Again and again when I hear people talking about dealing with pushy or impolite behavior from horses, their preferred solution for this often seems to be showing the horse that he can't do that. There are several not so nice ways to do it (e.g. hitting the horse), ways that carry no emotional value per se (e.g. waving your arms or rope around you without directing this at the horse, so that he "hits himself" when he comes too close), but also very well-planned and friendly ways (e.g. the slow windmilling that Miriam described so nicely in the Dealing with a pushy horse
For the last few months or year I have been wondering though if showing the horse that a certain behavior won't work really is the preferred option for me. What do I do in interpersonal relationships with humans? Of course I would set boundaries if my friends treated me rudely, but what seems much more relevant in developing our way of interacting seems to be that I try to treat them like I want to be treated and in that way shape our interaction by giving an example (for related thoughts see Josepha's Human Manners article
, scroll down to 'Articles' and then select 'Human manners'). Every social species tends to align their behavior with that of their partners, so it's just very hard to not go along with the other one's ways and you can use that in shaping your interaction with other people. But how to do that when interacting with horses?
One way is by keeping your contact really soft and careful. In Summy's diary I recently described a way to do that by using your fingertips
(see 4th and 8th post on that page), but of course the same thing works with body language, too. What I will describe in the following part is my approach to working on mutual awareness. In other activities, like just fooling around and doing funny tricks, I do use some of this, but not all, so this is not exactly meant to be an instruction for walking on tiptoes in whatever you do together with your horse.
When interacting with a pushy horse, I become very soft and careful in my movements, while maintaining a rather high level of body tension. If I approach the horse at all (which usually I don't do but wait for him to come to me and come with me, both on the macro level of crossing the pasture and on the micro level of single steps), I move very slowly.
I try to reply to each movement of the horse, each step, each turn and other movements, by responding in some way. This does not mean that I am always mimicking him. Neither do I reward every single step. But I acknowledge whatever he does by giving some sort of response, even if this is just a tiny change in my own body posture or tension. It's like in a conversation with someone you are really listening to: most likely you will look at him and nod, smile or change your expression either in synchrony with him or complementary. But whereas many humans are good at doing this in conversations which each other, they often forget it when they are interacting with their horses.
Horses usually become very curious when they notice that someone is really paying attention to the micro changes in their behavior, and in turn they will start reacting to your behavior, too. You can encourage this by setting up situations where this is easy for the horse, like when you are standing in front of him (facing him) and move to one side. If the horse is already paying attention, he will most likely make a step in the same direction. If you reward at just that moment, he will see that reacting to you is a good thing for him and he will try to do it more often. When I do this, I always move very, very slowly so that I can clearly see at what point of my movement the horse starts to react. It also gives the horse time and does not break the connection, like for example stepping away quickly would do.
When in that way the horse has learned that it is a good idea to react to your movements, things like asking him to back up by simply moving your hips towards him become very easy. The principle is the same there: first build up your body tension. A good way to do this is by breathing in slowly. There are horses who already back up at this stage, but that is rare. In the next step you can focus on your hips (not look at them though but keep your eyes on the horse) and slowly move them towards the body part that you want your horse to move away. In my experience it's easiest to do it with backing up while facing the horse, but it also works for asking to move the frontquarters over in a pirouette-like way or move the ribcage out. Moving the hindquarters like that seems harder, but also works with some practice. If the horse does not react, you can make a (slow!) step towards him, but usually that is not necessary when you have followed all the preceding steps to build up awareness for each other's movements. Oh, and of course drop all your tension and reward big time as soon as the horse moves.
With time you can refine that mutual awareness by making your body signals smaller and smaller and specifically rewarding for reacting to the smallest. Not only do you get a lot of focus and very close attention from the horse in that way (because seeing the almost invisible pays off for him), it also makes it much easier to later ask him to move his body or certain body parts away from you or towards you during your regular work, so that you won't need specific cues for that but can simply include that into your movement.
Here is a video of working on mutual awareness with Summy
, and this is a video of doing this for the first time with Lotte
, who is used to groundwork and playing with humans in general but has not done this type of body language communication before.