The Art of Natural Dressage

How does your horse tell you what he wants you to do?
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Author:  Romy [ Fri Feb 22, 2013 9:46 am ]
Post subject:  How does your horse tell you what he wants you to do?

I often get asked how it is possible to do what my horses want - after all, horses don't speak, so how can I know what they want? On the other hand, in this forum you can read stories again and again about horses being very clear in showing their humans what they want them to do.

In the riding section we already have a similar thread: How does your horse ask you to get off?. This one is supposed to be a more general collection of the ways our horses use to intruct us. So please add your stories!

I will start by quoting two diary entries by Volker and Annette.

Houyhnhnm wrote:
Mucki is using his voice very little and only to other horses - never to me. But he can be very explicit in telling me things. Like last time when I came to his paddock in the evening. Our BO had not yet come to bring a new bale of hay and the old one was eaten down to some pitiful last remains... I could immediately feel that there was some unrest in the group of horses and just when I wanted to figure out what it was, Mucki stepped up to me, grabbed the end of my sleeve and shook it violently so that my hand was flapping up and down :ieks:. That is the equivalent of: "DO something with those magic hands of yours!" :funny:
Such expressions are so clear that it feels as if he has just spoken to me out loud...

Morgan wrote:
That's really funny Volker!!! I can actually see it :funny:
Morgans best talking was when he had a sore leg. I could see there was something wrong and was bent over prodding and pushing and feeling for heat around his thigh area. He had his head turned back to see what I was doing and after about 5 mins got so irritated that this stupid human was no where near where it hurt he picked it up and put the sore spot 3 inches from my nose. There I could immediately see where he had been kicked. If he could have spoken he would have said "here dummy, right here" lol
When he first started to vocalise I really thought I had imagined it. They were very tiny grunts at the back of his throat. The kind of sound a horse makes as he bites down on a post and then windsucks. When he had done it a few times and I was really sure it was coming from him I then panicked and wondered if he was windsucking when I wasn't there and this was a stress thing he was doing without the post. So the next time he did it, I immediately made a grunting sound back at him and asked him "are you grunting?". I did this a few times every time I heard him do it and before long the grunts were stronger and more audible. He uses this as an alternative to reacting with body language. So if we are walking with a halter and he stops because he thinks we should go a different way, I will nudge a little on the lead line and he will hold his ground. As I don't do esclating pressure on the halter and he is not budging I will move slightly back in order to air wave and drive him forward. At this point he will grunt loudly and move his head in the direction he wants to go. :funny:
He also does it under saddle when I am mounted and ask him to walk on. He will turn his head back to where my leg is, ignore the leg aid and grunt at me. These days I don't hear it often as we mainly work loose so he can leave and ignore me instead!!!
He nickers often, especially when he thinks I should stay and I am walking away back to my car. This one cuts me up as he doesn't want anything except for me not to go. I love it and hate it at the same time. He will also use a nicker to get my attention if I am doing jobs and he wants to be let out somewhere or more hay/ or to c/t. He will nicker and when I stop and look up he will look and face towards what he wants. If it's not obvious (there may be a fence line/the water bath is empty and I can't see etc) he will stare at me until I come and then he will walk to what he wants to show me. If it's an urgent need like water he will walk in front of me and circle me and not let me go anywhere until he gets my attention to show me what he wants. He did this when a horse was down and cast behind some bushes. He stood over him and refused to come and nickered occasionally until I came to him so I could discover the sick horse. When he is sick he will stand somewhere odd so that I notice something is wrong immediately. He will also stand over/next to a sick horse and refuse to leave it.
When I was at the trail place I used to hose the horses often and they learnt to love it and would line up and take turns. Quite a few figured out that by going to the hose and pawing, I would turn it on. Morgan of course loves to be hosed and will take the hose pipe out of my hand if he thinks it's shower time. :funny:
He has been known to run off with things out of my tool box to get my attention and will back up and stand on a bag so I can't pick poo and have to pay him attention. He can be like a demanding toddler at times. :ieks: :funny:
I do think it makes life so much easier though when you know what is normal for your horse. You knew immediately that something was out of the normal routine because of the way Mucki was behaving. It also makes it harder though when they behave oddly and you can't do anything to change or help the situation. People don't generally see the stress or change though as they don't allow the expresssions in the first place. How hard it must be to see what's going on in their horses minds?

Author:  Volker [ Fri Feb 22, 2013 10:55 am ]
Post subject:  Re: How does your horse tell you what he wants you to do?

I'd like to add just a short note about directional suggestions that horses do quite often and are often treated as misbehaviour. With Mucki it usually starts with him stopping in his tracks without looking in a specific direction though. He seems to be focused on me and my reaction, as opposed to stopping because some movement or sound caught his attention.
This often happens when he doesn't want to leave other horses for example.
When I wait then for his next move, he usually shows me his directional intention by walking a few steps. If he stops after a while with his head slightly turned sideways so I can just see his eye, then he wants me to follow. That's usually where the fun starts :). Mostly it's easy then to start a running chase if I tense up, arch my neck and take a few bouncing steps ;).

I have experienced some of my most memorable moments with Mucki after following his suggestion of going somewhere else than I had planned. For example one time he showed me a secret, hidden pear tree in the forest where he liked to go with his friends. It was nothing short of magical and such a privilege to have been invited there...

P.S. of course the same way of waiting for the other to follow can be used for telling the horse to follow yourself :yes:

Author:  Romy [ Fri Feb 22, 2013 1:19 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: How does your horse tell you what he wants you to do?

My horses have different ways of telling me what they want from me, and I will try to list them systematically.

Just doing things

This is the most common way in which they tell me what to do. For example, when we go for a walk in the forest and Titum prefers a certain direction, he simply goes there. Or not "simply" actually, because there is a variety of signals preceding that. For example, I can see where he will want to go several seconds before he does it, because he already starts looking in that direction and shifting his weight there and moving to that side of the path. While doing this, he is open for my signals, so in case I want something else, I can do it like him and start looking in the direction I prefer, or start moving there, and so on. So before the actual decision is set, there is a long preparation time in which both sides have the chance to intervene and then usually one of us decides to follow the other one. We rarely get into conflicts about direction, simply because we stay open enough for being influenced by each other's moves so that the coordination can emerge fluently. However, the more determined Titum (or either of us) is to go into his preferred direction, the less easily he lets himself get influenced by my signals, so I have a very clear marker that tells me how important it is for him to go there. The same is true for most of our decisions, with the horses just doing something and then seeing how I will react, depending on how much they want it. They also offer exercises in the same way or tell me whether they want to choose our path or just follow me.

Placing themselves

A slightly different way of telling me what to do is placing themselves at a certain location. This usually is for goals that they cannot reach reach by themselves, so just doing it is not an option. For example, Titum walks to the gate and then waits there for me to finally come and take him out for a walk, or he stands at the fence next to the place where we have our hay when he wants some more. This intentioanl placing is rather new for them and until now, only Titum does it.


That's for example when my horses have done something very well and I have not seen it or not realized that it was worth a treat. Then they (and again, Titum more than the others) just move their muzzle towards my body and stare at me as long as it takes until I realize that I must give a treat. Many people would say that this teaches them to mug me for treats, but I have done that for several years now and it does not at all. They know very well when they are right and it's only then that they do it. And it makes it so much easier for me, because for example when I am trimming hooves and need my attention for other things than deciding when to reward, I can simply leave that task to them, and they do it wonderfully.


Both Titum and Summy use this a lot now to call me when they want my attention or treats. At the moment they are nickering about every minute when we are training, but that changes with their motivation, the kind of training we do and even with the pasture we are in. Titum also uses nickering to tell me when he needs me to do something else (e.g. give him hay). Pia is only just beginning to understand that nickering can be used in an instructional way. She nickers and whinnies at us a lot, but most of the time that still is more like an emotional expression than a deliberate signal to us ("Oh great, you are here!" versus "Come over!").

Attention capturers

I am not sure about attention capturing gestures in my horses. They do push me with their noses or in Pia's case also with her front hoof (like pawing me) when they want something, but I don't know whether this is an instruction or just a behaviour that is arising from the feelings they have in a given situation (e.g. impatience). But I will try to find that out.

Emotional expressions

With that I mean behaviours such as looking at me with an angry face or nipping. Titum does the latter to signal that I am not paying enough attention to him. Pia does it to show you what she does NOT want, for example when the human is becoming too pushy. I would never want to train that away, because I think it is a fantastic way of educating me and the children (here is a video example with Azhar).

Author:  waycooljr. [ Sat Feb 23, 2013 8:06 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: How does your horse tell you what he wants you to do?

Curling his nostrils or nipping at me is also Funky's way to show me that he doesn't like what I'm doing right now, although the first is a bit tricky, since it resembles his playful face so much I can't really tell them apart. I'm working on it. And there are other things, like looking back at me when I'm grooming him, small signals that I can't interpret yet. It's all trial and error, or me reading stuff into his expressions and getting confused.

I'm rather better at reading my cats :funny: Both of them will come fetch me to open a door for them (two rooms away), and the female will fish for my hand if she wants scratches. But that's OT ;)

Author:  Volker [ Sun Feb 24, 2013 10:04 am ]
Post subject:  Re: How does your horse tell you what he wants you to do?

Romy, I have the same thoughts about those behaviours that are used to demand attention. Mucki does push with his nose, grab clothes/whips/halters and shake/hold/pull them, lick me, manipulate with his hooves or nose.

Some behaviours seem to be rather signs of frustration or impatience, like pawing or pushing me with his nose.
Others though have a much more goal oriented quality. Like when he grabs the corner of my coat (where the pocket is) and either shakes it violently or just holds it firmly and doesn't let go. He also does this with different types of zippers. Or grab the whip I'm holding, or the halter.
Of course most of that is directed at treats, so I guess it is just a form of begging. Sometimes though I'm inclined to say the Mucki uses such behaviour to say 'let's do something', which would mean that he understands the concept of abstraction. Probably it's more like 'let's do something, so I can get a treat'. Which is a more tool-like approach to abstraction - if you know what I mean...

Author:  Morgan [ Sun Feb 24, 2013 2:45 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: How does your horse tell you what he wants you to do?

He also does this with different types of zippers. Or grab the whip I'm holding, or the halter.

I don't know about Mucki or how often you use treats but Morgan did this long before I started with c/t. He seems to use it as an invitation to interact with him. Just like a child who can't talk will come and jump on you or take your hand or grab your clothing to get you to go somewhere. It confuses me sometimes too and seems to be more of a boredom thing that now I have arrived he can "interact" with me but I don't really know what he wants other than my attention?
This is what he does when he grabs my trouser leg or bites my boots. At one point I changed my boots to see if it made a difference and was a sensory thing (enjoying the way it felt in his teeth/mouth) but it made no difference. There is no time frame or consistantcy to this. He will go months without doing it but it seems more a boredom thing that appears when he is in a situation where he has been on his own and nothing else to really do (ie having eaten most of his hay and can't get access to anything interesting). I guess it's a "what can I do?" request if I had to label it.
Me or anything I have with me that doesn't live in his environment can get this behaviour. It's the same when he picks up and runs off with something I am busy with to force me to pay attention to him. It pretty much always gets an attention time from me and makes me either go and fetch something (hay, grooming kit, toys and c/t, or gate open to graze etc) so I guess it works for him to say "I'm bored, what can I do?" ?????

Author:  Romy [ Thu Oct 10, 2013 11:22 am ]
Post subject:  Re: How does your horse tell you what he wants you to do?

Today I observed how Pia uses three levels of telling me that she wants me to come and pay attention to her while I am busy recognize the thing itself as a pedestal, but her way of using it is ever so clear: First she paws it with something else. These levels depend on urgency, the distance between her and me and my ignorance. First, she places herself on a pedestal. Now unfortunately we do not have pedestals everywhere in the pasture, but creative as she is, she can turn any little chunk of earth and grass into a pedestal. Often I do not even until it has an even surface, then she climbs on it with her frontlegs, and then she remains standing there as if she was glued to it and could not possibly leave it. She makes some steps with her hindlegs or even turns her hindquarters around, but the frontlegs always stay in place.

The second level is sitting. Whenever I am too busy with another horse and he wants me to come to her instead, she just sits down and watches us. This always works while I am still around, but when I am actually intending to leave, this does not help her, or not reliably enough. In these situations she rather waits until I am very far away and then she whinnies, which always makes me turn around and come back to her.

It could be that I am interpreting too much into this, but I feel that she is very specific in choosing the signal that works best in a given situation. For example, she never whinnies when I am nearby but only when I am walking away and don’t see her, and she never sits down when I am far away. Also, she seems to know perfectly well when she is going to be successful. I do not remember ever having seen her do any of this when I really could not come to her. I think it's great, because in that way she can feel in control all the time, and situations where she has no control do not occur in the first place. :smile:

Author:  jaz [ Sat Oct 12, 2013 11:10 am ]
Post subject:  Re: How does your horse tell you what he wants you to do?

There are several ways how Panti tells me what he wants. Sometimes he just does it, he also has very clear facial and body expressions, and sometimes he tells me telepathically.

One example is stopping because he wants to rather eat gras, which will be followed by pawing and demonstrably looking at the gras with an expression of longing. When his concentration or mine are not great, he might also just stop and graze. The summer before, he would sometimes also stop right outside the pasture when I went for a walk with him, which meant he really did not want to go on a walk. When I asked him to come along then, he would offer me one step and then stop again. He was really insistent, and I would always turn him back into the pasture. When I did something he didn't like, like grooming him at the beginning (while he could be scratched for hours ;) ), and washing him and aerosol, he would sneak away from me step by step while looking at me with an expression of utter distate. Like "Jaz I really like you and want to be with you but not if you do that!". If that is not enough to stop me, he will also ask me telepathically with an agonized voice whether we really have to do this?

Now to the fun side. When he wants me to play or to concentrate more fully on him, he comes to me looking really expectant and arched nicely. He will grab everything I have in my hands, on my head or standing nearby and wave it, he will paw with his front legs, come real close to me, grab my sleeve (though never my arm!) and wave my hand, nuzzle me a lot, and put his head and body directly in front of my. When I am cleaning the paddock, he will also stand directly in the next horse droppings so I have no chance of cleaning them but instead have to concentrate on him. He will also offer every single trick he can do. He can be really insistent :funny: As I am of the opinion that 100% of the reason I am there is him, in my mind he has every right to do it :D

When he wants to be scratched, he will maneuver himself into the right position, which usually means shoving his back side at my body. When I do not find the right spot for today, he will wriggle around until I do. When I have the right spot, his facial expression becomes so funny with indulgence, and he will ghost-scratch the air. When I do not comply, he will also follow me around backwards until I relent ;)

While walking or riding, he knows he is allowed to offer / ask for a faster gait same as me, and we can also both veto it. Simply by doing it.

When I leave him before I have played enough with him in his oppinion, he will also nicker to tell me to come back :love:

One time as I was away for a weekend, a friend of mine looked after him. She also cleaned his paddock, and ignored Panti to see what he would do. He nuzzled her, but she kept on ignoring him. Then her hair fell into her face - Panti had managed to thieve her hair tie without hurting her, and now stood there very self-satisfied and with an expression of "And? What do you do now?" with the hair tie in his mouth. :funny: She payed the ransom for her hair tie and played with him.

One time as I was cleaning the shelter, in order to be able to do it fast without play interludes, I roped it off provisionally, though luckily not fixing the rope very hard, only with one knot which could give way. Panti was so offended at being shut out instead of being able to play with me, that he fixated the rope with a look of utter annoyance, fixated me with a look of ""You do not really mean that, do you?!!! You can not shut me out!!!", fixated the rope again, steeled himself - and went right through it... :ieks: With a look of utter satisfaction and very smug, he came to me and nuzzled me and stuck right to my side. Well, I threw away my time table and played around with him :)

Nearly every day, I hear this voice in my head: "Jaaaaz? When are you coming today? You are coming?!!! Please come!!! And don't forget the carrots!"

I include him in the decisions of what to play today, whether walking, playing, riding (or all of it ;) ). He tells me with telepathically what he likes today and what he doesn't, and so we decide together.

When riding him, I also ask him a lot whether he is fine or whether I should dismount, actually to the point where he is annoyed with me for asking so much ;)

When I think about it, I would say he uses face and body language when we are together and the concepts are not too complex, because body language is pure play and joy, self-expression at the most focused, most basic level. He nickers when he sees me but can not follow because there is a fence in the way. And we use telepathy for everything else, to convey complex thoughts, clarify things, and comment on everything around us.

Author:  Lisaten [ Sat Apr 28, 2018 12:09 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: How does your horse tell you what he wants you to do?

i have noticed over many years that my horses look in the direction they want me to look or draw my attention to. My mare at the moment is extremely vocal and expressive and calls out as soon as my car appears. everyone at the agistment place where she lives comment on how aware of me she is. I believe she is very intelligent and that the reason she is so expressive is because she knows I try to understand. I have witnessed some amazing things from her, one of which I will describe.

My mare Nelly was sharing with a pregnant mare and seemed to always be very aware of her wellbeing. On this occasion I arrived to take Nelly out for whatever activity we had planned and instead of just coming to me as normal she headed off toward the mare. Nelly then took a wide arc around her and came up to directly behind the mare with nose facing the mares tail about 3 feet back...I walked towards Nelly wondering what was happening and Nelly noticed I was coming toward them so she lifted her front leg and pointed it straight out in front toward the mare..she held it like that for at least a few seconds. I couldn't fathom what was actually going on until the pregnant mare went to move off and was lame in the hind leg (quite severely) and I realized Nelly was pointing it out to me.

That was only one of multiple incidents I have noticed where my horses have outrightly attempted communication and made it as obvious as needed to get my understanding. :bowdown:

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