By Margie Sugarman
Margie Sugarman is a leading board-certified psychotherapist and sports consultant based in New York. Margie’s desire is to enhance performance through the connection between the mind and body, and her current client list includes Olympic, professional and amateur athletes across the country. Her experience employing various therapeutic modalities has helped equestrians win classics, junior medals and grand prix. Do you have a question you want Margie to answer? Send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
I recently returned from a college semester abroad and my horse and I aren’t clicking the way we used to. I think he’s trying to tell me that he’s mad at me for being gone for such a long time. During a pleasure ride, he even tried to throw me, which is something he’s never done in the eight years I’ve had him. When he’s in his stall, he holds his head low with flaccid ears. He also stands in the corner with his back to the door. How can I mend our broken relationship, along with his feelings of hurt and abandonment?
Horses are highly social animals that require contact with humans or other horses for normal daily maintenance and well-being. The main goal in managing behavior problems in horses is to identify the deviation from normal equine behavior, and then correct it.
Unique to the equine species is their body language. Being social, horses communicate their intentions and emotions through both vocalization and body language. To effectively handle a horse, one needs to be able to read its body language.
Horses are easily dominated. Being a herd animal, dominance hierarchy is always established. Your horse has to respect you as the dominant one. Hopefully then, a bond forms between human and horse through shared experiences and time spent together.
Horses really are quite good at letting us know what they’re feeling. The only problem is most of us don’t speak “horse.” Consequently, we have to observe equine body language in order to translate their behaviors into human emotions.
Think about when you’re upset or depressed over something. When you’re sad, do you want to go out for a run with a friend? When you’re feeling ignored, do you sometimes hold a grudge? Horses often respond just as we do to situations.
Look at your horse’s tail.
High? The horse is alert and excited.
Low? The horse is exhausted, in pain, depressed or submissive.
Swishing? The horse is irritated.
Held high? The horse is alarmed or being playful.
Look at your horse’s ears.
Pricked? The horse is alert.
Airplane ears? The horse is tired or depressed.
Angled backward? The horse is attentive to the rider or listening to commands.
These are only a few examples of a horse’s body language. So let’s assume that because of your absence, your horse is depressed and a bit upset.
I’m sure you had, before your semester abroad, some rituals with your horse. Perhaps you liked to stand in his stall and rub his ears. Perhaps there was a place on his neck that you always scratched and he responded with a lowered head and eyes at half-mast. Perhaps the two of you enjoyed walking in the field together and your horse would stop to graze as you enjoyed sharing time.
These are all bonding behaviors and they become “rooted” in each of your personalities. Let’s again think of your relationships with people. Perhaps you and your best friend have some rituals to your friendship: texting everyday before school starts, watching certain shows together every week and going to get ice cream over the weekend.
If these expected behaviors suddenly were to stop, with no explanation – just stop, how would you feel? Moreover, if your friend just disappeared and didn’t return for months, how would you respond? Would you be upset and depressed? Very likely.
What would it take to reestablish the relationship? Time and energy, proof of caring and reinforcing the qualities that established the positive connection.
As long as your horse is physically healthy and nothing else is causing the change in his personality, you can find your “old” boy again.
Return to your old routine with him.
Spend a little more time on each special behavior the two of you shared.
Try to spend relaxed riding time with him and not ask for any advanced work until you start to see his personality returning. You have to regain his trust. He has to feel that you won’t disappear again.
Remember, a horse will forgive more quickly than he will forget.
With time and some extra effort on your part (and maybe a couple of big juicy carrots!), your boy will forgive you for leaving and your relationship will return to normal. In fact, it might even be stronger.