First things first, let's talk about the reasons horses pin their ears. Contrary to what people think, it's not just about anger or resentment. Sometimes ear pinning is about inherent playfulness, or dominance over another being. Such as when a horse drives a cow or dog. Sometimes, ear pinning is defensive in nature. Such as when a horse feels threatened. When it's not about anger, resentment, playfulness, or defensiveness, ear pinning is usually related to concentration or physical pain.
When you're riding, (or on the ground, for that matter) you have to look beyond the expression of the ears to find out whether he's angry, playful, resentful or in pain.
If a horse won't go forward when you ask for instance, and you notice his ears are also pinned back, there is a good chance he's feeling resentful of your suggestion. But if you look around, you might also notice the other horse your riding with is too close to you and he's actually feeling defensive about it. Each situation is different and equally important to learn about.
I'm going to outline four situations. There are hundreds of variations to be sure, but these four will illustrate the most common and correctable situations with your horse while riding. (ground work, is a conversation for another day)
Riding situation number 1 of 4: You are alone in the arena, asking for a transition into forward movement. It doesn't matter what speed. What matters is, in this situation, your horse doesn't want to go forward, and you begin to notice his ears are pinned back. You've seen it before. In fact, he does this all the time. Every time you ask him, he hesitates, pins his ears and throws his head. Sometimes he even kicks or rears to avoid doing what you want. Then after a little extra pressure from you, he complies, but the truth is, it's not getting better and you're feeling like you're stuck with a sour horse. You know it's not elegant or beautiful but you don't know what to do about it.
The answer: In this situation, your horse is confused. Not about what you want so much as why it's important. A more fearful horse would simply comply, but your horse resents being asked.
You could be kinder about the way you ask, which will help a little. You could be more reward oriented for the effort he does put in, which will help a lot. And you could be more patient when you ask. Don't be in such a rush. This will help more than anything. And the reason it helps so much to slow down is because... your horse needs time to process the request. If you blast him through it, you may get your forward motion, but over the years, his expression will never change.
But if you send your "go signal" and hold it, and just wait, and wait, until he goes, then immediately release your signal and reward him, he'll become intrigued with this game you're playing. "Respond equals reward?" That's the question we want him contemplating.
Let me be clear about something here. Actually, two things. First... There are thousands of techniques and strategies, so what you're reading now is not an end all, be all strategy. You are still required to learn more, explore and grow in your skills. Second...Listen closely...When you ask for "go" and your horse gives you "ears back" instead of "go", you have to recognize he's trying. Yes! He's trying all the wrong things, but he's still "trying". Don't force a trying horse!
Don't force a trying horse!
Just wait... hold your signal. (I like to use a light squeeze with both heels because it's easy to hold).
Don't release your signal to "go" unless he goes, but don't increase your pressure either. Just wait. When he finally realizes, you're not going to blast him through his resentment he'll settle. He may even relax so much that he forgets you're asking him anything. He'll stand there with soft ears. Only then, can you increase your pressure to go forward, because that is the very moment he stops trying. When he does finally make a step in the right direction. Even it's one single step... praise him. Cycle through the ask and release sequence over and over and over. Reward each time he responds in the right direction and notice how he'll start offering more and more, because he feels so rewarded from you, and no longer resents you asking.
Like everything, you won't cure it all at once. You'll have to learn to communicate like this every time you ride for the rest of your life, but you'll notice his expression gets better each ride and he offers more. Don't revert to the old way of "asking and blasting" to try and fix his grumpy expression. Be reward oriented and use the training cycle to help him realize what you want.
Tips: Use your reins to keep his head forward to prevent him from biting, unless he wants to rear, then bend his neck and move his feet to prevent the rear. If it's really bad, get off and get help. Your life is worth it.
Situation number 2 of 4: You are riding with a group and every time your friend passes you to take the lead, your horse pins his ears at the other horse. He's being defensive, but there is no reason for it. At least not from your perspective. You've never hurt him or led him into danger. Why won't he listen to you and just relax about it?
The answer: In this situation, your horse is indeed being defensive. It can look like he’s being mean, but he’s not being mean. He doesn’t hate the other horses. What he or she hates is the feeling of someone encroaching on his space and because horses are much bigger than people, their personal space bubbles are also much bigger, especially with a defensive horse. You know it’s defensive because he doesn’t do it all the time. He only does it when a horse approaches his bubble.
You could yank on the reins really hard or spank him for being naughty (not recommended). Forceful corrections are useful if you’re in genuine danger but very destructive to your horse’s trust in you if you aren’t in danger. If your horse is defensive, the best thing to do is pick up the reins, just like you’d hold a young child’s hand while crossing the street. It’s a steady but kind grip on the reins. As the other horse passes just, simply be there for your horse. If he kicks at the other horse, you can make a firm correction. Remember, it’s ok to be firm in dangerous situations. Most of the time, however, he won’t kick. Instead, he’ll simply tense up a bit, but feel reassured by your contact with him.
Of course, each situation is slightly different. There are thousands of variations available. Principally, you just have to remember your horse is being defensive and needs more exposure to the situation, not less. More exposure, with safety in mind, can cure a defensive horse, especially if your reward oriented in your exposing style. One way to reward your horse making it through a tough situation is to hand out a treat. Even have the other rider with the encroaching horse hand out treats. There is a reason everyone loves fire trucks even though they are loud, big machines. It’s because every Memorial Day, candy comes pouring from the bulky red engines by the bagful. Use the same concept to help your horse learn to love interacting with other horses.
In the most extreme examples, I’ve had to be much firmer. I had one mare years ago who would charge with teeth bared at any horse that would approach her. She never played offense, it was always defense. In other words, she wouldn’t charge another horse for no reason. It was always related to the other horse getting too close. It was extremely dangerous. For her, we played a game to help her realize it was more important to focus on the rider, than the other horse coming into her space.
Here is how the game played out. First, we all found a safe place to be, with good footing. Then we’d have one person approach the defensive horse. The rider of the defensive horse would wait until the critical moment of safety and then burst into a full gallop, away from the other horses. You have to be a very good rider for extreme situations like this. We cycled through the experience about three times. By the fourth time, when the horse approached, the defensive mare didn’t so much as bat an eyelid at the approaching horse. Instead, she tuned into the rider, expecting to gallop away. But there was no need to gallop this time because we had her full attention. It was then, we knew we had made a change. We helped her focus on the rider on her back, as an attention redirect strategy. We never had a problem with her after. That doesn’t mean we didn’t keep our guard up. You should always keep your guard up with horses. That’s how you stay alive. But over the years, she never reverted to her extreme defensiveness. Instead, whenever she felt threatened, she remembered to focus on her rider for guidance.
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Situation number 3 of 4: Your horse can do no wrong. Always performing beautifully, with one tiny hiccup...He's been pinning his ears a lot more lately. You can't tell what it is. You always ask politely, you reward him often. He doesn't hesitate to respond. Yet, for some reason, he's getting worse about it. His responses are still positive, but the ears are still back most of the time. Especially in motion.
The answer: I bet you can guess the answer to this one… The horse is in pain. Sometimes, when the horse doesn’t show any signs of limping, it’s easy to assume the ear pinning is a psychological or behavioral issue. In reality, many types of pain manifest themselves outside the typically visible cues. For instance, a sore tummy, ulcers, congestion, early colic stages, tendon soreness, joint soreness, foot soreness. They can all be happening at a low level of pain, without the rider knowing about it.
The horse that continues to show ear pinning in relation to pain generally doesn’t pin the ears all the way back in anger but might scrunch up the face, with a wincing expression.
I’ve tried to fix pain related issues, with massage, movement and shape therapy (yoga for horses), interrupting the ear pinning with rein corrections, and many other techniques. But now, if I even think for a second that the ear pinning could be related to pain. I go straight to my favorite test. Drugs!
That’s right, drugs. But it’s only a test. I will never continue to exercise or train with a sore horse. I only use the drugs for a chance to see if the horse is in fact, in pain. In other words, if he responds without ear pinning to a thing we would normally respond negatively for, then I know he’s potentially operating in a sore or painful state, and it’s time to see a vet. If he’s operating in the same manner as before, which means the drugs had no effect, I know it’s more likely behavioral. Or… It could be a more severe lameness or soreness than I thought. Either way, I will probably see a vet about my horse, and I recommend you do as well. If you think he may be sore or in pain, check it out.
Situation number 4: You are riding in a group, actually standing casually, chatting to your friend in the group, when suddenly your horse lunges forward, ears pinned and bites your friend's horse on the shoulder. Her horse, in turn, pins her ears and turns to kick your horse, nearly breaking your leg as the kick lands just in front of your stirrup. "What the hell? Where did that come from?" you ask.
The answer: Horses are always sending body language cues back and forth. Just because there is no verbal language, that doesn’t mean there is no language. In fact, even in the human world, the majority of our communication is still non-verbal. Only seven percent of a conversation's outcome is actually dictated by words.
What all that means is that horses are constantly talking to each other, and it’s not always nice. Have you ever met someone you just don’t like? You don’t even know why, but there is something about him, or her, that rubs you the wrong way. You don’t even have to speak to that person. One moment of eye contact and you can tell you don’t like them. In fairness, you may, in fact, grow to like that person, just as many horses grow to like each other, but in the beginning, tension can build.
In most human interactions, we have the ability to move to a more comfortable space. With horses, however, they are often forced to be where humans want them to be. This increases the tension between two opposing personalities.
The only thing to do is correct the ill behavior. I’m more observant than most riders, simply because I’ve been through and seen the worst of all horse behaviors. I’ve been on the receiving end of many bad experiences. What I always encourage my riders to do is, keep a constant guard up. Keep an eye on your horse, and catch something before it escalates. If you notice your horse is getting tense, you can move back a space. You can simply pick up the reins and check his attention is on you again. If you miss the opportunity to correct early and all hell breaks loose, the best thing to do is clear the space.
Reset your horses to a safe position as quickly as possible. Then, and only if you’re feeling capable of doing so, begin a training cycle to teach the horses to like each other. If nothing else, to tolerate each other.
The cycle could look like this: Approach each other, notice the tension raise, then retreat to a safe place, then repeat until the horses prove to hold their attention on you (the rider). Don’t let the horses touch each other or sniff each other’s noses. That’s a big “no-no”! Eventually, you could allow that to happen, but only after the horses are friends and the tension is all gone.
Exposure is a key ingredient to success. Keeping everybody alive during tense moments, is ideal. Keeping everybody safe involves keeping your horses attention on you. When things just don't feel right, remember to seek out professional help. That's what we are here for and we're just a phone call away. 406-360-1390. That's my phone number and I'm here for your first free phone call. In the call, we get to know each other and I can share my mastery group opportunity.
Hopefully, reading this helps you begin to understand a little bit more about the inside of a horse. I want you to be progressive, positive, and successful in your horse activities. Knowing what’s going on deep down inside the horse’s mind should help you be a better horse person and leader.
Leadership is really the biggest key to success with horses.
If you want to learn more about being a great leader. If you want to learn what the masters do with their horses, read “Leadership and Horses”
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