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The Importance of Body Language

My boys and I mowed a nice big track out in one of our pastures. We also made a smaller, oval track to use as a warm up area. I wanted to mow the track because we have a lot of old irrigation ditches, gopher holes and rocks in our pastures and I want to be able to see these hiding in the tall grass. It also gave me a chance to walk it and pick the best route possible.


Driving on the small track.

The first time I drove Sky on the small track she did very well. We went around one direction about 6 times, then I had her change direction and we went around 6 more times. It was a decent warm up, took us about 15 minutes and she was walking and trotting nicely, so we moved onto the large track. Once we got about 1/3 of the way around the big track Sky lost it big time. She was hopping forward, front feet off the ground, head held high, bouncing along. Then she could she would power ahead and just basically run away with me. Suddenly the mowed track didn’t seem important at all as I managed her emotions by having her do figure of eights and circle, circle, circle. When a driving horse loses it like this you can’t simply get off and do some ground work. It would have been very dangerous for me to try to unharness her when she was incapable of keeping her feet still or even on the ground! So I held on for dear life, nearly bouncing out of the cart a few times!! And because my footman’s loops are too far back the breeching kept loosening and then slamming tight against her butt as the cart bounced around behind her. This didn’t help her mind at all.


Driving on the large track. She is fine with this part of the track. Where it curves out there by the fence is where she looses her s-h-i-t.

We finally made it back to the smaller track where we went back to work circling, circling, circling. Finally she calmed down enough to walk a bit and cool off some. She was drenched in sweat and foaming a bit between her legs and under her harness. I was sweating myself! I unharnessed her, cooled her down and let her stand tied for a little while.

Onto day two! It was much the same. The warm up went very well, but once we went out onto the larger track and got about 1/3 of the way around it she lost it again. When she starts to lose it her breathing changes and she makes a roaring sound. She gets super high headed and tight across her top line and she won’t listen to the bit at all. I did several one rein stops, basically circling her until the circle got too tight and she would stop, but she was heaving and not relaxed once stopped so we would move again. When she gets right brained – reactive – like this she is not using the thinking side of her brain but just reacting. The best thing I can do to help her is allow her to move her feet, but in a way that changes the pattern. Hence the figure of eights! This causes her to change direction, change direction and change direction all while allowing her feet to move, until her brain turns back on. It took a few minutes and then she was half way listening so we turned around and headed back towards the small track. It was slow going as I had to keep circling and circling her whenever she started rushing.


On our way back to the small track.

I found the whole thing very interesting and a little frustrating as I had hoped the track would be a relaxing way to exercise her. Not hard on her joints and close to home. It also means I don’t have to put her boots on every time I drive. But it is not the time for that!

The third day I took her back out on the road, where she was calm and connected the entire drive. No rushing, no losing her mind. She walked and trotted and cantered when I asked and was very happy to be out and about!


Sky happy to be back on the road again!

I had to laugh as I realized that she was happy to be out because she KNOWS what is going to happen when we drive on the road. She is comfortable with road driving because that is where we have spent most of our driving hours. Even her early years of driving where done on the road. Barking dogs, cars, trucks, tractors, all these are fine because she is familiar with them. Toss in a nice quiet mowed grass track and she looses her s-h-i-t. How interesting!

I have also noticed that she likes wearing bells. She is far less reactive when she has bells on as they tend to drown out the other sounds. Sounds of hoof beats off in the distance and sounds of the grass brushing under the cart.

Some horses like to be able to see all around them when they drive. Not Sky. When I restarted her this spring I started in her a halter and she was like a bomb waiting to blow as we drove down the road. When the horses would run up to the fence she would try to bolt, when the birds flew up from the grass or out from a shed alongside the road, she would shy and spin around to run home. When the sunlight reflected off a mud puddle she would spin that travois around SO FAST that sometimes I barely knew what happened! Then I put her blinders on and everything changed. She didn’t spook at the birds every time. She quit being so reactive to the horses along side the road. She barely glanced at mud puddles. Basically, she had her work suit on and it was time to drive! That’s how it is with the bells. What she doesn’t know about won’t hurt her. She likes to live in oblivion. Some horses don’t like that at all and need to see and hear everything.

Years ago we had a Haflinger that we drove and she went best in an open bridle. If you had blinders on her everything that touched her butt was a mountain lion trying to eat her. Without the blinders anything could touch her butt (except maybe a mountain lion!) and she took it in stride.

I guess what I’m sharing tonight is take the time to learn about your horse. Be flexible. Just because you think driving or riding in a bitless bridle is the best thing for a horse they may feel differently. If your horse goes better with the blinders, then drive with the blinders. If they don’t like the blinders, then drive in an open bridle.

Understand their body language and what they are trying to say. It’s especially important with a driving horse as you can’t feel their muscles tighten or their breathing change as well since you are behind them. You may miss some of the more subtle cues they give if you aren’t aware and listening all the time.

Tonight I drove Sky out on the road again. It was raining a bit and very chilly, but she was happy as could be trotting down the road.

When we got to the two track road her head went up some. I paid attention and started talking with her a bit more using my reins. I knew there must be something down in the ravine off to our right so I began to pay more attention over there. Sure enough about 40 head of antelope started streaming up the side of the ravine and off through a fence to the south of us. Sky’s head went up even more as she heard them moving through the grass so I had her stop and watch. She was keyed up pretty good and thought about bolting once or twice but I was able to keep her there with my voice. After they finished moving off she sighed and licked and chewed then turned and walked off. Her head went up a few more times as the stragglers moved off and then a few deer came up out of the ravine as well, but she was listening to me and not thinking about running off. Then when we went back around that same lane she blew out repeatedly, letting go of more of that anxiety.


Left: Sky relaxed and connected. Right: Her head is up and she is getting worried about something.

When we circled back to the road she was relaxed and trotted happily down the road and then walked home.

These last few days just really got me thinking about how each horse is an individual and if you understand your horse, see things from their point-of-view, it can really help you, to help them, become more calm and connected.

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