Ears, Heads and Grooming

Hello. As you may know, I have a very close and long-standing relationship with Neda De Mayo, who does wonderful work at her American Wild Horse Sanctuary, Return to Freedom, in Lompoc, California. American Wild Horse Sanctuary

Neda has been a long time student of mine and has introduced a number of people to my Method during her workshops. As were putting together today's blog, we came across a very interesting question from the Insider Circle which I wanted to feature. As you will read, this person was indeed introduced to my work via Neda and Mark told me that he was on the same workshop and that's how he found out about me too! So I'd like to thank Neda and say that if you ever get chance to visit the sanctuary, I really recommend it. They run a variety of different events and workshops there too and of course it's a wonderful cause to support too.

In fact, large parts of my Waterhole Reflections DVD were shot at the ranch and it really is beautiful up there, especially in the Spring when all the flowers are out, so go take a visit.

OK, so on to the question, which comes from Stephanie, who writes:

While participating in a clinic at Return To Freedom with Neda De Mayo (2007, I believe) I was introduced to your way of being with horses and have been practicing ever since. HUGE breath of fresh air! I have no words to describe the gratitude I feel.

My questions are: 1. Horse pins ears when walking toward food, with or without me walking with him. What does this mean and how would you shape his behavior, or does it matter?

2. Sour expression, pinning ears while companion walking. What does this mean and how would you shape his behavior, or does it matter?

3. Head slinging when sending away quickly. What does this mean and how would you shape his behavior, or does it matter?

4. What are your insights on mutual grooming as a herd behavior? Does it matter who initiates it? Who usually initiates it, lead, dominant or lower in the order? Is this a ritual that can be used to strengthen the bond and shape behavior? How do you use it?

Thanks so much for your reply!

I look forward to coming to CA to study with you in person when the time is right.

And here what I write in reply:

1. Sometimes horses cannot be broken out of habit. What you have described may be the situation here, because she puts her ears back when she is approaching food even when no one is around her. The Kemosabe Arabian line will behave exactly as you have described and you cannot get it out of them. The horse doesn't necessarily have any ill intentions from the ears being back, it’s just the way they are. They connect and love as well as the next horse.

The other thing to consider is that when horses are in a herd and are traveling together very close, it is natural for them to connect to the horses that get too close by laying their ears back, even when the horse next to them isn’t disturbing them or too close at all. It’s a game they seem to participate in. Having said all that though, I still spend the time it takes to try and train this behavior out if I can. I find that it’s easier to teach them to put their ears forward as a way to ask for a treat.

How you do this is to just wait the horse out; he can’t have the treat until at least one ear goes forward. Eventually, you can suggest a word to the horse, like “pretty ears” or whatever, and the horse learns what he needs to do to get the treat. You should be able to accomplish this in a week’s time but may take a month for the horse to be consistent.

2. On Companion Walking, sometimes it will help to stop and not go forward until the ears go forward. This might take a lot of time. You may just have to accept this from your horse.

3. This same behavior of the head tossing could very well be connected to your horse’s ear behavior. In a way, it could be a genetic reflex. Whether it is or isn’t, I find that when they are tossing their head as they are on a send-away, it will eventually go away. When you send your horse away, you can try to have him go faster and that might help. But, I do not think that a horse that throws their head in a send-away is something to be concerned about. One should be more concerned about a horse that has forgotten how to express himself. The main place to put your focus is on how your horse is advancing. If there is advancement, no matter how slow. You are on the right track.

4. Obviously, a lower-ranking horse would not start grooming a dominant horse because he might get in trouble. It doesn’t matter who starts the grooming. What happens with horses and humans is that the horse gets demanding about being groomed, and the human allows this. I use grooming as a way to train interactive behavior of the horse to be polite and accept when I choose to groom and when I choose to stop. If the horse begs for grooming, I give him a little scratch and then send him on his way. If you groom a horse always when he wants to be groomed, you will take the gas pedal off your horse when it’s most important for it to be there. In my book, Naked Liberty, there is a chapter titled “Boulder Rituals”. It shows how I used only grooming as a way to train a wild horse even to the point of riding her from a bonded trust.

So that has been my experience with the questions Stephanie raised but what about for you? Have you noticed any behaviors in your horse that you can't explain? Or what about behaviors you managed to train out of your horse, how did you do it? I look forward to reading your comments below.