The first thing that most people know about horses, usually even before they’ve met a horse in real life, is “don’t go behind a horse.” I used to do the horse demo at Aggie Days, a program to introduce urban school children to agriculture, and when I asked them why, they’d chorus “because he’ll kick you!” or the less accurate but more adorable, “because he’ll buck you!”
I would then ask them to tell me where the horse’s eyes were, compared to their eyes, (“on the side of his head”) and we’d talk about how a horse sees (everywhere but behind them and directly in front) and how a horse was a prey animal, and the next time I’d ask why they should be careful behind the horse, they’d figured it out. “Because he can’t see you!”
Similarly, when we first are learning about handling horses, chances are we are going to be told, “Don’t let him turn his back end to you, it’s disrespectful!” And, like those kids, we tend to take it at face value.
But, as I’ve shared here before, using terms like “disrespectful” with regards to a horse is a big red flag to me. Horses don’t think that way. They can only respond in the way their instinct or training tells them to.
I’ve been lucky in my life to always be around a large herd of Miniature Horses. I watch them a lot, how they interact with each other, and turning their bum is most often a submissive or protective movement. I usually see it in the herd when they’re trying to evade an aggressive horse, turning their bum either as a way to show submission, “yes, sir, right away sir,” or to defend themselves from a meaniehead who is charging or biting.
In the way horses use the movement with each other, it’s actually much closer to a sign of respect, than disrespect, varying from: “Yes, I recognize you’re in charge and am going to give you your space.” to “Please don’t hurt me!”
Studies have been identifying “calming signals” that dogs use to communicate with each other, which are often misinterpreted or ignored by humans who don’t understand, leading to behaviour issues.
While study of calming signals in horses is still in early stages, there is enough evidence to show that horses also display calming signals, and one of them is almost certainly presenting their hindquarters.
Conventional training would have us believe that turning their bum is something to be discouraged, because it’s “disrespectful”. Trainers would recommend punishment ranging from chasing them off and “making them work” to smacking their hind end with a rope or whip to try and make them keep it away.
If turning their hindquarters to an aggressive horse means, “please don’t hurt me”, and studies show that it’s a calming signal, asking for space because they’re not comfortable, then the conventional wisdom of punishment is going to seriously undermine your horse’s trust and your ability to communicate with them.
Your horse is saying they aren’t comfortable, in the only way they are able. It’s not like they can just clear their throat, speak up and say, “Excuse me Kendra, I’m not sure we know each other that well yet, would you mind giving me a moment?” By listening to their request, you are going to vastly improve their trust in you, and give them confidence to continue to offer communication in the future.
So what should you do instead of punishment? You definitely don’t want to just walk up behind a fearful horse, of course, that would be foolish both for you and for the horse.
If I am trying to catch a horse and they turn their bum to me, I stop, take a deep slow breath (remember, horses communicate a lot with their breath – you’re telling him “I’m not worried and you don’t need to be either”) and take a big step backwards. Chances are really good that the horse is going to turn and look at you. Sometimes I take another step back, to draw him along with me. If he runs off, then I start again, only this time I watch for signs that he’s worried BEFORE he turns his bum to me, and try to stop, breath and step back before he thinks he needs to turn away.
When I get close, rather than grabbing onto him and wrestling a halter on his head (which I know first hand is a huge temptation when you’ve been trying for ages to catch him!) instead I offer him the back of my hand to sniff, a “horsey handshake” that allows him to come to you. Then I scratch his neck or withers, breath some more, and then, when all is calm and we’re hanging out together comfortably, I put on the halter.
Not only is it generally a lot more efficient to catch the horse this way, without any chasing, fear (on the horse’s part) or frustration (on your part), but your horse is learning that you are listening to their concerns, and you a building a much stronger relationship, one built on trust and communication, rather than the use of aversives and domination.
Throwing back to one of the recent “do better” articles, knowing WHY our horse is displaying a behaviour is the key to opening a line of communication, rather than inadvertently shutting it down forever, with a horse in a state of learned helplessness who no longer even attempts to communicate with us.