Practical and Safe Horse Handling

Editor's Note: This excerpt is from Chapter 3 of Care & Management of Horses by Heather Smith Thomas. The book is available from

Communicating With Horses
To work with horses successfully, we must be able to communicate adequately with voice, touch, and body language. The horseman must be sensitive and sympathetic, with an intuitive feel for what is right for that particular horse at that particular moment. Successful horse handling makes use of tact and persuasion, only using force when absolutely necessary. A good horseman always thinks first of the horse and thinks ahead to possible long-term results of the handling method rather than just the convenience of the moment. The horse has an incredible memory and abusive handling will affect him a long time.

Use horse sense when introducing new things or performing routine care tasks that a horse might perceive as uncomfortable or frightening. If you are doing something new or unusual, choose a nice day and a time of day with the least distractions. Having his first foot trimming on a windy day with everything in motion and scary will make the task harder since he's already suspicious. If things go less smoothly than planned, his bad feelings about what you did to him may last awhile.

Use good judgment in rewarding proper behavior and thwarting improper behavior; make sure the horse always understands why he is being punished. He will respond by becoming easier to handle, when he knows what is expected of him. Always ask a horse to do something in a way that makes sense to him. He should be rewarded for a proper response in such a way that he'll repeat the response the next time he is asked. Often the only reward needed is praise and encouragement.
When you ask the horse to do a certain thing, such as stop or turn on cue when being led, often the reward is just a release of pressure (from the halter). When the horse starts to respond properly, release the pressure immediately. The next time he is asked, he gives the desired response because he knows it will result in release of pressure. If he realizes that stopping immediately when you say "Whoa" will result in no pressure on his nose from the halter, he will stop before you have to reinforce your request with a pull.

Horses don't use logic; you can't expect a horse to understand something he hasn't already experienced. You must build step by step on what he already knows, after first establishing a trusting relationship.

Cues and requests should be reasonable in each circumstance. If we ask the horse to do something in a manner that makes him uncomfortable or afraid, he will resist. But if the horse handler structures the request in a way that the horse thinks he is putting pressure on himself (moving into the fixed hand on the halter while being led or into the elbow situated to intercept a playful nip), it becomes the horse's own idea to give the correct response. The horse will keep a more learning, open mind instead of resenting what he perceives as something the handler is doing to him.

Regarding punishment, the important thing is not when or how much, but whether you are right in giving it; most times a horse makes a mistake or misbehaves it's your fault. If he misbehaves, figure out why. If it's your fault, do not punish him for it. Never punish a horse unless he understands why and unless you can administer the correction immediately after the misdeed; otherwise he won't know what he is being punished for.

We are always sending signals to the horse, whether we realize it or not, making things better or worse, depending on our actions and methods. Everything you do with a horse should be with some thought as to how he will respond to your action, whether you are catching him, leading him past a scary object, or asking for an advanced movement under saddle.

Working with horses is easier if you are paying attention to what the horse is doing and thinking. Control over a horse's mind involves familiarity, respect, and trust, with him being conditioned through proper handling to obey. You must be at ease in the relationship. Even if you go through the motions of being the "boss" in words and actions, your horse will sense if you are afraid; these vibes overshadow your outward actions and make him nervous, or more aggressive if he wants to test your role in the relationship. Even if he is just playful and you mistake his playful action as a sign of aggression and retreat, he will learn to take advantage of you.

Use body language and mental control to establish yourself as leader. With this relationship you can always be in control of the horse, whether leading him, holding him still for the farrier or veterinarian, putting him into a trailer, having him stand still for you to halter him, etc. To have this kind of control without coercion or nagging, you must first be in control of yourself--calm, mentally focused, and self-disciplined. If you are not aware of your own body language, you may actually be telling the horse things that you don't want him to "hear."

You can't physically dominate a horse. He is stronger than you. Instead, use body language to project your mental control, just as the alpha mare does with her herd mates. It does not require strength to handle or train horses; you control them through their minds, communicating your will to theirs. Horse handling is a mental game requiring confidence and tact, enabling you to communicate with the horse and gain his respect and trust.

The tone of your voice is very important; an approving voice can be a reward for positive behavior. A soothing voice can calm him. A disapproving voice when he misbehaves is often punishment enough, the horse realizing that his human is displeased with him.

If a physical reprimand is necessary, it should be instant and appropriate, similar to the reprimand a dominant horse would give a herd mate. You may need only a firmer leg (when mounted), a tug on the halter, or a tap with a whip, depending on the situation. Most horses understand one swat (as in a herd situation when one bite or kick is enough to keep a herd member in line), but they don't understand continual punishment. Excessive punishment will only make a horse lose his trust and respect for you. Continually pecking at a horse can confuse him. He will either quit trying to do the task right or become afraid of everything you do with him.

Physical punishment is rarely needed once you gain rapport with a horse and understand one another. You can control him more subtly, often preventing disobedience before it takes shape. This comes with perfecting communication between you and the horse, being able to predict to a certain extent what the horse will do next in any given situation. A good horse handler never lets the horse get into a position or situation in which the horse is tempted to disobey or become a danger to himself or to a person.

We may inadvertently teach a horse bad manners just by being unobservant, negligent (letting the horse get away with things), sloppy in our actions, or inconsistent in our handling methods. Many of the aggravating habits of spoiled horses are due to their handlers' inconsistency or to the horse's evasive actions (trying to escape the poor horsemanship that caused discomfort, fear, or confusion) that became habit.

Understanding Equine Body Language
When handling a horse, you are better prepared for his actions and reactions if you can interpret his body language, to know whether he is at ease with what you are doing, nervous, afraid, annoyed, or resentful. Part of handling horses safely is being in tune with their feelings so you are never caught off guard. If you are aware of how a horse is feeling, you can usually be prepared to handle a difficult situation without being hurt, or defuse it and encourage the horse to become more relaxed and cooperative.

The horse's ears are one of the best indicators of mood and intent. Flicking them continually in all directions usually indicates nervousness and an attempt to learn more about what's happening in an uncertain situation. Ears flat back means the horse is uncomfortable, annoyed, or angry and prepared to defend himself. A horse with flattened ears may be ready to kick or bite. A relaxed horse has relaxed ears.

Head and neck posture indicate intent and whether the horse is about to make a move; he uses head and neck for balance and will move them as he prepares to shift his weight. Aggressive use of the head indicates anger or annoyance; as a threat the horse will make a sudden and purposeful swing (sometimes with ears back and teeth bared) toward a subordinate horse or human.

The horse reacts quickly and strongly to anything he perceives as alarming. Since his head is a very vulnerable area, he tries to get it out of the way of potential danger (such as a kick from another horse) and jerks it up. A startled, nervous, or untrusting horse may suddenly and violently jerk his head up or even rear.

The horse's eyes give clues to what he's thinking and feeling; a sleepy eye means he's relaxed and at ease with what is going on around him. A wide eye (accompanied by an alert heads-up position) means he's trying to figure out what's happening and is possibly triggered for action. A horse that throws his head up and shows the whites of the eyes is very upset--either afraid or angry.

A relaxed lower lip and flaccid muscles around the mouth indicate relaxation. Nostrils also indicate mood; flared nostrils can indicate fright, excitement, or anger. A sigh indicates acceptance or relaxation. If while you are working with the horse he gives a big sigh, you know he is no longer tense but is comfortable with what you are doing.

Feet and legs are used as weapons--front feet for offense (striking) and hind feet for defense. A kick or just the threat of a kick with hind leg cocked is a warning to keep other horses from invading his space or to tell humans that he's very annoyed.

The tail is a good barometer of mood and feelings. When it is firmly clamped down, the horse is angry, defensive, or stubborn. A low, tucked tail can be a submissive gesture. A relaxed horse has a relaxed tail. Sporadic swishing signals impatience, while a violently lashing tail may mean intense discomfort or anger. A startled horse may give an involuntary movement of the tail. When working near the horse's hindquarters, a firm hold on the tail can help you feel the animal's mood and intent and can also help thwart an inclination to kick.

About the Author

Heather Smith Thomas

Heather Smith Thomas ranches with her husband near Salmon, Idaho, raising cattle and a few horses. She has a B.A. in English and history from University of Puget Sound (1966). She has raised and trained horses for 50 years, and has been writing freelance articles and books nearly that long, publishing 20 books and more than 9,000 articles for horse and livestock publications. Some of her books include Understanding Equine Hoof Care, The Horse Conformation Handbook, Care and Management of Horses, Storey's Guide to Raising Horses and Storey's Guide to Training Horses. Besides having her own blog,, she writes a biweekly blog at that comes out on Tuesdays.

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