Listening to the Horse with Warwick Schiller

Establishing a strong relationship with your horse starts by listening and showing them you are a safe partner.

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A few years ago, I fully believed I had this whole horse training thing figured out. I had won big reining competitions, was traveling internationally to teach clinics, and was able to help clients with their training goals. I had no idea that I was missing one major key—listening to the horse.

listening to the horse
A horse named Sherlock changed my mindset on the importance of listening to the horse. Photo courtesy Warwick Schiller

Then along came a horse named Sherlock. My wife had bought Sherlock to show for the upcoming season; he was an amazing athlete but had some odd behaviors that I wanted to unravel.

Changing Techniques

If a horse has an issue I usually go back to the very beginning and retrain them from the start, ensuring each step along the way is good before continuing. As I began working through the process, I found that Sherlock was more shut down than any other horse I had encountered before. He was quite obedient, but I could tell his heart wasn’t in it. He’d do the work but would always pretend to be in other places. He was holding back—almost frozen. His tenseness did not result in explosive behavior; instead, he would retract inside himself. None of the things I tried seemed to relax his tension.

Sherlock is the main reason I began to look outside of my established methods of training to find different ways of working with horses that didn’t cause them to shut down. To give him a different perspective on being asked to do things, I began using clicker training.

However, he still knew it was training and didn’t want any part of it. Clicker training was still me asking for something and expecting some sort of outcome. After I had given clicker training a break, I read some articles about how small facial expressions and head movements can tell us how our horses are feeling. It turns out the tiniest movements have a large mental association, and, to better gauge how your horse is feeling on the inside, you must be keenly aware of what they are doing on the outside. This requires listening to the horse.

Listening Breakthrough

Soon after reading about these micro-expressions, I was doing a clinic in Texas. In the morning group, there was a nine-year-old mustang who had an issue with bolting under saddle. During the groundwork portion of the clinic, he started to block out his owner with his head whenever she walked down beside him trying to get him to step over behind.

listening to the horse
Working with mustangs brings new perspectives on how the herd dynamic affects relationships with horses. Photo courtesy Warwick Schiller

Usually, I would have suggested she just slip her hand under his jaw and move his head back in front of himself before walking down his side, but I wanted to experiment. I took the lead rope from her and went to walk down beside him. He turned his head and blocked me. Instead of doing anything more, I stopped and stepped back as soon as he tried to block me out. I then stood still and waited for him to process what had happened. In all honesty, I didn’t fully realize what I had just told him, but he knew what had happened. Instead of correcting the behavior, I acknowledged his tension by releasing pressure (stepping backward). I tried again with the same result. He was beginning to realize that I was listening, rather than demanding something of him. Initially, it took him a little while to process.

This advance-and-retreat went on for about 15 to 20 minutes until eventually, he didn’t block me out when I went down that side. I could then disengage his hind end, walk back to the front, and then back down his side with no worries. He seemed to be fine now, so I handed him back to his owner and said, “Let him stand there for a while, don’t ask for anything.”

About 15 minutes later, as I was helping another clinic participant, I heard a collective gasp from all the spectators. I turned around to see the mustang had buckled at the knees and dropped to his belly. He was fast asleep, snorting little dust clouds in the sand. He then had a roll, got up, shook off the dirt, buckled at the knees again, and went back to sleep. I asked his owner if that was normal behavior for him. She said she’d had him for six years and had only seen him lay down once, and on that occasion as soon as he saw her, he jumped straight up. He continued to sleep for an hour and a half. When it was time for the afternoon group to come in, we woke him up and he went back to his stall.

listening to the horse
Horses only lay down to rest when they feel completely safe. Photo courtesy Warwick Schiller

The next day when the morning group entered the arena, his owner asked what I thought she should do. I suggested she stand with him and see what happens. After 15 minutes he laid down and went to sleep, sleeping for four hours until lunchtime. He slept while horses cantered past him, through the blaring loudspeakers, and the energy of six horses in an arena with 50 spectators watching.

Upon returning from that clinic, I looked at scientific research into the sleeping habits of horses. I learned that although horses can sleep standing, they need to lay down for about 30 minutes each day to get the restorative REM sleepthey need. If they don’t get that sleep, they can be nervous, and that nervousness can cause all sorts of issues, including bolting. It has been over three years since that clinic, and the horse has not bolted since.

This was a watershed moment for me. It was the first time I had solved an issue by simply listening to the horse’s concern. There wasn’t any training, I just communicated to the mustang that I was aware of his concern, and I gave him time to process that concern. Over the past few years, I have really made listening a big part of what I do. Personally, it’s not easy. You really have to change your judgments of every situation, and you also have to be able to lose your expectations. The only goal is to have your horse feel as if you’re on their team, so they know you can recognize when they become concerned and help relieve that concern. In order to listen fully, you must also be more present, and just from that mindfulness, I have seen a huge change in horses that I work with.

Listening to the Horse

It’s common knowledge that horses often feel unsafe when removed from their herd. However, very few understand exactly why they begin to feel unsafe. It’s not the physicality of the herd, as horses don’t fight off predators; they run from them. What makes them feel safe is the collective group awareness of the herd. The more horses, the more sentinels they have. This is where being aware of those little signals horses give us a double benefit. When we notice those subtle signs of tension, we tell them they are being heard, but I think a larger benefit is we are conveying to them how aware we are. That awareness gives horses the same sense of safety as the herd, and that causes relaxation. When we can prove to be trustworthy, horses such as the mustang in Texas will finally give up their constant one-man alarm system and hand the reins over to us to keep a lookout for danger. This in turn provides them the ability to get that REM sleep and come back down to the rest-and-digest state of homeostasis (as opposed to always being in fight or flight).

listening to the horse
Working with Barb stallions in Morocco allowed me to gain more understanding of good listening skills with horses. Photo courtesy Warwick Schiller

A couple of years ago, I was able to work with some Barb stallions in Morocco. Almost all of them were distracted, unsettled, pushy, and even a bit nippy. When I worked with each of them, I turned them loose in a round pen. I didn’t want to be close to them due to the fact they displayed some bad habits that could easily place me in danger. All of them ran to the fence whinnying at the other studs back in the barn. All I worked on was attracting their attention with a flag. I didn’t drive them, nor ask them to move their feet; I just got their attention.

As soon as their attention moved to me or the flag, even something as small as an ear flick, I would take the energy out of the flag and put it down. All of them soon became very relaxed and settled. Once they were settled enough to no longer pose a major threat, I allowed them to come up and engage with me. The distracted, pushy, and nippy horses became connected, respectful, and calm.

I even joked with the Moroccan trainers that I had invented an invisible halter and lead rope. I tied the fake knot, picked up the fake lead rope and those Barb stallions followed me around like a well-behaved horse on a lead. I think the humor was lost in translation (we had a professional translator with us), but they were all impressed by the rapid change they had seen without any forceful methods. Now, I try to plant the seed in people’s minds that there’s a different way to do all this horse training stuff. It’s respectful, peaceful, and powerful. It produces horses that are relaxed, willing to do the work, and connected to us.

listening to the horse
Establishing a connection with your horse starts by listening to their concerns and proving that you are a safe partner. Photo courtesy Warwick Schiller

However, listening to the horse is harder than it sounds. We have to swallow some uncomfortable truths. Maybe your horse isn’t ready to hit the trail without another horse. Maybe you need to work on separation anxiety on the ground before attempting to move on in your training process. Refocusing your priorities to put your horse’s mental state first takes some adjusting, and your horse will be unsure of it initially, as well. When you start having the breakthrough moments that I’ve now been having for the past four years, you’ll soon realize that there’s no going back. You’ll end up listening deeper and deeper. You’ll become deeply connected to your equine partner, and who knows, maybe it’ll end up improving your human relationships as well.

This article about listening to the horse is a web exclusive for Horse Illustrated magazine brought to you in partnership with Warwick SchillerClick here to subscribe!

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