Horses have an unbelievable ability to read and react to the internal state of humans. Most equestrians have seen the horse’s ability to seemingly read minds. A horse that is easily caught everyday suddenly won’t let you get near him when the vet is on the way. A horse that always spooks in the same corner until an unknowing rider, who isn’t anticipating the spook, gets on his back and suddenly the horse takes no notice of the corner. These are a couple of common examples of horses reading humans. They can pick up on subtle things that the human might not even be aware of.
The horse’s innate ability to see what is happening under the surface and pick up on incongruences in the human has led therapists and life coaches to team up with horses to help individuals gain insights on their internal world. Horses are very useful partners for providing feedback for clients and illuminating issues. How do horses read and mirror your body language so effectively? We will never be able to fully understand how horses perceive things but through observation we can gain some insights.
The body does not lie. Your mental attitude and emotions affect your body on a physiological level and determine your posture and the movement of your body. This is a well-known fact. This is how lie detector tests work – by reading the subtle physiological changes when you are incongruent between what you know and what you say. Most people have no control over this. We can also read it when talking to someone who says one thing but thinks something else. It is awkward to talk to someone who gives you a compliment when you can tell that they don’t actually believe what they’re saying. We can sense the incongruence because their body gives off signals that we have learned to subconsciously read.
Furthermore, think about a person who is “swollen with pride” and their posture when walking into a room versus a person who feels ashamed or unworthy. You can spot a confident or shy person from across the room due to the signals that they give off through the way they carry their body. We all know that our emotions are revealed in our bodies – you weep with joy, tremble with excitement, tense your jaw and fists when angry, laugh when happy, scream in fear, cry when sad and become paralyzed with fear. You wear your internal thoughts and feelings on your sleeve. We can recognize the difference between big hand gestures made out of frustration versus excitement.
The horse can’t understand your verbal language; he is only capable of reading your body language. Emotion reveals itself in motion and the horse is the master of motion – he survives, plays, fights, stays safe, and communicates through motion. So when you move according to how you feel, regardless of what you say you feel, the horse can read the underlying intent. This explains why a horse won’t necessarily pick his foot up for a person who is not confident and clear about what they are asking. This is also where the phrase “throw your heart over the fence and the horse will follow” came from. You may say that you want the horse to jump the fence but if you are doubtful the horse will refuse. You must believe and have true intent to encourage your horse to jump the fence.
While the horse is a master of movement and reading body language we are a different species. How can they read the specifics of human movement which is so different from their own? Part of it has to do with their ability to pick up on subtle movement. Their eye sight, hearing and senses have developed to pick up on slight changes which, as prey animals, keep them safe from potential predators. The horse does not have sharp visual focus the way humans do. They are watching you through “soft eyes” or an unfocused perspective that is better suited to picking up on tiny shifts of movement.
Secondly, our initial relationship with the horse was as hunter and hunted. Over the years horses had to learn to read us to prevent danger. It is said that the zebra can read the body language of a lion and react accordingly. If a lion is on the prowl for dinner, the zebras will flee when they catch sight of the lion. However, if the lion just feasted her body language tells the zebras that she is not a threat and they don’t waste their energy fleeing from the deadly predator. The horse has evolved to be able to read other animals, particularly predators, as a matter of life and death.
Though we can never truly see through the eyes of the horse we can become cognizant that they see the world differently. Whether we fully understand their power of observation, mastery of movement or wisdom of internal states of being, we can be grateful for their gifts. It is remarkable that at times the horse is more in tune with how you feel than you are. They can help you become aware of what you are presenting to the world through your body. Learning about how you are perceived by the horse could enlighten you to how other people react to you. Your body is sending a message whether you know it or not.