Archive for Body Language

Honoring a Horse’s Boundaries

I recently heard someone say, “People can walk through three boundaries just to say hello to their horse in the morning and not even know it.”  Having rehabbed senior horses for over 10 years in varying degrees of emotional shut-down, I knew exactly what she was talking about.

For me, the eyes of a horse have become one of the biggest clues about their personal state of affairs.  If their eyes are fixed, that is a “no”.  If a horse looks at you with one eye and has its head held high in avoidance, it is experiencing fear.  (Horses process fear on one side of their brain, so they look at the fearful object/person with the other eye).   If the eyes are soft and blinking, that is a “yes”.  If horses look at you with both eyes, they are giving you their complete attention.

Fixed eye. "no"

Fixed eye. “no”


Two eyes. "yes"

Two eyes. “yes”

When I say hello to the herd when I arrive, I let them know I’m there, but I leave it to them to approach me if they so choose.  It got me thinking, “What do I do when I say goodbye and leave?  Are there any body language cues the horses are giving me that I could honor more rather than go in for one more hug or pet?”

The next time I was out with the horses, I tried my experiment.  I was ready to leave and was going to make the rounds to say goodbye.  The pasture mate of my horse was itching for attention.  She had soft, blinking eyes when I approached her.  She tipped her nose toward me, breathed on me and looked at me with both of her eyes.  All of those were “yes” cues to me.  I gave her a scratch in her favorite places.

I then went to say goodbye to my horse.   He was relaxing, facing out of the shelter when I approached.  I noticed his fixed eye.  I slowed my pace, but his eye did not change, so I stopped.  Rather than over-ride his “no” about me approaching, I stopped and copied his body language.  He was facing out, so I faced out.  He was relaxing, so I closed my eyes and relaxed.  Without even trying, I started to yawn.  It felt great to just do nothing for a moment and breathe.   (Yawning is a wonderful way to release stress).  My horse started licking and chewing (a relaxation response).  I kept yawning (my own relaxation response).

This went on for quite some time.  No agenda on my part other than to experience what my horse was already doing and see what it was like.  Before long, the other horse joined us, facing out of the shelter, relaxing.

I experimented with where was the sweet spot for the most comfortable way for me to stand and breathe.  It was so relaxing that at one point, I did not want my horse to approach me lest it interrupt this profound sense of peace and well-being.

At the end of what must have been at least 30 minutes, I felt great.  It all began with me honoring my horse’s “no” and becoming curious about what he was doing.

Afterwards, I thought to myself, “I need to do this more often.”

Yes, hugs, pets and kisses are fun, but breathing and relaxing in each other’s presence, that was peaceful and invigorating.

I challenge you the next time you say hello or goodbye to your pet, spend time just being in their presence, breathing and relaxing.  I’d love to know what you discover.

Can A Horse Choose to Be Haltered?

It’s a regular ritual to take my horse, Chaco, for a walk and to bring his pasture mate, Elsie along with him.  Sometimes, though, when I show up with halters in hand and ask who wants to go, it’s Elsie that stops eating and turns and walks over to me at the gate to get her halter on so she can go.

Once she has her halter on, I ask Chaco if he’s going to come with us.  Sometimes he comes over immediately, other times it’s after some coaxing.  If we actually start to leave, he is at the gate ready to go, not wanting to be left behind by himself.

However, it’s not always clear if he really wants to go, or if he just doesn’t want to be left behind, or if he’d prefer to go by himself.  It is probably all of those things and many others that I have yet to discover.

It was with this on my mind that one afternoon I walked out into the field with both halters in hand.   My plan was to only ask Chaco and Elsie if they wanted to go.  If they did, then they needed to put their head in their halters all by themselves.  If they didn’t, then I would take that as they didn’t want to go.

I approached Chaco first.  He stopped eating, facing straight ahead, with wide eyes and no blinking.  There were no white of the eyes, but they weren’t blinking.  (I interpret whites of the eyes as fear or high stress, while blinking is a relaxed response).  I came within 10 feet and stopped, waiting to see if his body language would change.  It didn’t.  In my humanness, just to be sure, I held the halter out parallel to him.  He just stood there, not changing his body language.

“Ok, I’ll take that as a no,” I thought to myself.

I set his halter aside and approached Elsie.  She kept eating, then lifted her head, looked at me and put it in the halter all while she continued to chew grass.

“Ok, I’ll take that as a yes,” I thought to myself.

I started to leave with Elsie walking behind me with slack in the lead rope and picked up Chaco’s halter on the way out.  As Elsie and I walked across the pasture, I glanced over my shoulder and there was Chaco picking up the most elegant, relaxed, healthy horse looking walk I had ever seen.  His expression was bright, his body moved in freedom and swayed with ease, and he had curiosity, choosing to follow Elsie just off her hip.  It really was beautiful to see.

When we reached the gate I offered the halter to Chaco again, but he just looked straight ahead, with the fixed eyes and didn’t move.  In my mind I did not want to walk down the road with 2 horses without halters, so I interpreted his body language as he did not really want to go.

So I left with Elsie and walked up the driveway leaving Chaco behind alone.  Knowing horses are herd animals I knew deep down he did not want to be left alone.  As Elsie and I neared the top of the driveway, Chaco picked up a trot along the fence line following us, clearly wanting to come with us.

Elsie and I turned around and went back to the gate where Chaco planted himself.  I held out the halter again, and this time he tipped his nose into it.  I also got the sense that it wasn’t that he didn’t want to go, but rather, he didn’t want a halter.  I told him, “I get that.  I wouldn’t want one either.  Unfortunately, this is the best I have right now.”

We had a great walk, found all sorts of plants to browse, and I found some blackberries to pick.  But it stuck with me that he didn’t want the halter, but given his options, he was willing to acquiesce.

The next day all three of us attempted another walk.  I appeared with the halters.  Elsie lined up to get hers, ready to go, and then Chaco positioned himself in a way I had never noticed until then.  He was pointed toward the gate like he wanted to go, but he put me on his right side, 45 degrees off his head.  From that place there was no way to easily put his halter on since halters fasten on the left side of a horse.  For a moment, I almost considered repositioning him or myself so I could be in a better position for haltering, but I stopped myself and waited to see what would happen.

Horses are so spatially oriented, that where and how they position themselves is never an accident.  Their primary language is body language.  With this in mind, I waited.  Nothing happened, except with a relaxed demeanor, Chaco quietly maintained his position.

And then, the realization hit me, and I had to smile.

“You want to go, but you don’t want a halter on,” I said to myself.

I thought a moment.  What could I do to let him know that I heard his request?  I’m still not ready to take two horses down the road without halters, but I could change our plans and just walk across the property to a lightly wooded area they enjoyed and had some great plants they could browse.

I opened the gate and led out with Elsie in hand, and Chaco happily followed right behind, sans halter.  We walked straight to their special place, and I threw the lead rope over Elsie’s back, and both Elsie and Chaco got down to business eating their favorite plants.

To me, that was success.  Chaco made a request.  I heard it, and was able to let him know that I heard it and could honor it.

It’s these simple two-way communications with horses that are so fascinating to me.  Chaco’s been teaching me his language for over 10 years now, and ever so slowly, I’m starting to catch on.  I’m sure there is more to learn.  Sometimes I wonder what it must be like for Chaco trying to train a human.

There are moments with him where I exclaim, “Yeah!  This new thing I’ve been trying in his rehab is working!”  I’m sure he has moments where he exclaims, “Yeah!  She hears me and gets it.”

One thing I know for sure:  “Chaco, it’s an honor to be your student.”

Sans halter browsing the plants.

Sans halter browsing the plants.

First Aid. Can Horses Have A Say?

The short answer is YES.

The other day, my horse, Chaco, got a scrape on his lower leg and back of his hoof.  It was superficial, but it did bleed.  So I cleaned it up, and as I was doing so, I noticed that the back of the hoof by the frog had some superficial abrasions.  I wasn’t sure how to be sure it was cleaned out, so I decided to give it an Epsom salt soak in a boot.

Chaco was loose and let me put the boot on, and then he just stood there for some time while I did some chores.  After a while I went over to where he was standing and asked him to pick his leg up so I could take the boot off.  His response was to just stand there and not pick up his foot.  I asked two more times, but to no avail.  It was then I realized he was trying to tell me something.

I let go of my agenda of taking the boot off.  I stood up, looked at him and said, “Let me know when you want me to take it off.”  (I assumed he would “tell” me, but I didn’t know what that would look like.   I was also curious to know what he would come up with when he did want me to take the boot off).

I walked away and went back to doing chores.  Meanwhile, Chaco remained in his chosen place to stand, not moving an inch.  Several minutes later as I finished picking up the last manure pile and was about to carry the bucket away, I heard the shifting of pea gravel in the paddock.  I looked over in Chaco’s direction and noticed him starting to fidget.

“Oh, I think you want the boot off,” I thought to myself.

I wasn’t sure that was what he meant, but I knew if I asked for his foot and it came easily, then that was what he wanted.

Sure enough, when I walked over to him and bent down to pick up his foot, he picked it up freely of his own accord.  I just went with his idea and removed the boot.

When this whole episode started, my concern was trying to make sure the little crevices that got scraped in the back of his foot got clean.  The idea of an Epsom salt foot soak popped into my head.  I wasn’t sure how long to soak, but that’s where Chaco came in with his own input.  I didn’t have to figure it out on my own, he let me know.

I could have labeled Chaco stubborn when he wouldn’t pick his foot up initially for me to take the boot off.  However, I would have completely missed what he was trying to communicate.  Instead, when I went with what he was offering me, something much more meaningful happened.  He had something relevant to say about the situation, and this human happened to figure it out.

It’s these simple two-way, cross-species communications that fascinate me.  I’m always curious to know what will Chaco have to say next?

Learning “Horse” From A Horse

I’m beginning to recognize that look from my horse, Chaco.  That look that says, “Can we go over there?”

Recently, I took him and his pasture mate for a walk and they both moved out well.  About 100 feet into our walk down the road, Chaco casually came to a stop.

Back in the days when I learned how to train horses, I would want the horse to keep moving.  But these days, I’m curious about what they would like to do.  So when Chaco stopped I turned around to see what he wanted.  With a relaxed head and soft eyes, he just looked at me, and then turned his head 90 degrees to the left and looked in that direction for several seconds before looking back at me again.

“Oh, you want to go over there,” I said out loud.

I looked around and thought to myself, “Is there any point to walking all the way down the road except that it was my original idea?”

We were out on a walk, and that was my primary goal.  Where we actually went wasn’t so important.  So I switched gears, and honored Chaco’s request.

“Ok.  Let’s go,” I said to him.

I put the lead rope over his back so he was free to make his own choices, and I walked by myself in the direction he indicated encouraging him to go where he wanted.  I was also curious to see what he would do, and if in fact I had read his request correctly.

He waited a moment and watched me walk past him.  And then, sure enough, he decided to make a left turn to the shoulder and start browsing the array of plants.

It was a quiet and peaceful evening.  No cars were around, both horses were “loose” on the shoulder of the road happily munching away with their lead ropes over their backs.  What more could I want?

I’m getting better at understanding what Chaco is saying to me when he initiates with his own idea.  It is that conversation that fascinates me, and I’m sure he will continue to teach me his language.  I never dreamed that I’d be learning “horse” from a horse, but I have the best teacher, and I’m not about to pass this opportunity up.

Chaco communicating his request.

Chaco communicating his request.

Chaco browsing the plants.

Chaco browsing the plants.


The Body Language of a Request

Having spent years learning to ride and then learning to train horses, all of the focus was on training the horse to do what I asked.  I learned a lot about horses and how to train them and how to ride them, however, I didn’t really know them.

When I took in my first senior horse to rehab several years ago, my focus was different.  It was no longer about me, but rather about the horse and what could I do to help facilitate bringing him back to full health.  The only question I asked of the horse was, “What can I do to help you be fully alive?”

What I have learned over the past several years rehabbing senior horses is that every moment of every day horses are speaking through their body language.  Much of it we miss and don’t understand.

Just the other day I went out to see my horse, Chaco.  I missed him, and as much as I wanted to go up to him and give him a big hug, I held back and simply took a meandering walk in his direction to see if he was okay with me approaching him.

He was standing, taking a nap, and I stopped and waited several feet away from him. Eventually I slowly approached his shoulder.  He seemed okay if I put my hand on his shoulder, and he would close his eyes in certain places where I placed my hand, but the look in his eye alternated between going to sleep and being fixed.

I searched for how could I touch where his ears did not go back in the slightest way and where his eyes started to close.  It was a tricky dance to dance that day.  I couldn’t quite find the perfect spot for very long.  I really wanted to give him a hug, but because I was having difficulty finding just the right spot to place my hands, I knew he was already tolerating me touching him, and a hug was not what he wanted.

So I took a step back and went around to the front of him.  When I stood there looking at him his expression and eyes and ears were softer and more accepting so I stayed there.

Looking at him, I asked out loud, “How can I help you?”

I had no answer myself, and I wondered if he felt o.k.  I just watched him and his body language, hopeful that he might enlighten me.

After a few minutes of me breathing, relaxing and just observing him while I asked that question, he eventually turned his head 90 degrees to his left and looked at the field on the other side of the fence.

I had seen that look in his eyes before.  (It was when we took a walk down the road and he just meandered to a stop at a neighboring driveway, turned his head 90 degrees and looked down the driveway and then back at me.  I knew there was a grass patch at the end of that driveway that he liked to graze, so we took a detour to the grass patch, and I let him graze).

So standing in the field with him this particular day and seeing that familiar look in his eyes, I took a chance and took off his halter, grabbed the grooming bucket I had brought out with me and walked over to the gate while telling him, “Come on, Chaco, let’s get out of here and you can have some goodies (i.e., the green grass).”

“Would he come with me?” I wondered to myself.

Since the gate was only 25 feet away, it didn’t take me long to get there, but knowing that a horse’s resting heart rate is half the rate of a human’s, I knew it might take him several minutes to stroll over to the gate.  I also still wasn’t even sure he was asking me to let him out.

Sure enough though, not far behind me, he came.  Of course, his pasture mate perked up when she saw that he was going to get out.

In my mind I’m thinking, “Come on, Chaco, let’s go before she gets up here.”

Chaco almost picked up a trot, got to the gate, and I was just able to close it in time so only he got out.

We proceeded to have a lovely afternoon.  He grazed for a few minutes, and then we went for a walk down the road and brought his pasture mate along.  He moved out well, navigated a tight spot through the trees and bushes on a trail and found some sword ferns to nibble on in the process.

All of this happened because I refrained from hugging him, and instead stopped and observed him to try and figure out what he wanted.

The glare in his eyes and the ears slightly back were a “no” to my hands touching him.  The 90 degree turn of his head to the left in the direction of the neighboring pasture was a request.


These are fixed eyes and ears very slightly back. He is tolerating me being in his space taking his picture.


Chaco’s 90-degree turn of his head. Here he’s focusing on something he sees. Notice his ears pointed forward.

When we slow down and take time to register every little movement a horse makes and ask ourselves what that might mean, we start to discover that they are communicating all the time.

I’m sure I’m just on the tip of the iceberg of what he is communicating to me.  The more I listen, the more he teaches me the body language of horses, and the more I discover who he is.  For me, that is why I rehab senior horses.


Chaco being himself on a grazing walk through the woods.



Do Horses Have Emotional Lives?

When I got back into horses as an adult, I volunteered for several years at an equine therapy program for at-risk youth and teens in drug and alcohol recovery.  The horses did a great job helping these kids learn how to make positive, healthy choices in their lives.

The horses were so good at it that I didn’t realize they had emotional needs themselves.  Yes, they had their basic physical needs met, like shelter, food and water, and they had some emotional needs met in that they lived in a herd and were not confined to a stall.  But I had no idea they had an emotional life of just being a horse that had nothing to do with the people they were helping.

When I took in Chaco, my first senior horse retiring from therapy work, he was burned out.  How did I know he was burned out?  He had always been a hard keeper, but it started to get even more difficult for him to maintain his weight.  But even more than that, he was also a docile horse that never bit or kicked.  When he started a pattern of biting people, that is when we knew he was burned out.

Knowing that physical and emotional needs are intertwined, I began with revamping his diet to optimize his nutrition on the physical side.  To attend to his emotional needs, I put him on acreage with space to move day and night in a herd.

As he became healthy and his curiosity returned, I realized that there was much more to his emotional life.  In his state of new health, I now had something to compare to when he had an off day.  If his demeanor was different on a particular day, I could look around and consider what changed in his environment that might affect him.

When one of his pasture mates died a few years later, his demeanor was visibly different for 2 weeks.  It was then that I realized this was an emotional issue, and it was on a scale I had never witnessed before in a horse.

This experience introduced me to flower essences  While his demeanor over the first week improved with the help of flower essences, he still wasn’t quite his usual self.

I tried to think of who might be able to lift his spirits.  My sister came to mind.  The first time they had met, they instantly hit it off.

When she came and spent the day with him, his eyes brightened and his curiosity returned.  It was a positive turning point for him in processing the loss of his horse friend.

The emotional lives of horses.  If it still seems outside your experience, spend time watching them and being around them where they are free to be themselves and you are not asking anything of them.

After years of observing and comparing different experiences, I can say that I have seen JOY in Chaco.  I have seen GRIEF in Chaco.  I have seen SADNESS in Chaco.  I have seen EXCITEMENT in Chaco.  I have seen FEAR in Chaco.  I have seen PANIC in Chaco.  I have seen ASTONISHMENT in Chaco.  I have seen APPRECIATION in Chaco.  I have seen CONTENTMENT in Chaco.

Today, if someone asked me if horses have emotional lives, I would say “Yes, absolutely, and it has much more depth than we realize.”

I’m sure there is still more to Chaco’s life as a horse that I will come to understand over time.  It’s like a great mystery novel.  I can’t put this book down.  It keeps getting better with every page turn.










Teaching a Toddler to Read a Horse

Can a 2 ½ year-old learn to read the body language a horse?  If you had asked me that question a year ago, I would have said I don’t know.  Today, however, my answer would be, “Yes.  Definitely.”

Recently, my 2 ½ year-old nephew came to visit.  He was enamored with shoveling manure and helping fill water buckets for the water trough.  When Chaco, my horse, came over to say hello to him, he hid behind his mom.  He was very much aware of how tiny he was compared to Chaco’s 1100 lbs.  While he hid behind his mom, we all enjoyed each other’s company, leaving the natural boundaries in place.  Chaco remained in his place, and let my nephew enjoy the comfort of hiding behind his mom.  The last thing I wanted to do was make my nephew over-ride his own personal boundaries and go pet Chaco.

At the end of their few-hour visit, it was time to say good-bye to the horses.  I picked my nephew up to make the rounds.  He was much more comfortable in my arms around these big horses.  We said goodbye to Chaco at his shoulder, and then moved a few feet away to give Chaco more space.  Chaco was relaxed, so I spoke to my nephew is a slow, low voice about Chaco’s eyes.  Since he had recently learned human vocabulary for body parts, he understood what I meant by the word “eyes”, and began watching Chaco’s eyes with focus.

To my nephew I said, “This is Chaco’s nap time.  Night.  Night.  Do you have night, night at home?”

The more I talked about Chaco’s nap with an increasingly quiet and slow voice, Chaco’s eyes blinked slower and slower.  Meanwhile, my nephew was mesmerized by Chaco’s closing eyes.  He even leaned forward slightly, intently studying Chaco’s relaxing eyes.

It was so peaceful that I did not want to interrupt the moment.  We remained like that for several minutes.  I continued to speak slowly and quietly, experimenting myself with how my voice was luring Chaco to sleep.

What a perfect end to the day.  I was pleasantly surprised by the focus and curiosity of my 2 ½ year-old nephew.  How great is it that at his age he is learning to read the fine nuances of the eyes of a horse?  I can’t wait to see what unfolds next in his understanding as he grows up.

The Beauty of Boundaries

In rehabbing senior horses retiring from therapy work with at-risk youth, the horses that come to God’s Window are typically well-trained, docile horses.  Often times they just need a break and allowed to be a horse and do horse things 24/7.

I once learned from horse ethologist, Mary Ann Simonds, that in wild horse language, whoever has their eyes in front is the leader.   A wild stallion who takes one of his foals on patrol with him, will clearly have his eyes in front and then the baby’s eyes and head are just behind the stallion’s eyes and ears.  There is a wonderful photograph by Barbara Wheeler of this body positioning.

As an experiment, I started leading my horses that way to see what would happen.  It has made such a positive difference in safely leading my horses that I don’t even remember exactly how I used to lead horses.

The first time I need to lead any horse with a halter and lead rope, I establish this boundary right away.  My eyes are in front, and the horse’s eyes are behind me.  I begin by taking a few steps and then stopping.  Once I stop, I turn around and remain where I stopped and then ask the horse to back two steps away from me.  Once they do that, then I turn back around and take a few steps forward.  I stop again, and turn around and ask the horse to back up two steps.  This is all done in a very low-key way.  I keep doing this exercise until the horse starts to stop with its eyes behind my shoulder.

I remember the day my second horse, Thunder, arrived.  He was a 27 year-old gelding and a very well trained, docile horse.  I hesitated to immediately do too much boundary setting with him right as he walked off the trailer because I didn’t want to impose anything on him.  He had just retired and was seeing his new home for the first time.

As we walked down the driveway his ears were perked forward and his head was up surveying the area and the resident herd of three horses.  His energy was also up, and he had a forward walk.  Since I was just walking with him down the driveway and not asserting any leadership on my part, he led the way and walked in front of me.  I ended up being at his shoulder.  I let this go on for about half-way down the driveway when I realized that this was not the safest place for me to be.  He was clearly in front of me and focused on the resident herd, and not really aware of me.


I am at Thunder’s shoulder, and his eyes are in front of mine, which tells him that he is leading me, which is not the safest place for me to be.

I decided to take back the leadership role and set a few boundaries before anything got further out of hand.  I backed him up a few steps until he was behind me.  Then I walked forward a few steps, stopped and backed him up again.  After about three times of doing this he took a submissive posture behind me.  He was still very aware of his surroundings, and he was listening to me as well.  I felt much safer, and the rest of the day unfolded without incident.

In the days after Thunder arrived, I took a walk with all three of us:  me, Thunder and Chaco, my first horse.  I was really black and white with the boundary that both of them needed to be behind me when I led them together on a walk.  Walking two horses at the same time had double the capacity for something to go wrong, so the best chance I had of safely walking them together was for both of them to respect the boundaries I needed, which was both of them walking behind me.

Chaco had no problem stopping behind me having seen this routine for years.  Thunder, however, was new.  Several times he stopped in front of me.  I would patiently back him until he was behind me and then go forward again.  On one of these corrections to Thunder’s positioning, Chaco stopped at a respectful distance and cocked a hind leg in relaxation taking a standing nap while Thunder learned the ropes.

Chaco knew the routine and didn’t bother testing the boundary.  Thunder, however, was new and not familiar with the routine.  But it didn’t take long.  Within a few walks he was regularly walking behind me.  Once that was in place, I felt comfortable asking him to walk ahead of me on occasion or laying the lead rope over his back while he grazed the plants on the trail.

Whether leading two horses or one, the simple boundary of placing the horse behind me when leading has allowed our walks to become a calm and peaceful outing.  I feel safe, and the horses feel safe, which builds mutual trust.  What a great way to safely enjoy the beautiful surroundings and the company of my horses.


Notice how the first horse has his eyes in front. He is leading. The two following horses both have their eyes behind the horse they are following. This is a submissive posture.

Allowing a Horse to Change Your Life


I recently had a photographer friend come out and spend part of a day taking pictures of my horse, Chaco and his herd.  Since I keep Chaco in as natural of an environment as possible and let him have his own opinion, even when it differs from mine, I let my friend know what to expect so he could decide if it would work for him taking pictures.

Here were the parameters:

The horses live in a herd on acreage.  They come and go as they please.  Their resting heart rate is half the rate of ours, so we need to allow double the amount of time that we think we do.  If they sense any agenda from us, or a tight time frame, they will feel it and likely respond with less cooperation.

He was fine with that, so one fall foggy morning we met at the field where my horse lives with his herd.  We entered the field and walked away from the horses, ignoring them.  It’s a great way to give horses space, and let them decide of their own free will if they want to close that space between us and come over and say hello.  A human can walk up to a horse, enter its space and say hello, however, that is the human initiating the contact.  A fun experiment is to allow the horse to initiate or not initiate the contact.

So we walked the other way, far away.  Sure enough, Chaco, the herd leader picked up a very active, forward walk coming in our direction.  The kind of forward walk that is treasured in the dressage world.  He started following us, and Pearl, the second in command under Chaco, followed suit, right off of Chaco’s hip.

I had never had horses follow me with such determination.  He and Pearl weren’t mean or aggressive, but rather, very curious.

It was as if he was asking, “Who is this new person with a large camera and a backpack?  And he’s ignoring us.  Who does that other than Mary?”

After we walked a few hundred feet, we stopped and looked back from where we had come.  Chaco and Pearl were still hot on our trail with their very active walk.  But the walk was not a straight line toward us, but rather a meandering line.  We decided to keep moving.  Here we were on several acres trying to get away from these very curious horses.

Chaco did not give up his curiosity.

Finally, I said, “O.K., Let’s stop.  I think he wants to check us out.  Let’s let him say hello.”

We stopped and Chaco came straight up to me and my photographer friend.  This was a two-eye approach for Chaco.  When a horse gives you both their eyes, you know you have their complete attention.

Chaco was particularly curious about my friend.  He breathed on him (horses breathe into each others nostrils as a greeting, and they have an incredible sense of smell, well beyond our capabilities).  He also checked out the camera.  Chaco was right there in our space.  It was natural for my friend to pet him on the neck.  After several moments, Chaco decided everything checked out o.k., so he turned and left to graze about 20 feet away.

Just as quickly as Chaco decided he really needed to meet my friend, he just as quickly went to grazing as soon as the meeting occurred.

As we watched Chaco graze just a few horse-lengths away, my friend commented, “Wow.  After all that (being intently followed), it’s suddenly over and no big deal.”


The next several hours my photographer friend and I walked the field and the trails, taking photos of Chaco and the other horses.  Chaco was agreeable to all of it.  Once we passed his initial inspection we had his approval for being in his home.

I think our biggest fear as humans is that if we allow a horse to have an opinion and act of their own free will, they will NOT want to be with us. That is a legitimate fear.  On the flip side of that fear is a connection with horses that is beyond our wildest dreams.  When they connect with you of their own free will, it is one of the most amazing experiences because it can’t be forced, nor scripted.  It’s really them wanting to communicate with you.

Over the years of experimenting with this idea, I have found that horses are curious animals that when allowed to express their opinions of both a “yes” and a “no”, there is a third option that starts to appear that’s not about yes and no, but rather about wanting to connect with you, wanting your help with something, or wanting to just be in your presence.  It is then that you see who they are, and how they want to interact with you.  And it’s the real you they’re interested in, not the you that has a million things to get done.

I think horses are just as curious about us as we are about them.  Allow them the space to be themselves and prepare to be blown away by what they have to say about being with you.  It will change your life.  I know it has changed mine.

Are Horses Territorial?

Eastern Washington’s stunning scenery.

Several years ago I took my horse, Chaco, and his pasture mate, Barley, on a summer vacation to the hills of eastern Washington.  A friend of mine had 75 acres, and the back 45 acres of sage brush hillside were Chaco’s and Barley’s home for two weeks.  The climate was dry and hot; the dirt was like powder.  The horses loved it.

To get to this back 45 acres, we had to pass through a several acre field where my friend kept her herd of 10 horses.  I knew many of her horses well, and especially the herd leader.  Other than Chaco, he was one of the fairest horse leaders I have ever known.

He could set a pace and lead you out of the mountains and get you back to the truck and trailer by dark.  He was a wonderful protector of his herd.  If someone unsavory ever came on the property, he didn’t take his eyes off them until they left.  While he had boundaries and wasn’t afraid express them, he didn’t waste energy on unnecessary things.  I never saw him be overly aggressive.  The best way to describe him was he was fair and of sound mind.

One evening after I fed Chaco his special food down by the house, I walked him and Barley up to their 45-acre home in the dark.  There was just enough light from the moon and stars for me to be able to see.  Horses have spectacular night vision, so walking in the dark was quite comfortable for Chaco and Barley.

To get to where we were going, we had to walk up this canyon-like corridor that opened to the field where the herd of 10 horses lived.  Then we would have to walk through that herd’s home to get to the 45-acre hillside where Chaco and Barley would go.

As we walked, I kept Chaco and Barley behind me so it was clear to them that I was leading this little herd of three:  me, Chaco and Barley.  Barley always deferred to Chaco, and Chaco would defer to me, so if and when we came upon the herd of 10 horses, I would be the one calling the shots.  The last thing I wanted was Chaco and Barley thinking they needed to negotiate or defend themselves when we reached the 10 horses.  That would be dangerous for me.

As we walked up the corridor, the sky was midnight black and speckled with so many stars I had difficulty recognizing any constellations.  It was breathtaking and peaceful.  We were about 2/3 of the way up the corridor when I heard a set of hooves come thundering toward us.  I stopped and made sure Chaco and Barley were behind me.   I stood tall with open, relaxed, square shoulders to communicate to this approaching horse to stop at a distance from us.

Sure enough, the herd leader came into focus, his white/gray coat easily seen in the dark.  Once he saw us, he slowed to a walk and stopped about 25 feet away, his head up, ears pricked forward and both eyes on us.

I was quite happy that he stopped where he did.  A horse’s personal space is about 10-15 feet out from its body in all directions.  12 feet out from me and my herd, and 12 feet out from him are 24 feet and right about where he stopped.  There was no need to do anything because we had both just acknowledged each other’s presence at a safe distance.  He was respecting my space, and I was respecting his space.

I really wasn’t sure what was going to happen next, but it didn’t matter.  We had mutual acknowledgement and respect, and neither of us had a need to make the other do anything.

In my mind I’m thinking, “Hey, it’s just us.  Sorry to alarm you.  We’re just walking up to the 45-acre hillside to drop off Chaco and Barley.”

We had reached the edge of his territory, and as protector of his herd, he wanted to know who we were.  Out of respect for him and his home and herd, I didn’t move, but I also did not give up any of my ground.  We were both square to each other, and we were both looking at each other with both eyes.  (Both eyes in horse language mean complete attention).

Neither of us moved, and yet we were both very much aware.  A move forward by either us at that point would be considered an aggressive move.  A retreat by either of us at that point would be a submissive move.   Both of us stood in the neutral place of being neither aggressive, nor submissive. It was the meeting of two leaders, both respectful of the other, and both aware of their responsibility to their respective herds, and both not wanting any trouble.

That moment lasted several moments.  I could have stayed there forever:  the diamond stars glittering in the night sky, this powerful gray horse meeting us at the gate to his field, fulfilling his duty as protector of his herd, and Chaco and Barley waiting respectfully behind me.

For me, it’s moments like these that I treasure most about interacting with horses.  I have found that if I am patient and willing to wait long enough, horses will make their own decisions.  It’s fascinating to me to find out what those decisions are.

So on this beautiful evening, in the presence of all these horses, I waited to see what would happen.  After thoroughly checking us out from a distance, the big gray decided we were not a threat.  He stepped aside to let us pass through his home.  I was honored.

In order to be as unobtrusive as possible, we found a path around the herd of 10 horses and headed for the far gate to the 45-acres hillside.  The resident herd was curious and began following us with a relaxed posture.  I did not want any problems, so I did not allow any of them to get too close to us.  We crossed their home without incident.

Two weeks later, on our last day there, I walked up to the 45-acre hillside to catch Chaco and Barley to lead them across the resident herd’s field for the last time.  I had grown to like that twice daily walk that took about 30 minutes round trip.  The crunch of dry grass and soft dirt under my feet had begun to feel like home.

Near the gate to the 45-acre hillside, the leader and his herd had congregated.  They had never been at that gate before, but on this day they were there.  I sensed that they knew we were leaving for the last time.

I spent a long moment just hanging out and being with them, breathing, relaxing and enjoying their company and the beautiful place in which they lived.  I thanked them, the herd leader in particular, for sharing their home with us for the past two weeks.  It all began with him allowing us to traverse his territory without incident that first night.

With a heart full of appreciation for him and his herd, I reluctantly said goodbye.  It was a bittersweet moment as I gathered up Chaco and Barley, and we walked through the resident herd’s home for the final time.

I savored every step down that hillside and the 360 degree panoramic view before me: sparkling blue sky, a few token billowing clouds, the river valley below us, and the mountains framing the land. This time, the horses watched us go.  As we neared our exit, I looked back one last time, took it all in, then dipped out of sight.

Chaco following the resident herd leader on the trail.

Preparing to leave on our last day.