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Mixed sig­nals

EQUUS - - Contents - By Martha Craw­ford Can­tarini

Many years ago, I learned an im­por­tant les­son from a 22-year-old for­mer race­horse. I was vis­it­ing a friend, and she had been giv­ing a rid­ing les­son to a small child. The hand­some old geld­ing trav­eled with his head down, eyes half open and his ears flop­ping back and forth. I watched as he walked with the child, and no­ticed him purse his lips oc­ca­sion­ally as if to say it was time for the les­son to be over.

After the child had dis­mounted and gone home, the horse stood qui­etly in the shade of a tree. Wait­ing pa­tiently, he yawned lazily and gazed in all four di­rec­tions. It didn’t mat­ter which way he looked---east, west, north or south---what­ever he saw did not af­fect him, nor did he re­spond to the sounds of con­ver­sa­tion, cars start­ing, chil­dren squeal­ing or a dog bark­ing.

Fi­nally, as our con­ver­sa­tion wound down, my friend asked my hus­band, John, to ride the old horse back to the barn for her. She slipped the reins over the horse’s head and gave my hus­band a leg up. John---a for­mer jockey who has rid­den only race­horses---out of habit slid his legs up the horse’s sides as if to put his feet into short rac­ing stir­rups. It re­ally was only a very small move­ment, but the ef­fect was in­stant.

Sud­denly alert, the old horse straight­ened his pos­ture, raised his head, pricked his ears and flared his nos­trils. His eyes be­came wide as saucers. He hadn’t been near a race­track in nearly 20 years, but he in­stantly re­mem­bered what that ges­ture meant:

"It's time to race!" John quickly low­ered his legs and let them dan­gle loose.The horse re­laxed im­me­di­ately, and John al­lowed him to stand while we waited for him to sigh. With his body lan­guage, John had in­ad­ver­tently sig­naled that it would soon be time to bolt. A sigh would be a sign that horse un­der­stood the new in­struc­tions to stay quiet and had re­laxed. Soon he did just that, and we took

him back to the barn with­out in­ci­dent.

Over the years, I’ve read many ar­ti­cles in­struct­ing peo­ple how to read a horse’s body lan­guage. What few peo­ple re­al­ize is how good horses are at read­ing your body lan­guage. The fact is, horses are ex­perts at read­ing a per­son’s pos­ture, ex­pres­sions and ges­tures be­cause that’s how they com­mu­ni­cate with each other in the wild. And it’s a skill that pro­vides a ready-made way for us to com­mu­ni­cate.

Ev­ery move you make means some­thing­work­ing withto a your horse. horse,As you’re un­der sad­dle or on the ground, you’ll want your body lan­guage to match what you are ask­ing him to do. Con­sider how a fear­ful rider might ask a horse to jump. Her aids may say, “Go for­ward,” but the ten­sion in her body says, “Be afraid!” Can the re­sult­ing re­fusal be a sur­prise?

Con­sis­tency is also im­por­tant. If your sig­nals vary each time you you ride your horse, you will only con­fuse him. You can count on a horse to al­ways be hon­est as he tells you how he feels us­ing his own lan­guage. So you need to make sure what you to make sure are telling him is also true. As that aging Thor­ough­bred once re­minded me, horses will re­mem­ber what they’ve learned for a very long time. It’s up to us to make sure those lessons help our horses to be at their best. In turn, our horses can mo­ti­vate us to be our own best selves.

HOLLYWOOD IN­SIDER: Martha Craw­ford Can­tarini was once a stunt rider and horse trainer for ma­jor mo­tion pic­tures.

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