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Safety is important for every rider. Even the most experienced among us can still have accidents. But there is one factor that is more important than anything else for staying safe around horses. It is more important than following a set of rules and can help you make decisions to stay safe in any situation. It’s being aware.

Being aware is simply noticing what is happening around you. With horses, a big part of this is noticing their emotional state. Experienced horsemen may seem to be able to intuitively “sense” what is going on with a horse, but in reality they are noticing small changes in the horse that provide clues to what that horse is thinking and what they might do next.

Watch the video below to learn more about what these small tells are and how you can become more aware.


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35 Responses

  1. I knew this information already but think it’s a great topic for a video, because as you say, it’s not just the position of the ears, but what’s going on (tbat we can see) with the rest of the horse and what we can infer to some degree by the environment around the horse. So often what is taught is taught in isolation (e.g. ears back = angry) instead of the holistic approach (all things considered) tbat you present in your video. Once again, Callie, thank you for another insightful video.

  2. Great video! I have one question, how would you get a horse to go from a sympathetic state to a more calm parasympathetic state? How would you achieve that on the ground and in the saddle?

    1. Great question but potentially complicated answer… the real answer is it depends on the horse – try different techniques and notice what works – ideas: movement, wither scratching, stroking or light massage, asking for small, easy responses, walking patterns, moving away from distractions into a calmer environment.

  3. Really good session – assessment of the horses physical and emotional state is key to success in handling or riding and this topic is not shared enough with instructors and students. Awareness can prevent accidents on the ground or in the saddle. Thank you so much for this video Callie!

  4. Great video Callie, I think more could be said about this subject to turn fear into respect for horses.
    I especially like the “database of experience” with horses concept.
    In the year and a half with my horse I have learned that he responds to my calm voice even in tense conditons. We’ve built trust with each other. That trust is essential since I am almost 60 and am more apt to be injured.

  5. Informative video! My horse has just completed meds for stomach ulcers and his demeanour has drastically changed – like he is a new horse with me and his herd mates. He was unsafe and unrideable before – high headed, anxious, kicky, bitey, bucky. I am basically starting over with a calmer, happier, nicer horse, trying to make learning fun with his ground work and not pushing him. What I am finding is his ears are still laid back flat most of the time when we do ground exercises. He doesn’t seem to be overly tense – head is much lower (than before), tail isn’t swishing much and he doesn’t mind the saddle – it does fit properly. I don’t think pain is an issue. He seems compliant enough going through the exercises but still those ears are pinned back whenever I am asking him to do something, whether he is at liberty or on a lead rope. What should I make of this?

    1. Hi Denise, if you aren’t seeing a lot of overall tension the ears may be just be habit or a mannerism of this horse. I also have a horse who tends to keep her ears back more than most, but it doesn’t affect her overall handling or riding. This is where knowing the “baseline” for a particular horse can be very helpful.


  6. Love your blog.
    My question… my mare just foaled on Monday. Super excited. She is being very protective (understandable). She will come up to me for her grain, but the way she approaches concerns me and I’m not sure how to go about it. She walks forward with her ears pinned back and her head stretched forward. She’ll eat and let me scratch her head for a few moments and then walks away. She does this many times until the grain is gone. Also, when I am standing around her and the colt, she will get between us and turn her rump toward me. I’m not certain how I should react. Should I shush her away showing I’m not scared, or move towards her shoulder, or what? Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated. Thank you

    1. Hi Brandy, I would address the subtle aggression, but be very careful in how you do it. Instead of tackling it head on and essentially scolding the aggression which could trigger more, I would at ways you could reward more “polite” behavior. An example of how you could start this with the food would be to stand behind a fence/ wall etc to give you protection, then wait to give her the food until you get a moment of a more pleasant expression, then I would toss a few handfuls in a bucket and walk away. If she increases the aggressive displays when you withhold the food, just wait, eventually they always tire of it and start to walk away and then this is when you give the food to reward.

  7. Thank you for posting Callie! I have been learning and working with my horses for well over a year now, and I can better “read” my horse from these cues. FYI… it’s the AUTONOMIC nervous system. I love your videos. They really help cement what I learn and practice on the ground!
    I’ve also been reading “Horse speak The Equine-Human Translation Guide” which is quite enlightening and spells out many of the little signs you describe.

  8. What about sucked in nostrils and mouth muscles? I would think that would indicate tension. My horse will frequently exhibit this. He has some TMJ and stomach issues but if I spend some time working on his TMJ joint he will eventually relax his mouth. It distresses me to see him tense.

  9. I loved the video. I sold my horse last November and now have the neighbors horse for 2 weeks. He’s big and I looked for the soft eye when around him. This video was more information. I want to groom him safely and just be near him without getting hurt. Thank you for the help.

  10. nice work! Very informative. I also tell my students that a very active tail (ie, not swishing at flies), grinding of teeth and a very high head might indicate tension and aggravation. It’s important to stay focused around horses. My accidents have almost always come when I lose focus on the horse.

  11. I’ve always said that “if I have my horse’s ears, I ‘have’ the horse”. Which means that if I’m riding or lunging or working around the horse, and both his ears are turned back towards me in the saddle or towards me on the ground, and they are semi-tense, not completely relaxed, floppy, but not hard and sharp or back on his neck, then I have his attention and he is saying “what? or okay.”
    New riders/horse people, think if the ears are back he’s mad. But that is only true if they are tight and tense and flat on the neck or so zero’d in on what they are pointed at that you’d think they were the periscope on a submarine about to fire a torpedo. If they are turned towards you, they are paying attention to you.
    My old man, Tiberius, would have both ears pointed at me most of the time “listening to me” but that doesn’t mean he is “listening” with his auditory system. His attention, or most of it was focused towards me. Listening with his body for the subtle clues/cues I was giving him in our dance of working on dressage together. Sometimes his eyes would almost go unfocused, as most of his attention was focused inward to “listen” really hard to what we were communicating to each other. If he was getting distracted and I’d lose his ears, I’d know that he was either bored, tired, confused, or not entirely interested in our dance right then.
    I also realized much later that by rewarding him a LOT for his ears being zeroed in on me, by giving him lots of GOOD every time those ears pointed to me when lunging or working him, that he learned that it was good to keep his ears listening to me. He really wanted to please me so much, and loved that “good boy” and a treat and scratch when we were done (before I learned clicker training and operant conditioning).
    Funny note; when we started trail riding I had a terribly hard time trusting him on the trail, as I would not have EITHER ear even thinking of looking at me. They were more tense than I was used to and pointed at everything around. It actually kept us in the arena for YEARS, as I was scared he was going to spook at something, as he sometimes would in the arena if I didn’t have his full attention (both ears). What I didn’t know and wouldn’t know until after my disabilities and I’d had to stop riding for some years, was that on the trail, he didn’t spook at stuff! He wanted to see what was around the next bend, over the next creek, down the next meadow. Even if he thought about spooking at something on the trail, he didn’t spook. He might stop or slow down, or usually just give it a slightly wider path around it, but he didn’t want to stop or waste time on the scary thing.
    I also think that I wasn’t sometimes as cognizant in those earlier years about his occasional spooks in the arena, that in some ways they were caused by that intense zeroing in on me caused the spooks, as when he suddenly noticed something and came out of that “zone” we were in, it was like the aliens suddenly jumped into the middle of the arena, even though that chair had been there for some time, LOL. I wish I’d thought these current thoughts about that back then!
    When we began trail riding, and I got back in the saddle again, I had to learn that Ty trusted me implicitly and I had to trust him that way too. He WAS listening to me, but did not have his full attention on me. Sometimes my aids had to be a bit more UN-subtle than I was used to, LOL. But he did listen, and once he learned that stopping or slowing down when I asked, didn’t mean the adventure was over. It didn’t mean I wasn’t going to let him continue down the trail to see what was around that next bend. It meant that we could relax and rest for a few minutes, or slow his incredibly fast walk down to normal horse speed (tennessee walkers had to gait to keep up with his plain but fast walk), and the fun didn’t end. It really opened up a whole new world both physically but also emotionally for us to explore together. Goodness I miss him so much! He died a year ago last March at age 27, and the previous summer we were still trail riding together! Our combined ages were over 70 something.
    The best communicator they have is that focus or lack of focus on you. The ears are the easiest part of the horse’s whole body communication tools for the novice to read.

    1. Laura; I just want to say I’m sorry for your loss of Ty. It is difficult to lose a good friend (whether 2 or 4 legged). I actually think it’s harder to lose the animals we love because we don’t always feel like we’ve said our good-bye’s and told them how much we love them. I hope you haven’t given up “horses” and will have other opportunities to love many more in your lifetime.
      It is so wonderful to be partnered with a horse and be able to “dance” with him/her. That’s what comes when you and your horse/partner really get tuned in to one another. Callie is helping so many people with their horsemanship skills and does such a great job explaining ALL of the important skills necessary for a successful relationship.
      I just recently bought a great book written by Dr. Robert Miller (veterinarian by trade…but with many other talents), titled: Understanding the Ancient Secrets of the Horse’s Mind. He explains the 10 secrets which help us really understand horses and why they do the things they do. If you have some “down time” or, just want a truly GREAT book to read, this has become one of my top 10 among my library of hundreds of horse publications. I purchased mine on Amazon (used) and bought a second copy yesterday to loan to my friends! Best wishes to you, Laura.

  12. A great video and a great topic for all riders! Being present in the moment and aware of the horse and our surroundings are definitely our best tools for staying safe around horses. Thank you Callie!!


  13. Yes thank you CALLIE. I plan to show this 10 minutes instruction videos to two young writers who are coming to the barn in the morning. I think you for your clarity and practical help.

  14. Great video! I ride three different horses each week. I have to really watch the mare when grooming and tacking up. She can be snarly and bitey. She gets tense, the ears go back, she goes to nip. I gently push her face away and watch her eye. If she sees me watching her she’ll generally be ok. She’s the same under saddle. We watch for tension and ride accordingly, if she’s a bit sore then she’ll be inattentive and it will escalate to eye rolling, foam spitting head tossing and a wild spooky ride. Unlike the geldings I ride, she’s quite “vocal” about letting us know she’s unhappy. She’s quite quirky but rewarding to ride despite her tendencies to go all “sympathetic”

  15. This is a great lesson for turnout as well. Sometimes a horse will be nervous about something he sees from his stall window. His stance might be at red alert, and he snorts and has his head held high. In this case, he needs me to help him to calm down before I try to halter him and lead him to the pasture.

  16. What about a horse who seems to be playing at being scared? My mare is, shall we say, opinionated and tends to be difficult to handle on the ground – tossing her head, backing away, rolling her eyes, spinning around, or trying to body-check the rider off the block.

    As far as we can tell, she’s not actually scared or in pain – her saddle and bridle have been professionally fitted and adjusted, she sees the dentist, farrier, masseuse, and chiropractor regularly (yes, she’s a little spoiled!), and she’s perfectly happy to stand by the block patiently if someone is at her head. Once a rider is actually on board, she’s the picture of sweetness and practically bombproof – she never bucks, never spooks, and I have not the slightest hesitation in putting even the smallest child on her back. But try to handle her solo and she’ll happily take every opportunity to avoid doing anything that remotely resembles work.

    I love her to bits, but I’m at a loss to deal with this behaviour – it strikes me as playful rather than genuine pain or fear because her ears are usually erect but not tense (think playing with other ponies attitude), she doesn’t snap or kick during this, and she will usually comply eventually (I use patient persistence and plenty of praise and treats when she does behave) however it makes her pretty much unsellable: she’s pony-sized but too rambunctious for a kid to handle. We need to solve this, as my teenaged co-owner is growing fast and won’t be able to ride her forever; it was hard enough the first time to find someone small enough to ride her but big enough to handle her attitude (not to mention brace enough parents!).

    Any suggestions?

    1. Hi Jules, I am wondering if you clicker trained the most important behaviors for this mare – walk forward, back up, turn right and left, pick up feet etc? In your comment you mentioned you do give plenty of treats for good behavior but I was wondering if you give them in a way that the mare is able to connect her behavior with the reward? Speaking generally, I think I would go back to very simple basic responses in this case and look for ways to provide a lot of motivation to do the “right” behavior.

    2. Jules, have you (or a professional trainer) tried round penning and/or ground work? When the horse is busy doing behaviors that you didn’t ask for, the thing that I’ve found helpful is to give the horse a job that YOU WANT her to do. By “moving their feet” like: “go forward and around me in trot,” (add lots of changing of direction to create a bit more work on her part),or “back up and around a cone or in a circle” (teach this skill so she already knows how to do this), etc. If you keep these demands going (with lots of variety with the plan YOU have in your mind)… one skill right after the other, she won’t have time to roll her eyes or spin around. When she shows you that she’s listening and using the thinking side of her brain (which she will have to do at some point because she’ll find it easier to cooperate), then you can offer her a rest and rub (or click and treat AT THE END of the routine). Hope this gives you another way to get her listening to you (or any handler that can do some of these things with her). I believe that once she figures out that there’s “busy work” involved when she’s not paying attention to you, she will be happy to cooperate with the “easy requests” you normally ask of her. Hope this helps…at least it’s another idea in your “tool box” for helping horses!

  17. That was wonderful information and a good presentation. Horse owners can learn how to connect with their horse and be aware of the nervous system and the signals they give. We can learn this in depth with the work of Tellington-Jones and James Masterson. But Callie said the key words…….we still have to change our thinking from rules to awareness. Horses always give us the signal.

  18. Thank you so much for sharing such an informative post. Horses can be intimidating at times due to their size but through the help of your post and video, I get to have extra knowledge of how to be safe around horses. I really love horses but I have an itsy bitsy fear of being so near with them all by myself so I am very grateful to you.

  19. Interesting post, interesting blog. I once rode a friend’s mare who became angry at the presence of young stallions nearby (she was in heat). She quickly escalated with me, an unfamiliar rider, on her back. Is it reinforcing bad behavior to simply dismount and end the ride when it becomes dangerous? I chose to stay on board, and try to get at least one agreed-upon behavior before getting off. (Backing up, in this case). Or should i just have dismounted and called it safe? As a side note, there were not any other areas available to ride away from the stallions. They surprised us.

  20. I enjoyed your video. This is rather long but I would like to provide some background on this house we have at our stables. Where I work we have this so called “problem” horse whose chronically cranky. He often invades one’s personal space, even though one keeps claiming their personal space. He needs to have a halter and lead line on when grooming and tacking (in his stall) because he’s sneaky, and bites and knocks people over when their back is turned.. He’s bit two people so far without warning. Obe student was putting on a saddle pad and got bit on the leg. The other rider got bit on the back of her arm. When on cross ties often tries to kick people. He’s been checked out for injuries and other medical issues that might lead to this behavior. He got a clean bill of health from the vet. No one wants to work with him. When there is a lesson and a rider has him, he tries to bite them when mounting, even when riding, he’ll turn his head around and try to bite their foot. Our lead instructor can work with him, she has 35 years of experience. Sometimes he acts up around her. But she can handle him.
    Was wondering what you think.? My thought is he might have been abused, but I don’t know about his history. Thanks

    1. Lisa, I’d be really interested to know this horse’s past. Horses typically do not exhibit such ‘aggressive’ behavior unless they have had reinforcement for that type of behavior. I am going to attach a link if you click here to watch a video with a horse Zelli, that exhibited many of these same types of behaviors.

      – Julia Burdy, CRK Training Community Manager

  21. I loved your video on being safe around horses, and many of your others. I did no grow up around horses, and have only had a dozen or so riding lessons.
    I hope I can explain my question clearly. Can you address the issue of being safe around herds of horses in a pasture? Can you give me some helpful tips?
    I do spend a great deal of time these days in pastures or paddocks with herds of horses. I am out there for hours at a time with a herd. I can be aware of the state and positions of the five or six horses that I am standing close to. I am always aware of their positions. I make sure that I won’t get squashed between them, and that I have an escape route and will not be in the path of any of them if they run. If I don’t feel safe then I back away. I have trouble evaluating the entire herd at once though. If one horse a hundred feet away nips at another and it gets kicked at it will run, then the five or six I am near will scatter. I don’t always see this coming since it happened a hundred feet away. Sometimes one horse in the group I am close to will annoy another one or nip at it and that one will spin and kick at it. I don’t always see this coming, and have been close. One nip escalates to an immediate response. By the time I realize the one I am beside has shifted emotional states, and I sense the “energy spike” they are already all in motion. Even in a small group of four or five I can’t be watching all of them all at once. These things happen really fast.
    Do you have any advice for my safety in the middle of a herd?

    1. Randy, safety in the field with horses is so important! The best advice I can give you is to make sure you are, like Callie talks about in this video, be as observant as possible. I also will take a lead rope out with me to swing at horses if I feel like they are getting uncomfortably close or I feel like their energy is a little too playful!

      -Julia Burdy, CRK Training Community Manager

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