Linguists hate the term "body language" because, outside established sign languages, gestures, posture, and facial expressions are all far too ambiguous to be considered language. While we use posture and gestures to forms complete communications with each other, somethings are only understood when we combine it with other cues. As an example, people will cross their arms over their chest for a variety of reasons, it can express insecurity, sadness, anger, confidence, or any number of other things, but we can only begin to understand what another person is feeling when we take into account things like facial expression, posture, and tone of voice in conjunction with the gesture. Even things we might consider to be universal, like nodding our heads to indicate yes, can have different meanings across cultures, in countries like Greece and Turkey a nod means "no".
When we begin to apply the term body language to horses things become even more complex. Recently, it has come to my attention that my own horse, who I thought I knew extremely well, I was reading him totally wrong! Which made clear to me how careful we need to be to not make assumptions, especially if we are branding negative rationale to our horses.
If you ask most horse lovers what it means when a horse lays its ears back common answers will be that the horse is angry, or aggressive, but that is only part of the picture. Ears laid back can also indicate uncertainty, thoughtful concentration, fear, or lack of confidence. Like folded arms in a human, we have to take into consideration things like facial expression, body posture and what seems to have triggered the behaviour to really know where the horse is coming from.
Which brings me back to my horse. When Yoshi gets worried or scared his body language looks a lot like the horse in the picture at the right. He pins his ears, snakes his neck, bares his teeth, and will even kick or strike out. For years, I thought he was being aggressive, trying to dominate me, and I would respond with "showing stronger leadership" that is my terminology, if you ask Yoshi he probably would call it "Acting like a witch". I would give him more challenging tasks, drive him out of my space, or get quicker and more demanding with my expectations. All of which are exactly the WRONG things to do with a worried, fearful horse! Naturally Yoshi's fears grew and his negative behaviours would often escalate. A couple weeks ago Yoshi and I were having a lovely lesson, doing lots of things he knew by heart, spaced out with plenty of cuddles and scratches, but when I asked him to go over a somewhat challenging jump he suddenly turned into an aggressive demon horse, and for the first time I realized the truth behind Yoshi's behaviour. He was nervous! I switched the way I treated him, I slowed down, chose an easier task that still involved the jump, and brought him close to me every time he made an effort. His "bad" body language melted in minutes, he eventually even jumped the jump calmly and confidently. While I would have never said that Yoshi and I had a poor relationship (I do wonder what he would have said though) this new revelation into his thinking has most certainly strengthened our bond. I can see big differences in the quality of his responses and that very same lesson he came cantering to me at liberty for the first time! This experience drove home to me how important it is to really tune in to a horse, and to never make assumptions.
Just to be clear, I'm not going to stop using the term body language. While "nonverbal social cuing" is more accurate, it is also a lot harder to type. Besides, the 3rd definition for language in my dictionary is: " The expression of thought in any way. " So, until our horses learn to vocalize like Mr. Ed, nonverbal cues are all they have to express their thoughts to us and is the language we can share most easily. Keep in mind how ambiguous body language is though, and even if something seems obvious, be prepared to change up your way of thinking if the situation calls for it. You may not be having the conversation you thought you were having.