A couple days ago on Instagram I posted a twenty five second video of River’s first experience wearing a blanket. At first look the video seems very boring and uneventful, she literally just stands there for twenty three of the twenty five seconds, but if you watch closely a lot of exciting things happen! In the video River expressed quite a variety of emotions with her body language. I mentioned in the caption a few things I saw and asked you guys to comment what you saw that I didn’t mention. There were some great observations shared and now I want to talk a little more in depth about what I saw! Here’s a look at the original unedited video. Take note of anything you see and then continue reading!
Now let’s break the video down into parts... but first, lets talk briefly about equine body language. I'm going mention individual body parts/movements and what they might be communicating about River's emotions, but keep in mind it's important to see the "whole picture".
The idea is that while you can read how a horse might be feeling from lets say.. it's ears .. alone, you can know how a horse is feeling by simultaneously observing the ears, eyes, mouth, chin, neck, legs, body, breathing, etc as a whole, not just as individual parts.
In the first part of the video we see a lot of ears flicking back or out to the side. Ears can tell us a lot of things about how a horse is feeling, not just whether a horse is happy or mad. Actually ears can show all kinds of things, such as... the direction the horse is listening, appeasement (trying to pacify or placate someone.. aka "calming signals"), conflicting emotions, anger, discomfort, heightened attention, and more! (Here is an excellent visual) River's also has her head offset to the side and slightly elevated in this clip, like she’s attempting to get a better look at the blanket. Head elevation can be a sign of tension or stress. So this, in combination with the quick side to back ear movement, tells me she’s a little uncertain about the blanket being on her back. However, it's very short lived and over all her body language is still rather relaxed. Her eyes are soft, her breathing calm, and she quickly moves on to giving me her full attention in part two as I talk to her.
Five seconds later, in part two, River sighs, blinks a couple times, and begins to lick and chew a little. These are all signs of an autonomic nervous tone change. What that means is that she had been experiencing some amount of stress that had caused the sympathetic nervous system (fight, flight, or freeze mode) to be active and then her body switched back over to the parasympathetic nervous system (a state of “rest and restore”). The blinks, licks, chews, and sigh are all signs of stress leaving the body.
However, this change over to a more relaxed state was quickly interrupted when the blanket moves with her sigh and catches her by surprise. Her previously forward relaxed ears suddenly go straight back, her mouth closes, licking stops, and she becomes very aware of the blanket again, switching her back over to the flight/fight/freeze mode. Stress or worry, even if very mild, has returned.
During the thirteen seconds that follow clip two we watch as River stays in a mild (in my opinion) state of "freeze" (so I'm going to refer to this as "pause" rather than freeze). She's waiting, listening, thinking. Her ears are back, listening to the object on her body, her nostrils are flaring a little more than before as she breaths a little deeper, but her eyes stay soft and she blinks softly. This tells me she's quietly, with minimal stress, processing what's going on, but if pressed she could become very stressed.
The eye blinking and gentle breathing also tell me she's right on the edge of the parasympathetic system (rest and restore), her body is preparing to release any tension.. pending nothing frightening happens again.
After just a couple seconds she switches her attention back to me when I move and talk to her, but her eyes are still softly blinking and the steady breathing continues, showing me she's still processing though interested in what I'm doing. She's perhaps even looking to me for feedback on the situation, judging whether she should become worried or remain relaxed. Likely she's taking my own body language into account.. my breathing, my movements.
Finally, in the last segment of the video we have a sudden change. Within two seconds River does one hard blink, flicks one ear back towards the blanket, blinks softly a few more times as she softens her head/neck down and to the side slightly (possibly checking out the blanket one last time), and then casually begins to walk towards me. We get a few little ear flicks back as she's walking, but nothing too dramatic or unusual.
From what I can observe this is a big moment where her system switches from pause mode to relaxed mode. She's made up her mind that the blanket is nothing to worry about and she's free to rest, restore, and do whatever else she would like to do.. which in this moment was to come towards me. This is a big deal! This is when you break out the champagne and fireworks (not really, don't do that please haha), this little filly has had a very non-traumatic and low stress first blanketing success. Double thumbs up!
If you're interested in how River continued to behave with her blanket on I've included a "follow up" video where she's now decided it's time to investigate and play with the blanket. She even spent some time backing up to see if that allowed her to get to the blanket easier. ;)
I ended up taking the blanket off following this video as I didn't want her to learn to terrorize the blanket, especially being a nice therapeutic one. In the future I'll do some more practicing with her having it on while doing other activities. That way she becomes used to it's presence while being distracted, reducing the chances of her chewing on it.
If you enjoyed this article let me know! I would be happy to do more in the future. Also, feel free to comment any other observations you might have or perhaps some different takes on the body language I mentioned. There's still so much to learn about "speaking horse".
I'm open to taking short submission videos for this topic too, just email me with an unlisted or public youtube link!