Communicating with Horses: Eyes, Facial Expressions, and Body Language

Jan 11, 2021

As a horse trainer and breeder most of my life, in my late thirties (oh, to be that young again!), I discovered something that I was not ready to accept. It was something I read in Robert Vavra’s book, Such is the Real Nature of Horses. He wrote that horses communicate through eye expressions. As a student of horses, studying the social behavior and culture of horses, I couldn’t believe that this could be so. I thought horses read facial expressions and energy but I hadn’t thought about how the eyes alone could play a part in communication.

I had a mind for details, I found how wild horses in nature create harmonious herds through a code of conduct that had yet to be discovered. It took a comprehensive effort to pay attention to the slightest nuances for anything a horse might be doing as a way to communicate. I was also aware that horses and I were communicating better than most people do with each other. I didn’t see the value of the eyes playing an active part in communication, especially considering that when I had on sunglasses, it didn’t hurt my ability to communicate with them. 

Weeks went by, and I kept thinking about what Robert had written. I must confess, I had little else on my mind after reading his claim.

As I was mulling over this new information, I became aware that I had been unconsciously using eye communication all along with my horses. It wasn’t until I tried to communicate with my stallion, Mi Tosk, using only my eyes, did I find the true influence it had on a horse. 

At the time I had a breeding farm of Arabian horses and a training center of all breeds. It was breeding season, a busy time of year. I still could not get Robert’s claim out of my head. 

One day when I was leading Mi Tosk to an outside mare for breeding, he got aggressive so I decided to try to back him down by using only my eyes. Mi Tosk wanted to argue with me that I was not taking him to the mare fast enough. He was rearing up and pushing into me. Normally when this happened, I would take the stallion entirely away from the mare and try again when he was less excited and more willing to work with me, rather than me dangerously compromising my leadership position. 

I had found this to be the best way to manner a stallion to be well behaved around mares. I had four well-behaved breeding stallions; they had all learned how to behave, except for Mi Tosk, as it was his first breeding season. That year he bred twenty outside mares and five of our own. He was learning the ropes but sometimes, being young, he would get out of hand and be in a hurry. 

Rather than following my usual corrective approach, by leading him away from the mare, I looked at Tosk and saw that he was aggressively looking at me on purpose. 

When Tosk threatened me with that look, I recalled what Robert Varva mentioned in his book; horses intentionally express personal power, anger, and strength by opening their eyes widely with a direct stare. I responded to Mi Tosk by widely opening my eyes. I did nothing else.  Tosk jumped back with respect and returned to giving me his full attention and came utterly under control from my wild-eyed expression. When I returned the ‘look’, he reminded me of a guilty child that knew he was out of line.

When I  opened my eyes wide, I felt my core energy take on a stronger vibration, indicating that I was not going to be intimidated. 

I was shocked at his response. At that moment, I became acutely aware of how powerful eye expressions can be if we consciously use them.

When I learn something from a book, I can’t trust it completely until I experience it in my relationship with horses. Robert’s viewpoint, along with my experience with Tosk, opened up a door for more exploration.   

Over time, I discovered that using your eyes increases the horse's ability to understand body language. With this new knowledge, I began teaching eye communication awareness to my students. 

Food for thought

Body language with eye expressions strengthens your core energy. Having a strong core causes a horse to respect you and trust you. 

Horses are hyper-sensitive to body language. It is their native language. 

By interacting with a horse at liberty using body language, a horse will pay close attention to his communication instincts and want to connect with you.  

From the years that I spent learning about the true nature of horses, I came to realize that horses are better off and easier to handle when they can depend on their instincts to communicate. 

The bond that you build communicating with a horse through their instincts will remove much of the time needed for training. 

How to communicate with a horse through eye expressions. 

For a horse to respond to your simple eye expressions and body language, as I had with Mi Tosk, you must first have a working partnership. Spend some time with the horse and wait for the connection to naturally arrive. Then, focus on developing respect and a sense of belonging through leadership practices that are natural to horses. 

Gain the eyes of your horse

The first step is to get a horse to look at you and want to connect with you. Ask your horse to look at you, if he doesn’t, move him around slowly until he chooses to, then walk away. Do this until you can easily get his attention. At this point, you could get him a treat (do not carry treats on you).  Don’t practice this more than 15 minutes at a time. 

How to use your eyes to direct a horse 

When you catch the eye of your horse, and you want to direct him to a specific place, look at where you want him to go. Look back at him, then point to where you want him to go and look again at the spot you are sending him to. Activate him to go in the direction you want him to travel. Using your eyes to direct your horse will improve your horse’s understanding of your body language.  Also, when you use your eyes your resolve will be stronger and at the same time more supportive.

Strengthen eye communication by having a backup plan 

Having a course of action you will take if your horse doesn’t give you his attention will make his understanding of your eye communication easier to follow. A horse must know that there are consequences if he doesn’t respond to your eye expression in some way; if Mi Tosk had not listened to my eye communication, he knew that the consequence would have been that I would have led him away from the mare and not taken him to her. Mi Tosk concluded that he needed to settle down. It became an easy decision for him to heed my eye expressions.

So, in conclusion, horses do communicate through eye expressions and so can you. Soft eyes comfort a horse, wide eyes demand respect from a horse, eyes can direct a horse. Experiment and be aware of your eyes.

Be on the lookout for new horse and human sightings.

Warmly,

Carolyn Resnick

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