Active Versus Passive Body Language
One of the most important lessons we teach in our clinics is the difference between "active" and "passive" body language when doing groundwork with horses. If you want to be an effective partner for your horse it's important to be in tune with not only your own body language, but also your horses. So how do we go about understanding our own body language and using it effectively? We all want to get to the point where we can communicate with our horse through essentially invisible commands. One of the most crucial points we need to understand is that there are two types of body language (active and passive) and the differences between them.
What does active look like? 1. Looking the horse directly in the eyes 2. Leaning forward towards the horse 3. Squaring our shoulders and facing the horse directly
If those three points indicate what active body language looks like then passive body language is the opposite, right? For the most part you would be correct; Passive: 1. Don't stare the horse directly in the eyes 2. Cock one of your legs and turn body away from the horse to look "casual" 3. Slump your shoulders to look relaxed
The second most important part about our body language is understanding when and why we might use either one. Let's start with active. What would we use our active body language for? If you guessed "to make the horse move" you would be well on your way to understanding the importance of body language. Horses are experts at reading body language so it's important you use the 3 points outlined above in "active" when asking your horse to move. This way your nonverbal commands are clear and your horse can start to understand when to move its feet.
If active body language means our horse should move then it is clear that we would use our passive body language when we want our horse to stand and relax; for example during desensitizing exercises. This is when we would turn our body slight away from the horse, relax our shoulders and act very casual. If we want our horses to relax and stay calm it's important our body language directly tells them that. Alternatively, when we want our horse to move we need to make sure our body language is assertive and direct. We need to ensure we are black and white with our body language; grey areas can confuse our horses.
I often get people asking, "Well what about verbal cues?" and my answer is that as a general rule I only use 2 verbal cues: "whoa" to stop and a cluck, which of course means speed up whatever we are doing. I do caution people about over using voice commands. I've seen people clucking and kissing constantly at their horses which eventually dulls or desensitizes them to the command itself. As a general rule it's far more important to develop an awareness of your body language and learn how to communicate effectively with your horse without nagging him by using voice commands.