Sometimes your horse seems ready and eager to learn. Sometimes it is… less so. So how can you tell if your horse is ready to learn and help it get to a place where it is? Lindsey Partridge of Harmony Horsemanship is here to offer this advice.
Have you ever noticed that sometimes your horse is eager to learn and has a great session? Other times you just know it is the wrong time to ask them to try something new? Or maybe you do ask, but your horse reacts negatively or you’re sure you are asking correctly but your horse just isn’t “getting it”?
I noticed after years of playing with horses and training several different types of horses that sometimes they seem to be ready to learn and other times they are not ready … I had to do other types of exercises to get their brain connected and ready to learn.
The light clicked on when I realized that self-regulation we teach children at school also applies to horses.
As a public health nurse focusing on positive mental health and getting my bachelor’s degree in Health Sciences, I was very familiar with the concept of self-regulation. The big aha moment came when I realized I could apply this to horses.
This was a complete game changer for me. I now had a way to recognize what energy state my horse was in, what I state I needed my horse to be in and how to help them get there.
I’m able to take horses that are “fire breathing dragons” or “sleepy slow potatoes ” and get them into a better frame of mind so they are ready to learn, ready to participate, and safer to be around
Self-regulation is the ability to recognize and manage your own emotions. That means you understand if you are feeling anxious, high energy, falling asleep or low energy – this is even better if you can get yourself into the calm alert state.
In schools we teach this simply to the kids with colours:
- Red = high-energy or anxious
- Yellow = low energy or disconnected
- Green = calm alert and the frame of mind we need to be in to learn
Horses experience the same energy states. Both the human and the horse need to be in the green, calm alert state so that we can learn, think, and respond appropriately. This means that you are calm enough that you can receive information (rather than over or under react), but alert enough that you are responsive to the information.
The Harmony Energy Scale takes the colours of self regulation, adds “Black,” and puts them on a scale to represent how a horse can move from through the colours:
- 1-3 = Yellow: half asleep, daydreaming, low energy, or disconnected
- 4-6 = Green: calm alert and ready to learn, recognizing that some horses are “ready to learn” but may be slightly more calm than alert, or slightly more alert than calm.
- 7-9 = Red: high energy, anxious, fidgety, or cataonic
- 10 = Black: in fight or flight mode, not safe, not thinking, in full survival mode
This helps us recognize that not only can horses appear differently within the colours, but also that it’s a scale, so your horse can escalate from 7 to 8 to 9, and eventually 10. This is good news because if you can learn to recognize your horse at a 7, and know what to do, you are less likely to hit the dangerous Black state at a 10 when your horse goes full panic survival mode.
It also helps us realize that calm alert doesn’t look the same in all horses. Some horses end up more calm than they are alert — these horses are great for beginners or activities where you don’t want a super responsive horse (these horses default to a 4 when in calm alert “green” state).
Some horses are more alert than they are calm when in the calm alert “green” state. This means they are more responsive and tend to make great high-performance horses because they are very attentive to cues and can make things like reining, dressage or liberty look like magic as they pick up on subtle body changes — but this can be frustrating to beginners.
It’s kind of like cars. The “4” horse is like a Honda Civic and the “6” is like a Ferrari. Both are excellent depending on your needs. You don’t want to learn to drive in a Ferrari because you might crash, but you don’t want to go to a race in a Honda Civic. The “5” is a horse that is perfectly balanced in the middle and these horses can be hard to come by. I’d like to think a “5” is like my Subaru — responsive, but not to the point it’s scary or complicated.
We can’t change a horse’s natural default “green” setting. When they are calm alert, they display that in their own way. Some breeds of horses tend to default to being more of a 4 than a 6 or vice versa. For example, pleasure Quarter Horses, Fjords, and Draft horses often default to a “4” when in calm alert, whereas Arabs, Thoroughbreds, or performance bred Quarter Horses tend to default to a 6. This, of course, is not true of all horses of those breeds, but is a generalization. However, this is valuable knowledge because it can help someone looking for an equine partner better assess if a horse is the right fit for them.
It’s important to know that you really can’t tell a horse’s personality or natural abilities until you help them find calm alert. For example, when I get Thoroughbreds off the racetrack, or Mustangs out of the holding pens, I give them a month of consistently finding calm alert with me through the calm connection exercises before I start to make predictions about what they are well suited for and if they default to a 4, 5, or 6. This is because if a horse is scared and in the “red” state, you aren’t seeing the horse’s real personality. Once they trust you, realize life is okay and different, etc., they reveal their “green” state.
Photos of my horse Elysia and me at a show where she was “Red.” Photo by Richard Forkun.
It would be unwise and unfair to the horse to make an assessment without them being in the “green” state. For example, a horse stuck in yellow might appear grumpy, bucking, and resistant, but once they get into green they might be well suited to the task at hand.
- How do you know which energy state your horse is in?
- What do you do to help them be green?
- What exercises work best for red horses?
- What exercises work best for yellow horses?
- Do all red horses look the same?
- What happens if the human is not in a green state?
The quick answers…
You can tell the energy state of your horse by observing their body language, especially their eyes, ears, mouth, stance (how they are standing), tail, and breathing.
You can help your horse be green by doing the calm connection exercises — these are exercises that establish passive leadership and are based on natural patterns horses follow when they meet each other in neutral spaces. They promote relaxation and connection through both draw and shape.
Movement-based exercises work best for red horses — exercises that don’t have a “stop” as part of the exercises, like a circle that is continuous.
Stationary-based exercises work best for yellow horses — exercises that have a “stop” as part of the exercises, like riding from one end of the arena to the other and then stopping.
Red horses can look very differently. Some horses get anxious and get fidgety (can’t stand still, calling, head up) and some horses start to freeze and go catatonic (they get stiff, shallow breaths, stop blinking), so we have to be very careful to look at all the body parts and read the whole picture.
Being able to recognize your own emotions and your horse’s emotions is so important when handling horses, for both safety and success. Your energy will affect the horse’s energy.
I spent years learning about
- Positive mental health and figuring out how that applies to horses
- Discovering which exercises work the best for each type of horse and energy state
- Recognizing that not all horses have the same signs within the energy states
Ultimately this all comes down to helping humans better understand their horses and themselves so they can communicate better.
Working with horses definitely is not black and white — it’s yellow, red and green with shades in between.
If you’re interested in learning more about the Harmony Energy Scale, you can attend the virtual workshop. Go here for more information.