A horse’s powers of cognition are dependent upon their senses. Horses have excellent memories. They remember a person, place, or thing by smell, taste, voice recognition, and sight recognition, as well as more subtle, and personal, methods of touch. They are not good problem solvers, but rather creatures of habit. For this reason, training methods of positive and negative reinforcement seem to work best when practiced with consistency.
What you might think of as clever problem solving can usually be attributed rather to his penchant to make associations, since a particular action will yield a favorable consequence. A horse, for instance, that can consistently negotiate the latch on his stall and escape is practicing a function not of problem solving, but of his ability to learn, teamed with a good memory and habituation.
Just as horses communicate through their body posturing, so is your body language around him a silent conversation. Quiet, gradual, and deliberate motions are best when working around or with a horse. On the other hand, horses have various ways of indicating their moods, some of which can be interpreted as a threat or warning. In other words, there doesn’t have to be actual physical aggression, but a message is conveyed which most times will suffice to warn you.
An extended foreleg or foot stomp, or a lifted hind end, is a muted strike, or kick, respectively. A head swing, accompanied by an open mouth, is a threat to bite. Likewise, a horse that has folded his ears back has done so to protect those vulnerable parts of his body in preparation for battle. Others will understand his intention and keep away. However, when his ears are cocked in a direction other than folded back, it can mean quite the opposite: curiosity or interest. Tail swishing or a wrinkled nose are signs that a horse is irritated, while a dropped lower lip means that he is relaxed. Lip smacking, however, is an exhibition of submission by young horses to dominant horses.
The effects of body language are worth experimenting with, as these games can be fun and fascinating. For instance, you might feign disinterest in a hard to catch horse by nonchalantly looking off elsewhere. This might spur his curiosity and get him to come to you.
It is important for your safety and your horse’s comfort that you recognize these signs and symbols, because they are meant to signify discomfort or warn of possible aggression, which might or might not be sincere. This doesn’t mean that you should necessarily defer to his warning. You are the lead horse and should reiterate this to him if your horse warns you to stay away. You might do this with a stern voice command or bodily gesture, such as a bold stance or forward action, telling your horse to stand down.
Just as a dog will raise his hackles in order to appear bigger for a confrontation, a horse might raise his carriage, protrude his chest, and stick his tail out horizontally in order to intimidate. If we pose in our version of this pre-conflict stance, with chest expanded and arms out, this signals offensive behavior and might be met with the same from your horse, or you may frighten him. Neither one of these effects is productive. However, if done deliberately as a training technique to prove dominance over a young horse in the manner of an alpha horse, it can be effective.