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Watching the Ears
I have an appreciation for social
cues, both human and animal--those
often nonverbal signals that are communicated through subtle means--in
people, perhaps it is a raised eyebrow, a rapid blink, a tensing of the
lips, a fidgeting foot. In horses, it can be harder to read but their
nonverbal language is there for all to see--the herdmates and the human
handler--so with careful observation and interpretation, there should be
few mysteries about "what is going to happen next".
I don't consider Haflingers particularly subtle in their communication
with each other or with humans. They can tend to have a "bull in a
china shop" approach to life; this is not a breed that evolved
particularly plagued with the existence of many predators in the
Austrian mountains, so the need to blend into the background was
minimal. So Haflingers tend to be "out there": unafraid, bold, meeting
one's gaze, sometimes challenging.
I've found over the years that the best way to interpret a Haflinger's
emotions is by watching their ears, and to a lesser extent, their lips
and tails. They usually have "poker face" eyes, deceptive at times in
their depth, calmness and serenity. I tend to get lost in the beauty of
their eyes and not pay attention to what the rest of the horse is
saying. Watching them interact with each other, almost everything is
said with their ears. A horse with a friendly approach has ears
forward, receptive, eager. If the horse being approached is welcoming,
the ears are relaxed, sometimes as forward. Two good friends grooming
or grazing together have swiveling, loose ears, often pointing toward
each other, almost like a unique conversation between the four ears
themselves. So when a Haflinger is happy to approach, or be approached
by humans, the ears always say so.
Ears that are swiveling back, tensing and tight, or pinning are another
story altogether. It is the clear signal of "get outta my way!", or
"you are not sharing this pile of hay with me" or "you may think you are
a cute colt, but if you climb on me one more time..." Those ears can
signal impatience "you are not getting my grain fast enough", or "I've
been standing here tied for too long!" A simple change in ear position
can cause a group of horses to part like the Red Sea.
I have a mare who was orphaned at 3 days of age, and spent her early
weeks with intensive handling by people, and then allowed to socialize
with a patient older gelding until she was old enough to be among other
weanlings. When she came to our farm at 6 months of age, she had not
learned all the usual equine social cues, and though very astute at
reading human gestures and behavior, took awhile to learn appropriate
responses. When turned out with the herd, she was completely
clueless--she'd approach the dominant alpha mare incorrectly, without
proper submission, get herself bitten and kicked and was the bottom of
the social heap for years, a lonesome little filly with few friends and
very few social skills.
She had never learned submission with people either, and had to have
many remedial lessons on her training path. Once she was a mature
working mare, her relationship with people markedly improved as there
was structure to her work and predictability for her, and after having
her own foals, she picked up cues and signals that helped her keep her
foal safe, though she has always been one of our most relaxed "do
whatever you need to do" mothers when we handle her foals as she simply
never learned that she needed to be concerned.
Over the years, as the herd has changed, this mare has become the alpha
mare, largely by default and seniority, so I don't believe she really
trusts her position as "real". She can tend to bully, and react too
quickly out of her own insecurity about her inherited position. She is
very skilled with her ears but she is also a master at the tail "whip"
and the tensed upper lip--no teeth, just a slight wrinkling of the lip.
The herd scatters when they see her face change.
The irony of it all is that now that she's "on top" of the herd
hierarchy, she is more lonely than when she was at the bottom. And I
think a whole lot less happy as she has few grooming partners any more.
I really feel for her as she has created this for herself, but she
would rather have power than friends right now. It is the sad choice
I certainly see people like this at times in the world.
Some are not at all attuned to social cues, blundering their way into
situations without understanding the consequences and "blurting without
thinking". It takes lots of kicks and bites for them to learn how to
read other people and behave appropriately. Sometimes they turn to
bullying because it is communication that everyone understands and
responds to, primarily by "getting out of their way". Perhaps they are
very lonely, insecure, and need friends but their need for power
overcomes their need for support. Hard to say, but we see it every day
in the people we know, don't we?
So I will continue "watching the ears"--both Haflinger and human. And
continue to refine my own way of communicating so that I'm not a
mystery to those around me, and hoping no one scatters when they see me