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, with careful observation and interpretation, should not be surprised about “what is going to happen next.” It is not a mystery.
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 Alps, 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 of a mare herd, 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. She is 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 she’s made.
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. I see it every day in the people I know. I see it in me.
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 coming…