24 May 2009

All Ears

Some comments left in response to bridleless riding videos on YouTube reminded me that too many people are ignorant of horse body language, specifically their eloquent ears.

Too many people still think pricked ears are desirable. For example, I was at a Saddlebred auction many years ago at the invitation of a would-be owner who pointed to a mare in the ring and said, "What spirit! Look at that noble expression!" To me, the mare's forward ears indicated tension, even terror. Her ears were snapped forward as if she saw in front of her a lion in full crouch. A horse with both ears pricked ears ain't thinking about its rider.

When I'm working in a ring or enclosed area, I want ALL my horse's attention on me. In the field or on the trail, I still want part of my horse's attention. My old Arab stallion used to delight me on the trails because he'd always have one ear forward and one ear back. Watching--or rather listening--where he was going while still being attentive to the rider was one of his invaluable traits.

But, alas, if too many people like snapped forward, worried ears, too few appreciate the position showing relaxed attentiveness, utter submission. I heard a neophyte complain that the Lipizzaner stallions were disappointing because, while they were obviously well trained, their ears were "all floppy."

The only thing that's more dear to me than attentive swept back ears are floppy ears. I remember seeing one of the Spanish dressage team's Andalusians come down the centerline at the end of a test. This passage was probably the best I've ever seen, and the horse was so relaxed his ears were flopping in rhythm. The goal of dressage is for a calm horse to mimic the movements of an excited horse, and I don't think I'll ever see a better example than those ears swinging freely with each powerful stride.

Of course, sometimes glorious submission gets horses into real trouble with ignorant people. Many years ago I had the use of a wonderful Arab gelding as a school horse. The owner had him for sale, and I was around when a potential buyer came out. The would-be buyer asked to bridle the horse herself, which I thought boded well for her savvy. However, it was soon obvious she was unfamiliar with a snaffle bridle. Seeing her fumbling with the bridle, the gelding kindly lowered his head, swept back his ears, and opened his mouth. As he stood their trustingly, she dropped the bridle and punched him square in the nose. Simultaneously, the owner and I yelled, "What did you do THAT for!!" Self-righteously, she said, "He was going to BITE me."

An equine saint, the gelding was forgiving. I picked the bridle off the ground, slipped my index finger under the crownpiece, and dangled the bridle in front of him. He reached down and took the bit by himself. With one finger, I slipped the crown over his sweetly reversed ears.

If I'd had horse ears, mine would have been pinned flat against my head as I stared at the poor ignorant girl who punched one of the kindest horses the planet has ever seen.

I love horse ears and all they tell us.