The Most Important Piece of Equipment for Every Equestrian

horses grazing in green field
I spy with my little eye...

If you had asked me years ago what the most important piece of equipment was for working with horses, my answer probably would have been a halter, or a lead rope. I mean, those are the basics, right? Closely followed by a hoof pick, maybe (hoof health is important!), and then maybe a lunge line or lunge whip. Because, again, basics (as I once thought of them to be).

But it wasn't until I started studying horses in-depth that I realized that all those things - ALL of them - are more for humans than for horses. They're the tools of our constructed world, in which we largely train horses for and expect them to do activities of our creation. They might help us achieve certain small things - get the horse to follow us, or hold still, or trot in circles - but they really don't achieve anything for our understanding of the horses themselves or for building partnerships with them.

With that considered, then what piece of equipment should every equestrian have stowed away in the tack room? My answer, dear friends, is one of the most timeless, humblest of objects - a chair.

"A chair?" you say. "Is this lady bonkers?". But hear me out. When I first started studying equine behavior in-depth, there was a big emphasis in all my books and in all my classes on the role of observation. After all, that's how we know what we know about horses to begin with. Painstaking observation and notes on every horse's movement in a band or a herd, over a period of hours or days or even months. Much of horsemanship is about doing, about action. But what if we took a step back from all that action and just took a seat for a few minutes?

There's an inherent value in spending time just sitting and watching your horse at pasture or turnout. For one, it's a good reminder of the horse's ethology - or, their natural behavior. We often only see our horses in the barn, or at the ring - unnatural situations by a horse's standards. But having constant visual reminders of the basics of horse behavior: that horses like to graze for a majority of the day, are generally averse to stress and conflict, and very rarely spend much time exerting themselves at more than a walk (because they are prey animals and generally save their energy for flight) help us to understand why our horse might be acting sour or stressed out in the many human-centric situations we put them in.

But even beyond all that, there is an actual "conversational" value in taking a seat next to your horse. Horses are exceptionally sensitive to body language, and very good at forming associations between things. If you think about it, what usually happens when a human comes near a horse and stands there? In the horse's point of view, we're usually there to catch them and probably make them do things they would rather not do. They form this association easily because it happens over and over - thus, they have learned to translate our body language of standing to something that, in their world, is not always pleasant and thus sets them a bit on edge. (You'll notice how horses will keep a watchful eye even as they graze with a human nearby). It's worth mentioning that our energy also changes between standing and sitting. For humans, standing is a preparation for action. But sitting prepares us for relaxation - changing our heart rate, blood pressure, etc. and that also manifests in a calmer energy that horses can sense.

I have been doing my own little experiments by bringing a small camp chair out to Lilly's pasture about once a week, and comparing her body language when I sit quietly to her body language on the other days when I simply go out and stand nearby. Here is what I've discovered:

  1. Lilly is much more likely to come over to me on her own when I'm sitting down. She spends more time sniffing me, and, rather than walking away directly after greeting me and getting her treats (as she generally does when I'm standing in the pasture), she'll tend to stay within a few body lengths of me to graze for a prolonged period.

  2. Lilly displays more bonding behavior in general when I'm sitting down. In one instance, she positioned her body parallel to me, tail end facing my back, and started to nap. I thought it was odd until I realized that she was approximating the position that horses will take with a buddy, head to tail, in order to swat flies from each others' faces as they rest.

  3. Fewer signs of irritability while I'm sitting down versus standing: I believe that Lilly's generally more relaxed facial and body expressions are a direct result of my own sense of relaxation. When I'm standing in the field I'm poised for action, and my mind is usually racing with thoughts and ideas. Lilly seems to catch on to this and acts more irritable. But sitting is my body's cue to relax, and in turn she seems to relax around me - dropping her head, loosening her facial muscles, even yawning with the release of tension.

It seems that overall, dedicating some time to simply "be" with the horse pays dividends for our own development as horse(wo)men and for our connections with the individual horses, themselves. These can only be good things as we continue to explore ways to better ourselves and the lives of the animals we love. So - pull up a chair, and see what there is to discover!