Have you ever noticed that sometimes your horse is eager to learn and has a great session? Other times you know it is the wrong time to ask them to try something new? Or maybe you do ask, but your horse reacts negatively, or you are sure you are asking correctly, but your horse is not “getting it”?
After years of playing with horses and training several different types of horses, I noticed that sometimes they were ready to learn, and other times they weren’t. This meant I had to do other exercises to get their brains connected to be prepared to learn.
The lights clicked on when I realized that the self-regulation, we teach children at school also applies to horses.
As a public health nurse focusing on positive mental health and my bachelor’s degree in Health Sciences, I was very familiar with the concept of self-regulation. The big aha moment came when I realized I could apply this to horses.
This concept was a complete game-changer for me. I now had a way to recognize my horse’s energy state, what state I needed my horse to be in, and how to help them get there.
I’m able to take horses that are “fire breathing dragons” or “sleepy slow potatoes” and get them into a better frame of mind, so they are ready to learn, ready to participate, and safer to be around.
Self-regulation is the ability to recognize and manage your own emotions. That means you understand if you are feeling anxious, high energy, falling asleep, or low energy tired – even better, you can get yourself into a calm, alert state.
In schools, we teach this simply to the kids with colors:
Red = high-energy or anxious
Green = calm alert and the frame of mind we need to be in to learn
Yellow = low energy or disconnected
Horses experience the same energy states. Both the human and the horse need to be in a green, calm, alert state so that we can learn, think, and respond appropriately. This means that you are calm enough to receive information (rather than over or under-react) but alert enough that you are responsive to the information.
The Harmony Energy Scale takes the colors of self-regulation, adds “Black,” and puts them on a scale to represent how a horse can move from through the colours.
- 1-3 = Yellow: half-asleep, daydreaming, low energy, or disconnected
- 4-6 = Green: calm, alert and ready to learn, recognizing that some horses are “ready to learn” but maybe slightly calmer than alert or slightly more alert than calm.
- 7-9 = Red: high energy, anxious, fidgety, or catatonic
- 10 = Black: in fight or flight mode, not safe, not thinking, in full survival mode
This scale helps us recognize that horses can appear differently within the colors, but also that it’s a scale meaning your horse can escalate from 7 to 8 to 9, and eventually 10. This is good news because if you can learn to recognize your horse at a 7 and know what to do, you are less likely to hit the dangerous Black state at a 10 when your horse goes full panic survival mode.
It also helps us realize that calm alert doesn’t look the same in all horses. Some horses end up calmer than they are alert – these horses are great for beginners or activities where you don’t want a super responsive horse (these horses’ default to a 4 when in a calm, alert “green” state).
Some horses are more alert than calm when in the calm, alert “green” state. This means they are more responsive and tend to make great high-performance horses because they are very attentive to cues and can make things like reining, dressage or liberty look like magic as they pick up on subtle body changes – but this can be frustrating to beginners.
It’s like cars, the “4” horse is like a Honda Civic, and the “6” is like a Ferrari. Both are excellent depending on your needs, you don’t want to learn to drive in a Ferrari because you might crash, but you don’t want to go to a race in a Honda Civic. The “5” is a perfectly balanced horse in the middle, and these horses can be hard to come by. I’d like to think a “5” is like my Subaru – responsive, but not to the point it’s scary or complicated.
We can’t change a horse’s natural default “green” setting. When they are calm alert, the horse display that in his own way. Some breeds of horses tend to default being more of a 4 than a 6 or vice versa. For example, pleasure Quarter Horses, Fjords, and Draft horses often default to a “4” when in calm alert, whereas Arabs, Thoroughbreds, or performance-bred Quarter Horses tend to default to a 6.
This is valuable knowledge because it can help someone looking for an equine partner better assess if a horse is a right fit for themselves.
It’s important to know that you really can’t tell a horse’s personality or natural abilities until you help them find calm alert. For example, when I get Thoroughbreds off the racetrack or mustangs out of the holding pens, I give them a month of consistently finding calm alert with me through the calm connection exercises before I start to make predictions about what they are well suited for and if they default to a 4, 5, or 6. This is because if a horse is scared and in the “red” state, you don’t see the horse’s real personality. Once they trust you, realize life is okay and different, etc., they reveal their “green” state.
It would be unwise and unfair to assess a horse without being in the “green” state. For example, a horse stuck in yellow might appear grumpy, bucking, and not wanting to go – but once they get into green, they might be well suited to the task.
How do you know which energy state your horse is in?
What do you do to help them be green?
What exercises work best for red horses?
What exercises work best for yellow horses?
Do all red horses look the same?
What happens if the human is not in a green state?
The quick answers…
You can tell the energy state of your horse by observing their body language – especially their eyes, ears, mouth, stance (how they are standing), tail, and breathing.
You can help your horse be green by doing the calm connection exercises – these are exercises that establish passive leadership and are based on natural patterns horses do when they meet each other in neutral spaces. They promote relaxation and connection through both draw and shape.
Movement-based exercises work best for red horses – exercises that don’t have a “stop” as part of the exercises – like a continuous circle.
Stationary-based exercises work best for yellow horses – exercises with a “stop” as part of the exercises – like riding from one end of the arena to the other and then stopping.
Red horses can look very different. Some horses get anxious and get fidgety (can’t stand still, calling, head up), and some horses start to freeze and go catatonic (they get stiff, shallow breaths, stop blinking), so we must be very careful to look at all the body parts and read the whole picture.
Being able to recognize your own emotions and your horse’s emotions is essential when handling horses – for both safety and success. Your energy will affect the horse’s energy.
I spent years learning about:
- Positive mental health and figuring out how that applies to horses.
- Discovering which exercises work the best for each type of horse and energy state.
- Recognizing that not all horses have the same signs within the energy states.
Ultimately this all comes down to helping humans better understand their horses and themselves to communicate better.
Working with horses is not black and white, it’s yellow, red and green with shades in between.