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We Are Flying Solo

February 20, 2021

A Different Perspective On Mouthy Horses

Since everything here is soup -- well, after 22F last night, it is chunky soup -- thanks to what I will generously call "excessive precipitation," I have taken to poking around for mental entertainment in places I don't usually look.  In the context of this blog, that means YouTube videos about horse handling.  In general, I don't personally find video to be an effective way for me to absorb information.  I prefer to either read or talk to a human in person; I also often find videos tedious, as I get fidgety waiting for people to get to the point.
Yes, for those of you who know me, I recognize the irony, in that I myself am incapable of getting directly to a point, however, I have not yet discovered a way for me to escape from myself, so we'll just accept that dissonance & move on, shall we?
Farm soup
I have made a pleasant discovery though, an exception to the norm; namely, Warwick Schiller's channel.  I know this is old news to many of you, but I like to stay true to my style of being either wayyyyy ahead of the curve or astonishingly far behind it.  Someone has to keep that bell graph interesting.  For the uninitiated, Schiller & his wife are both high-level reiners & have also created an enormous amount of educational material about handling & training horses. 
I'm going to try to avoid too much background discussion for the sake of relative brevity, I will just say that I do approach any trainer (or really, human) with a healthy of dose of skepticism while I explore whether they pass the sniff test:  are they ethical?  Do they do their research? Are they compassionate? Are they willing to admit & learn from mistakes?  Are they just another marketer who wants my imaginary money?  
In that light, things I am liking about Schiller:
  • He doesn't try to sell me any special crap in his videos.  He talks about his preferences, but treats a viewer like a responsible adult who can do whatever they want with that information.  THANK YOU!
  • His default approach to both horses & humans appears to be kindness, listening, & empathy.
  • He openly discusses how his approaches have changed over time as he has learned & made mistakes.  I have a huge amount of respect for people who are intellectually honest enough & brave enough to own that they are imperfect humans & are learning along the way like the rest of us.  I think this is something that is a win in just about any situation in life.
  • He talks about the importance of looking within himself & working on his own issues as an integral part of improving his interactions with other creatures.
We all have issues...
These points show me a person who puts a lot of thought into what they do & who also remains open to learning new things, which are both important to me.  And someone who embraces listening & empathy is exactly the type of person I want to hear more from.
Hot Topic
One topic in particular caught my eye like a flashing red light in the dark:  dealing with the mouthy horse.  As I have mentioned on here, Echo takes this role to a level I have never before encountered.  He seems to process the entire world with his mouth, nosing, licking, chewing, eating, sucking, & snuffling his way through everything he encounters.  I have successfully explained to him what the boundaries are (no teeth on the human) but he remains incredibly "mouth-curious."
I am intrigued by Schiller's unique approach.  You can watch a video here (there are multiples on this topic).  In essence, he states that this is generally just a horse who wants to engage with you, which I agree with.  His response is what is completely new to me.  He recommends that instead of discouraging, to go ahead & rub & handle the horse's muzzle whenever it reaches out to you.  The videos explain what the parameters for safety are (keep an eye on space, watch your fingers, etc).  This makes it a positive conversation:
Horse: "Hi, person, who are you? I am me. Would you like to be friends?"
Human: "Hi, horse.  I am also me.  I see you & reciprocate your recognition.  I am friendly & a source of pleasant things."
Horse: "Yay! This makes me feel safe & relaxed."
Human: "Everybody wins."
Do you see how that conversation is different than if we respond to the horse's initial greeting by rebuffing their gesture, saying, "I am not interested in recognizing you."  That's like when you go to shake someone's hand (in the Before Times) but they leave you hanging & then you awkwardly try to cover it up & spend the rest of the day worrying about it (No? Just me?).  Not a great feeling for anyone.
How Echo meets the world...
What should happen with the muzzle rubbing is that, as the horse recognizes that you are listening to him & you offer a positive experience, he expresses signs of relaxation:  licking lips, chewing motions, yawns, & sighs.  As we know, these are metaphorical clinks of coins being deposited in your "relationship equity" bank, which is the place where you store the trust & connection you need to carry your partnership through challenges in the future.  
Trying It Out
So I am going to experiment with this with Echo.  According to Schiller, he has seen dramatic cessations of mouthy behaviour when he does this every day.  Like anything else, it takes time, but it's easy to do & it doesn't cost me anything.  It makes intellectual sense to me:  I don't want to punish a horse just because he experiences the world differently than I do & has a different way of interacting with it.  I get very angry when humans do that to other humans, why would I do that to my horse?
And it's also obvious to me that for Echo, he is looking for something that remains unsatisfied.  I have handled him "normally" for several years now, so apparently that alone has not answered his need.  I tried out the new approach this morning, after he finished his breakfast, during which he'd gotten a little high-headed & snorty, suspicious of a flake of hay blowing in the wind.  He was, naturally, thrilled that I finally agreed to fully respond to the nose touching.  And lo & behold, within a few minutes, he started licking & chewing.  In a few more minutes, we got some big yawns & contented sighs.  After about five minutes, he wandered off with his head down, completely relaxed, to eat his hay.  Fascinating. 
It's not that his mouthiness is causing any unsafe situations, nor am I trying to change who he is.  I don't know for certain if it comes from tension or not.  But if I entertain the hypothetical, like a good scientist must - what if he IS expressing some latent anxiety or other form of mental unrest by compulsively grabbing every lead rope, rein, fence wire, tree, or other object he can nab at every possible opportunity?  Why WOULDN'T I take the chance to possibly release that tension & allow him to discover a little more mental peace?  
Cuddles should never have a limit
If it doesn't work, I have lost nothing -- it won't make him worse, I will still be clear with him about the boundaries, & time spent interacting with your horse is never a bad thing.  Echo lives in my yard & I have nowhere else to go, so rubbing my horse's nose for a few minutes every day is not going to unduly disrupt any schedules.  I don't have to take off my nice warm gloves.  I even get a little giggle, because I have the mental image of a horse laying on a therapy couch, being asked, "Awww, did your mommy not rub your nose enough when you were a foal?"

We shall see... 
Yes, that mental image


  1. Love this! I have a huge amount of respect for Mr. Schiller with the changes he had made to his outlook and program. Same with Madison Shambaugh (Mustang Maddy). I like your experiment with Echo. It IS interesting to see our horses' reactions when we work "outside the usual equestrian box" with them.

    1. Thanks for the recommendation, I will check that one out!

  2. I'm going to try this with Sebastian too! I spend a fair bit of time engaging him and letting him lick me, but I never thought of actively rubbing his muzzle to recognize his desire for engagement or acknowledgement.

    Schiller's transformation is fascinating, and if you want to hear some really neat discussion on it the first 15-20 episodes of his podcast are really interesting. (He got way too woo woo for me after that so I had to quit it, but the beginning was neat.)

    1. I did it again today & got releases faster & he walked away sooner. Interesting stuff. Podcasts are tough for me -- I have never been able to listen to talking on a radio without going mad, but I will keep it in mind if I get the urge.

  3. I tried this with my own very mouthy horse. I was looking for a new way to solve the problem because all the old ways didn't work for me. Sadly neither did this. I committed for a few weeks and with no change I just gave up. I just have to accept him for who he is - very mouthy. I hope it works for you. I truly loved the idea of it all.

    1. Thanks for sharing! I did note that in one of his videos, he said it took four months to see a big difference with one horse. I am definitely not expecting Echo to turn into some magical opposite, I think some of it is just his personality, but a reduction in the compulsive grabbing would be nice.

    2. Four months.. I definitely did not commit for long enough! I'm not sure I have four months in me to stay that consistent. (I should, but if I'm honest I may not..)

  4. I really like Warwick Schiller as well, for all the reasons you mentioned. I was also struck by this explanation of a seeking for connection and where on the nose you should be putting your hands to connect. Currently using it with my slightly pushy/mouthy 3 year old to see how it works. So far so good.

    Stay dry!

    1. Echo definitely disagrees with play zone vs. connection zone -- he strongly feels that ALL zones are valid play zones, LOL.

  5. Very interesting perspective.
    My horse bud has started putting his muzzle up to me or the lead or the saddle pad. Sometimes he mouths. This new for him and seems to show that he wants to engage. He was kind of disinterested before or perhaps distrustful. I am taking this as a good sign and rub his muzzle. Seems to be line with the philosophy you described.

    1. That is an interesting development - I agree that it sounds like a good sign that he is being willing to reach out to you!

  6. I really love Warwick Schiller's videos!

    I'm also sick of NC's excessive precipitation this year! Our yard is a literal boot sucking mess of mud and I'm over wiping dogs down (ugh and potty training in the rain) every time they come back in the house. So glad I don't have horses at home, but it sure would be nice if the horses at the barn could get turned out without losing their shoes or their minds.

  7. Really interesting! Hampton is also "mouthy" and I have always thought it was just his way of expressing himself. They really don't have many other options to express emotions? Obviously I maintain boundaries, but he gets especially "chewy" when he gets massages, chiro, etc. Going to go watch these videos!