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The Whole Horse Podcast with Alexa Linton

Nov 2, 2023

Every year at the beginning of the Whole Horse Apprenticeship, I ask participants what they are most interested in learning or exploring during our six months inside the program together. This year, several people wanted to delve into the nuances of equine body language in order to refine their skills and knowledge when it comes to assessing and responding to their horse's communication signals, so I was excited to connect with Rachaël Draaisma, author of Language Signs and Calming Signals of Horses, for this episode all about her areas of expertise!

Not only did we get into a few practical examples of reading facial expressions to gauge tension levels in horses, Rachaël also shared about using Scent Work as a tool for cultivating more emotional balance in our horses. She noted the importance of observing the amount, as well as the sequence, of calming signals and displacement behaviours shown, and how it can often feel like solving a puzzle when it comes to putting it all together to get a clear sense of the horse's inner experience. She also shared some simple ways to begin doing scent work with your own horses as a way to build curiousity and regulation. Alas, this never-ending learning is all part of the fun and what fuels us as horse people. 

I hope our conversation peaks your curiousity to take a closer look at all the ways in which horses communicate, and if you're interested in deepening that communication stay tuned for two special announcements at the end of this episode!

Behaviour consultant Rachaël Draaisma is well known for her large-scale research on Calming Signals in horses. Under the mentorship of Turid Rugaas, she started to firstly map the horses’ levels of tension in response to a variety of everyday stimuli in a livery environment. Secondly, she started to investigate if horses use relationship-managing signals in response to stimuli in their environment that they want to appease to avert conflict and maintain social relationships - they have chosen the term Calming Signals to refer to these signals. Thirdly, she investigated how tension relates to possible Calming Signals. Video footage forms the basis of the study. Hundreds of videos of domesticated horses of various breeds in interaction with humans, or with humans in proximity of twenty meters, were analysed. The study led to the description of 20 calming signals horses use to appease each other and calm themselves to keep a positive social climate and avoid negative escalations. It also led to the description of ten communication ladders that represent ways a horse may interact to stimuli around them. Every step on the ladder represents a tension level and gives features and behaviours, which makes them a valuable tool to assess your horse. And to see if possible tension is declining or rising. This study led to the book Language signs and calming signals of horses and is published by CRC press in 2017. It has been translated to several languages, of which Dutch, French, Chinese, Czech and Polish language are a few to mention. This study is ongoing. And Rachael keeps working on studying communicative signals of horses, with an emphasis on the calming signals of horses.

Another pilar of Rachaël’s working life with horses evolves around equine mental stimulation and scentwork. Rachaël developed an extensive method to do scent tracking with horses. Where she teaches horses to follow a footstep track, so they can find lost persons, or food bags. Tracking has enormous advantages for horses, on their behaviour, their brain and body. But scent tracking with horses is also enriching for humans and can be seen as a new tool in enriching the human equine relationship. Rachaël develops tracking to a level that she uses it as a sole (primary) activity for horses. Rachaël is founder in offering mental stimulation and scent work activities as a method in her work with horses who have behavioural challenges. Rachaël’s second book ‘Scentwork for Horses’ is published in English and Dutch in 2021. 

Rachaël travels throughout Europe and the globe to lecture or give workshops about Calming signals of horses, and equine mental stimulation and scentwork.  Many Universities and educations are interested in her work. China, Denmark, Poland, Belgium, Spain, Slovak, France, Sweden, The UK, the United States of America, The Netherlands, are only a few countries she has visited.

Rachaël has developed an online course on Calming signals of horses. The English version will be available from 26th of October 2023 and on. The online course on Equine mental stimulation & Scentwork will be offered online in the beginning of 2024. 

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