I'm always surprised by what I find when I handle horses new to me - perhaps because I'm so used to how my horses handle. I've been watching over two geldings who are stalled near mine, while their owners (a couple) are away on a two-week vacation. I'm just swapping out blankets as needed, picking feet and checking to be sure there aren't lost shoes or scrapes or other wounds. The couple are well-intentioned horse owners, but not very experienced.
But just with that minimal work, I'm interacting with both horses every day. They're both good boys, although both are very stiff behind when I pick their feet. One of the horses is a nervous sort, and may have had some rough handling in his past. He's usually fine for me, but sometimes when I enter his stall to put on his halter, if I don't announce myself first, or move slightly too fast, he has a habit of turning away, putting his head in the corner and butt to me. He's never given the slightest indication of kicking, but it's an unsafe habit.
So we've been working on him keeping his butt away from me, even when he's worried. The first couple of times I asked him to do this by very gently swinging the lead rope - it didn't take much - he stayed as far as he could from me in the stall but kept his butt to the back. For him, taking myself away is a big release, so I took a big step back and turned my shoulder to him. He snorted and looked alarmed, but quickly settled. After a couple of repetitions, I added stepping up to his shoulder and petting him with lots of verbal praise if he could stand still. Within minutes, he was sighing and licking and chewing. It was a new experience for him to be able to do what I asked even when he was worried, and to get a big release in the process.
Since he's a nervous horse I suspected he'd be carrying a lot of tension in his body, and if he could start to let go of some of that physical tension it might help him. So I tried a simple test - I asked for a head down using downwards pressure on the lead. Huge brace. It took quite a few minutes to even get the suggestion of a give, which I rewarded by an exaggerated release and much verbal praise with stroking. After a few more minutes, the gives were coming more frequently and he was beginning to get the idea. He's still not consistent or immediately responsive, but he was trying hard. There was more licking and chewing and he was clearly thinking things over. It'll be interesting to see how he responds today when I handle him. If he feels better inside from getting slightly softer, I expect he'll be increasingly responsive.
When his owners come back, I'll tell and show them what I've been doing. I don't know if they'll follow up or not in their own handling. These little things can be of great importance in building in softness for the horse, but the handler has to notice and know what to do in response.
It always makes me happy to go back and handle my own soft, responsive horses.