The first step to building a strong relationship with your horse is to understand why he is the way he is, what makes him react the way he does and basically- how the world looks from his eyes. A horse is not a human and to try applying the rules that govern our human society to the equine world is not only foolhardy and dangerous, but it is also cruel.
It may not make sense to us why he does some of the things he does, but to him it makes perfect sense. This is why we need to understand horse psychology in order understand our horse and once we understand him, maybe then and only then can we begin to teach and train him.
Today we will begin to explain the dynamic that is the horse and his herd.
Understanding Horse Behaviour
Horses originally lived on wide open plains and would spread out to graze a long way from one another. The best way to communicate quietly and quickly when you’re a prey animal in such a situation is with body signals.
Horses developed small signals rather than sounds to communicate with each other. When we learn to recognise what these signals mean, we too can understand horse behaviour.
Horses Don’t Tell Lies
Horses don’t lie to one another. When one horse wants another to move away, he will use a series of signals, until he gets what he wants. He may start with a look, a twitch of the ear or a flick of the tail. If that doesn’t work, he will threaten to bite or kick and will carry out that threat if necessary.
Each horse knows that after the threat will come the action. The other horse has a choice. He can stand his ground and get kicked- or he can move off.
FACT & PRACTICAL APPLICATION
Because we know there are certain facts that are true about horses as a species, we need to consider some facts and how these relate directly to what we observe our horses doing. These facts lead to a series of practical applications that we use in riding, training and communicating with our horses. Lets begin!
FACT: Horses are prey animals.
Which means that their instinct is to run away from danger and not seek it out. They avoid aggression towards things that they think might endanger their lives. This instinct to run is their “means for survival”. It has made their bodies and senses develop in such a way, that when they sense danger, their bodies can react quickly and …run fast.
PRACTICAL APPLICATION: By exposing a horse to a multitude of experiences in a positive way, the horse learns to distinguish that which is life threatening and that which is just new and curious. If on the other hand, a horse reacts by trying to run or avoid something and we react with fear or anger, this reinforces the notion that every time he sees this “something” he will associate it negatively and want to run or get away even more. We are reinforcing negative horse behaviour.
FACT: Because horses have many predators they have a very keenly developed sense of:
- 1. Hearing
- 2. Sight
- 3. Smell
- 4. Awareness of movement under foot.
With these keenly developed senses, horses may react to things that are not perceptible to us. People call this ‘spooking’ or ‘shying’. The person may not see or sense what the horse is reacting to and negatively reacts to the horse’s action.
It is essential for good communication to know whether the horse is ‘reacting’ instinctively or ‘acting’ disobedient.
FACT: Horses can sense fear.
If a horse senses fear or indecision in a human he will feel threatened and fearful himself. This will lead to the horse challenging the human and ultimately negative horse-behavior.
It is crucial for the trainer or handler to “feel” confident (not fearful) in the presence of horses.
FACT: Horses are most vulnerable when they are eating or drinking.
PRACTICAL APPLICATION: The horse is most approachable when he lowers his head, chews softly and simulates eating. This is because in the wild horses will only put their heads down and graze if they ‘feel’ safe. When communicating with a horse, you know that the horse has “understood”, or is comfortable with what is going on, when he demonstrates positive horse-behavior as in lowering his head, chewing softly etc.
FACT: Horses are animals of habit that have GREAT memories.
This can work in a positive or negative way for us. They remember the good AND the bad and categorize things into something that causes fear and pain or something that doesn’t.
PRACTICAL APPLICATION: In order to try to adapt a horse to a man made environment he needs to be exposed to it in a way that will leave fear-less and pain-less memories and promote positive horse-behavior.
FACT: Horses are inherently curious.
Horses are willing to check out new and unusual things that seem interesting but not threatening. In order to survive they know instinctively that they cannot run from everything forever. It is the curiosity inherent in horse-behavior that allows us to teach them and allows them to learn (not unlike children).
PRACTICAL APPLICATION: Good training techniques take advantage of this curiosity and the horse’s willingness to observe new things.
FACT: Horses live in herds that have a very sophisticated social order.
Each herd is lead by mare who is at the top of the ‘pecking’ order. This dominant mare is usually older and wiser. She is the one that controls the herd’s eating, traveling and drinking. She also signals when she senses danger and it is time to flee.
When living in herds, young horses and less experienced ones, will learn from the dominant mare what to flee from and what to ignore.
PRACTICAL APPLICATION: When we bring an untrained horse into the man made environment we must substitute for the dominant mare. We need to teach the horse to ignore or associate positively to certain, smells, noises and things that they see.
To train a horse the horse must be willing to accept the trainer as the dominant herd member.
FACT: After the dominant mare, the rest of the herd is also divided into a social order or “pecking order”.
Again wisdom, age, (as long as the horse is not physically feeble) and respect determine this.
PRACTICAL APPLICATION: The higher up in the pecking order a human finds himself in his horse’s ‘herd’ the more successful he will be in communicating with the horse and altering the ‘instinctive’ horse-behavior.
**When in a situation where there is not a dominant mare, a stallion or gelding may take over as the dominant horse. But the same is true about portraying wisdom, respect and security.
FACT: Dominance among horses is not determined by aggressive behavior.
Aggressive horse-behavior is usually punished by ostracizing the herd member to the periphery of the herd where he is in most danger.
PRACTICAL APPLICATION: Aggressive behavior in humans towards horses produce fearful ‘hard to handle horses’ that can become dangerous to humans.
FACT: Dominance in a herd is demonstrated by one horse being able to make another horse move OR stop it from moving.
This is accomplished through different methods of communication mainly body language. Biting and kicking may occur when the dominant horse is challenged by the other horse not moving, or responding aggressively.
PRACTICAL APPLICATION: This ability to control the movement (stop or go) of a horse is another key ingredient in a trainer’s ability to obtain respect and the higher position in the pecking order.
FACT: Body language is the way horses communicate. A prick of the ear, a position of the head etc.
PRACTICAL APPLICATION: The ability to read this body language and control your own body language is important to be able to communicate successfully.
Originally Published with Photo: http://passionforhorses.ca/understanding-horse-behaviour