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Think About It…
Let me start with a basic horsemanship question. What seems more logical to you — 1) that a 150-250 lb human has a realistic chance of controlling a 1000+lb horse by sheer brute force; or 2) that a human has the intellectual capability to out-think an animal whose innate way of surviving is to react to his environment?
Put that way, honest logical people will admit that if a horse doesn’t want to do something, we aren’t going to ” make” him do it. A much simpler approach would be to reason with him and get him to understand what we want so he’ll be glad to do it. Easy, right? But there are a couple things we have to learn to be able to do this in a way the horse will understand.
Here are some important truths about horses you need to understand. Your horsemanship skills will improve immensely if you keep these in mind when dealing with your horse.
Horses Don’t “Reason”
No, they don’t reason in the sense that we do. To understand how a horse actually thinks, you have to understand one basic truth: Horses are NOTHING like humans, dogs, cats, cougars… Those are all predators — they EAT other animals. Horses are prey animals — they get EATEN. This means they have entirely different motivations for their behavior than predators do. It’s exactly opposite in fact.
Horses must be constantly aware of their surroundings so they know the minute there’s something lurking out there that could eat them. I know it’s frustrating when your horse is convinced a plastic bag blowing in the grass is about to do him in…..but it makes perfect sense to him. If it wasn’t there yesterday, or it looks out of place, or it showed up unexpectedly, then it’s acting just like a predator stalking him.
Horses are Herd Animals
Horses in the wild are not solitary loners like a wolf or a mountain lion. They only feel safe with their herd around them. Each herd has a boss mare who is in charge and looks out for predators. She takes them to water and leads them to the good grass. That’s right — in case you didn’t know it — stallions are NOT the boss of the herd. They have only one job — and we all know what that is.
This herd mentality — safety in numbers — is what causes your horse to become “buddy sour” or “barn sour”. If you haven’t convinced your horse that you are their herd, that they can trust you to keep them safe, they will try to get back to their safe place when they feel unsure. If you want them to want to hang out with you — you’re going to have to work for it.
Horses Don’t See What We See
Changes in people, places, things, sounds, etc. are what horses look out for to stay alive. When you couple this with the knowledge that horses do not see what we see, I’m actually surprised they aren’t a whole lot spookier than they already can be.
Horses only see green, blue and shades of gray. They can see about a mile ahead, and are aware of things about a mile behind them. They can see quite a distance on either side without moving their head as well. They have “bilateral” vision where we have “binocular”. This basically means both our eyes focus together so we can see in great detail long distances. This helps us stalk and catch prey. Dogs, cats, wolves, etc. also have eyes on the front of their heads for binocular vision.
Horses’ eyes are on either side of their head. This allows them to be able to see one-half of their entire world out of each eye without moving their head. Predators approaching from any direction will be easily seen. They also have a blind spot under their nose and right behind their tail.
Because of this phenomenon, we also have to “teach” both sides of a horse’s brain. Just because he is okay with something showing up on his right side, does not mean his left brain has become used to it.
Horses React Then “Think”
When something startles a group of horses, or even one horse, you’ll notice they whirl away from it, run like the dickens for a bit, then stop and turn to look at whatever scared them — blowing and snorting like crazy. That’s an innate characteristic of the horse. In the wild, the entire herd takes off (stampede!). Or course the slowest, oldest, most feeble member will most likely be the one eaten by the lion. They all stop to see if the threat is still coming, or if the lion (or paper bag) has decided to give up the chase, the herd goes back to eating.
Horses possess the “fight or flight” response. Their first reaction is to flee from the horse-eating booger. If they can’t get away, they will turn and try to fight it off. They won’t typically put themselves into situations where they don’t feel they can get away. This can challenge your horsemanship skills if you really do want him to go into a small metal cave on wheels!
I honestly don’t understand why ANY horse gets into a horse trailer a second time. They have to trust us immensely. Not only is it a dark cave-like enclosure, but just ride in the back one time and see how noisy, unsteady and scary it is.
This is why when your horse spooks, normally they will take off by either spinning away from the evil tree stump that jumped out at them, or jump out from under you to run forward if you aren’t paying attention. Some horses do “spook in place”, but these are typically horses that trust their riders a little more already.
Horses Use Body Language to Communicate
One of the most amazing things to study in your horsemanship journey is horse body language and how they communicate with each other without ever making a noise. From mares with newborn foals to an entire herd. They all speak the same “language”. They use expressions, postures, pressure (physical and perceived), and also mimic each other. And when you learn this “language”, it so so much fun playing with your horse. Until you see it in action, it’s hard to believe a small little human can influence a horse just by the way they are standing, where they are looking, and the gestures they make.
This is why, contrary to what most “normal” horse people believe, you do not need to speak to your horse to get him to obey a command. They don’t actually understand “human” talking. In fact, I’ve seen it become more of a hindrance to communicating than a help. Horses aren’t looking for praise (like a dog — “good boy”), and you can’t reason with him by explaining the situation. I’ve found it’s best to keep quiet and act like another horse. They understand that just fine.
We try to anthropomorphize horses by attributing human characteristic to them. It just doesn’t work that way. You want to get through to him — speak horse.
How This Helps Our Horsemanship
Now that you know how a horse thinks, reacts and perceives the world around him, you can learn to use these natural instincts and characteristics to “reason” with your horse in terms he understands. Don’t fight nature and try to force him to do something that goes against millions of years of evolution. When you want to ask your horse to do something — or get him to stop doing something — cause that thing to be the easiest thing in the world for him. By looking at it from your horse’s perspective, it becomes easy to figure out why he’s doing it, and what to do to change that behavior.
I hope you found this helpful. In future posts, we’ll be digging into how to use this horsemanship knowledge to accomplish the tasks we want with our horses. It will be much more fun and less stressful also.
Check out this list of behaviors that can be overcome by using these basic characteristics HERE.