Horse Psychology and Behavior (Part I)

Learn these tips in training your horse to handle threats and trail difficulties.
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Learn these tips in training your horse to handle threats and trail difficulties.

When was the last time you had a good conversation with a horse? For those of you who are now furrowing at me in confusion, let me assure you, it is possible - and in this column, I'll begin the exploration of how it's done.

In order to connect with the horse's heart, we must first get inside their head. So this week's column is the first in a series on horse psychology and behavior. Before we can find true harmony and develop rapport with a horse, we must understand the nature of a horse and be willing to alter our intrinsic human nature to best complement our equine companions.

Last week I addressed the phenomenon of reentering the horse world after a lifetime of career and family commitments. Upon approaching retirement age, many people, especially women, desire a relationship with horses that they may have experienced in their youth, or only dreamed of experiencing.

Click here to read "The Journey Back to the Horse".

My article offered advice for those wanting to pursue their dream of horsemanship. This article may have resonated with you as you identified with the desire to return to the horse. Perhaps you already have invested in that relationship and are open to learning more. My intent in the upcoming weeks is to offer you credible information as you progress in your own horsemanship journey.

To begin, you need to offer your horse a common language. Unfortunately, many horse owners have no idea how to "read" their horse's language, or how to communicate with their horse in a way the horse understands. This inability to connect can too frequently result in a display of criticism and frustration. In the worst case, it can lead to punishment of the horse. None of that supports a positive dialogue between horse and human.

To truly understand the depth and intricacy of the horse is a praiseworthy endeavor. It is also hard work, made all the more complicated because each horse is different, just as we humans have different personalities. This series on horse psychology is not intended to diagnosis or answer every horse behavioral issue, but rather to serve as a foundation of basic horse language that leads to partnership.

The basis of understanding the horse is predicated upon our recognition of horses as prey animals. As such, the horse's subsequent thoughts and behaviors are derived from their vulnerability to perceived attack. Their constant vigilance is the foundation of their survival.

Humans, on the other hand, are considered predators.

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Despite the fact we have eyes set in the front of our heads and the potential for a loud voice, the sheer bulk and strength of a horse can be intimidating and evoke fear in a human. As a result, it is easy for us to ignore the true nature of a prey animal. Also, human contact and interaction with the animal world is primarily with other predators, whether it be other people or our pet dogs and cats, therefore this has become the most familiar and accessible language to us.

Yet the evolution of the horse as a prey animal is very different, and everything it does is based upon that fact. Understanding that point is crucial. The safety and well being of both horse and human can be threatened by a lack of understanding of this foundational premise.

Furthermore, any potential for a positive relationship between a horse and human depends on our understanding of them as a prey creature.

As a prey animal, whose very life can depend on each decision made, the horse has a highly developed set of self-preservation skills. Whereas a predator has the luxury of making decisions based off of other needs, a prey animal's decisions are driven solely by the primal need to stay alive.

We have all experienced a horse becoming highly agitated by seemingly (to the human-predator mind) mundane things: walking through a puddle, getting in a trailer, tolerating a piece of blowing plastic or a sudden movement in the vicinity. The reason for this is rooted deep in evolutionary experience as a prey animal. The horse is not concerned that those things will hurt him, but rather that he will likely be attacked and killed. We must take into consideration the horse's intrinsic fear of death in relation to how we ask things of them.

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The horse's primary method of defense is that of flight. While a horse will fight (bite, strike, kick, etc.) if they do not have the option to flee, their preference is to avoid conflict with a predator by simply running away. When a horse encounters a questionable situation, his intuition tells him to escape first and analyze second. In this way the horse is similar to other prey animals such as deer, rabbits, squirrels and mice, which flee from the unknown in order to survive. Contrast this to a predator who may have the leisure of being able to mentally access a situation prior to making their decision for fight or flight.

A horse believes that too much confidence or curiosity about something new could lead to its demise. Horses are natural born skeptics, lacking self-assurance and appearing cowardly when faced with novel things. Yet it is this same innate skepticism that speaks of great intelligence and a tremendous species-preserving propensity to survive. Fortunately, these patterns of fear and diffidence can be altered. A once timid, fearful horse can become a confident, playful and curious partner through understanding, appreciation and proper leadership.

I encourage you to implement this new way of considering the horse in upcoming endeavors. In upcoming columns, I will provide you with detailed ways to interpret your horse's body language, but for now, here is a beginning primer of how you can relate to a horse in a way they'll both appreciate and understand.

Relationship comes first: As soon as your horse suspects you have an agenda their skepticism will rise. Prey animals are programmed to avoid predators with an agenda, particularly when that agenda involves them. Your horse must believe that your care and commitment to his needs surmounts whatever task you are asking him to do. Act as if the thing (tarp, trailer, bridge, etc.) isn't important or isn't even there, and instead set your efforts on offering your horse a slow and consistent praise.

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Retreat, retreat, retreat: Predators typically travel in straight lines and approach what they want directly - consider a lion stalking its prey. When we walk directly up to whatever we are wanting our horse to be curious about, their confidence and trust in us gets squelched. How can a prey animal trust actions that speak of a predatory nature? Instead of approaching the object you desire your horse to interact with, retreat from it instead. This will increase your horse's confidence and give rise to his curiosity.

For example, rather than walking directly up to a tarp on the ground, walk by it, around it, and away from it many times, until your horse begins to show signs of curiosity. You may then allow the horse to smell the tarp or interact with it as he pleases, but do not stay too long, rather, retreat again. Your commitment to repeated retreats from the object, in this case, the tarp, will assure your horse that you are there to support him and not to make him do something.

Patience is the key: Underneath their initial skepticism, the horse truly is a curious and gregarious creature, but those qualities may only be exhibited when the horse feels confident. The true test of partnership with a horse is not when we can make our horse do something, but when, out of trust and respect, they want to do things for us and with us. This requires patience and the willingness to slow down and simply observe. Resist your predatory temptation to always be doing, and instead try just being alongside your horse. You will be amazed at the curious and confident horse that is then able to shine through.

It is a praiseworthy gift to the horse that you would take the time to learn how to speak their language. We will continue our study of horse psychology and behavior in the following weeks. I can assure you that every moment you spend delving into a deeper understanding of the horse, will lead to moments of great reward and deep connection with the magnificent animals.

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About the author: Emily Johnson, owner of Mountain Rose Horsemanship Training, LLC, located in Broomfield, Colorado, is an accomplished horse professional with a passion for bringing horses and humans together through credible and approachable instruction.

Emily studied Equine Science at Colorado State University before spending the following years traveling, mentoring under many accomplished trainers nationwide, as she developed her own natural horsemanship style. Her training methods utilize a direct approach the horse naturally understands, which she combines with her knowledge of human learning to create the most effective environment for both.

Emily specializes in areas that include young or troubled horses, as well as horsemanship that emphasize the mind and behavior of the horse. Her instruction reflects her passion for equipping both horses and humans for success on their journey toward partnership. She may be contacted at mountainrosetraining@gmail.com.