School for Survival: Understanding the Wild Side of the Tame Horse

Although horses have been man?s companions and partners for many centuries, they were once wild-and in many ways, domestic horses view the world as if they were still wild. To consider illogical or harmful (such as shying on the trail or chewing wood in the stall), it helps to know how a wild horse learns to survive.
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Although horses have been man?s companions and partners for many centuries, they were once wild-and in many ways, domestic horses view the world as if they were still wild. To consider illogical or harmful (such as shying on the trail or chewing wood in the stall), it helps to know how a wild horse learns to survive.

People have been riding around on horses for a very long time now--thousands of years, in fact, although no one knows the exact date when human thighs first made contact with horsehide. All we do know is that the contact wasn?t the horse's idea to begin with. Somehow, our early equestrian ancestor convinced the horse to put up with it, and we?ve been riding that horse's descendants ever since.

Wild Horses

It may help those of us who ride horses today to remember that riding still isn?t the horse's idea, and that his desires and ways of seeing things are not the same as ours. Although horses have been man?s companions and partners for many centuries, they were once wild-and in many ways, domestic horses view the world as if they were still wild. To consider illogical or harmful (such as shying on the trail or chewing wood in the stall), it helps to know how a wild horse learns to survive.

In the Army, they have a saying: ?If it moves, salute it. If it doesn't move, paint it. And if you can't salute or paint it, dig a hole and bury it.? The wild horse's version of the same saying goes like this: ?If it looks like it tastes good, eat it. If it looks like it might eat horses, run away from it. And if the rest of the wild herd thinks it might eat horses, then take their word for it and run along with them.?

Run For Your Life!

Animals who eat meat have to track down other animals and kill them. Meat-eating animals have special weapons, such as fangs and claws, to kill their prey. A horse's food is usually right under his feet, so he doesn't hunt. However, wild horses are hunted by various species of wildcats who consider horsemeat tasty. Horses have to defend themselves, and the defense they chose many years ago was running away. For this defense to be effective, horses always have to be ready to run at a moment?s notice, since many horse-eating wildcats are even quicker out of the starting gate than horses. The horse needs a good head start and plenty of staying power.

Now, because his survival has always depended on being able to run, the modern horse gets nervous when he can't run. This explains why horses are afraid of some things we take for granted. When you see a sudden glitter on the ground as you're riding along the trail, you know perfectly well it's just the sun glinting off an old soda can. But the horse tends to think that every sudden movement near his feet is a hungry mountain lion sneaking through the grass, and his instinct is to run -- which is why he may unexpectedly shy and nearly throw you.

The need to feel free to run accounts for some other common fears horses have. They are usually nervous at first about trailers because trailers look like caves, and caves are not good places for horses to be. Horse-eating creatures sometimes nap there, and once the horse is inside, there's no room to run.

The horse's dependence on his feet makes him wary of having his hooves handled. This is why he might fight you (or even the farrier) when you try to pick up his feet. He is also stuck in one place when you're holding one of his feet in the air, and he doesn't like that feeling of helplessness.

Since he needs to be standing in order to run, the horse has ?locks? in his legs that allow him to doze off standing up. When he does lie down, he wants to know that he can get up again in a hurry. That's why a horse who gets cast (trapped or pinned while he's laying down) often panics and struggles even though he risks hurting himself as he fights to get to his feet. A very young horse may be frightened by any restraint, even a halter.

It's Always Chow Time

When a wild horse isn?t busy running away from his natural enemies, his favorite activity is eating. That's the most popular pastime for a domestic horse, too, especially since he doesn't have to spend much time defending himself from wildcats in caves. In the wild, food can be scarce and is lower in nutrition than farm-grown hay and grain. To get all the nutrition he needs, a wild horse has to spend most of his waking hours eating. For this reason, the domestic likes to eat all the time, too. He might consider feed pellets or a bran mash a nice change of pace, but he really wants to munch grass and hay until his belly?s full. He?ll eat until he's full if he gets into a bin of rich, too-which will make him seriously ill. This urge to nibble constantly can also lead to bad stable habits, such as chewing wood or cribbing-when he clamps his teeth on his manger (or any wooden ledge) and pretends he's eating.

One Big, Happy (?) Family

The third most important thing in a wild horse's life is his herd. A foal learns what he needs to know to survive from his dam and the other adults in the herd. He?ll mimic what he sees older horses doing, so when you are raising a foal, it's important that the adult horses around him are good influences. He?ll stay calm if the horses around him are calm, but he'll pick up their nervousness and bad habits, too.

To a horse, a herd always means security and safety. While most of the animals graze or sleep, one or two remain alert as sentries. If any of the horses gives a warning whinny and starts running, the rest follow, and any slow foals are nipped by their dams to speed them up. Even horses who enjoy human company prefer to be part of a herd, except in rare cases where two horses honestly hate each other but are forced to live together anyway. A horse who has to live without others of his kind may accept a goat, a cat, a dog or even a chicken for company.

An important part of herd life is the social structure. A herd, whether wild or tame, is never a democracy. The stallion in a wild herd makes certain decisions, but his leadership is shared with the boss mare. Young males may challenge the stallion, but usually they are driven away or permitted to live on the fringe of the herd as second-class citizens. (An outcast stallion may succeed in ?kidnapping? one or two of the lowest-ranking mares and starting a herd of his own.) The boss mare gets to the top by bullying every mare in turn. Once she has established her position, she is rarely challenged. Each mare below her stays in strict pecking order, and each knows which mares she can threaten and which she can't. The low mare on the totem pole gets the last choice of food, the last chance at the watering place and may have to work the hardest to defend her foal.

Whenever two or more domestic horses find themselves turned out in the same pasture, they have to get the pecking order settled right away. Once in a while, it takes a minor battle to settle the question of who?s boss. More often, two horses will just threaten to bite or kick each other and the one who back down first loses. A mare who always winds up on the bottom of the pecking order may have to be fed separately to make sure she gets enough, since the others will hog her food.

This pecking order, by the way, is why horse people say your horse has to know who?s boss--and the boss had better be you. Experienced trainers learn how to boss a hors--without hurting him or themselves.

The next time your horse does something unexpected or illogical, remember that a horse will always take the most direct, and to him, most reasonable course of action. He doesn't speak our language and we don't speak his. The best we can do is to think of his wild ancestors and try to understand his instincts. Although humans and horses have lived and worked together for centuries, the horse will always be a stranger in a strange land.