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Horse Psychology and Behavior (Part I)

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.

This mare's initial terror of a blue tarp rendered her incapable of curiosity, but through patient handling, utilizing approach and retreat, she has conquered her fear and become confident and willing around the object.

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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