Today’s horses no longer have to worry about being dinner for a big cat or a pack of canines, but their brains have never fully accepted that. Their instinct — dating from millions of years ago — still recalls the tiny eohippus, who was food for all kinds of predators.
That’s why the equine reaction, when faced with uncertainty or any kind of perceived danger, is flight or fight. Basically, they ”shoot first and ask questions later,” because that’s how they survived until mankind domesticated them.
That instinct is why they spook at certain types of movement, noises, shapes, colors or shadows. It’s why horses will kick if you surprise them from behind or bite or strike if they feel trapped.
And the fact that they’re always holding a gun, which could go off at any time, has to be at the center of anything we do with horses, whether we’re on the ground or on their backs.
But that doesn’t mean we should be afraid of them. In fact, it means exactly the opposite. It means we must deal with our horses with confidence, respect them for their size and strength, attempt to anticipate their reactions to stimuli, be ready to reassure them when they’re anxious, be ready to reprimand them for unwanted behavior, and sometimes we must be willing to just laugh at them to break the tension.
The Equine Imperatives
The horse’s primal needs are to move (preferably constantly), to eat (also preferably constantly) and drink, to reproduce (even for some geldings), and to feel safe in a herd (of some kind). We could call these needs the equine imperatives, and we must always take them into account if we want our horses to be willing to work with us.
In much of the country, we’ve removed their ability to move and to eat at will, as we’ve put them in stables with limited (if any) turnout. And, except for a very few males and a larger percentage of females on a limited basis, we’ve also removed reproduction from the equine lifestyle.
So, to help our horses feel content, comfortable, or even happy or fulfilled, we have to provide them with an environment and a lifestyle that fulfills all of their mental needs. Of course, that’s easier with some horses than with others.
Fortunately, one thing we can usually do is to help them feel safe in a herd. Not necessarily a classic herd of horses (although proximity to other horses is always important), but a small ”herd” nevertheless. And it’s relatively simple to do that because for centuries we’ve bred horses to work with us; we’ve created breeds whose individuals, to varying extents, are mentally fulfilled by working with people. Doing a job with a human (or even with several humans) fills them with a kind of pride, a sense of accomplishment, and a joie de vivre.
Be The Herd Leader
So for most of today’s horses, especially those who compete for a living, the herd is the group of horses and the people around them. And the key is that each of those people must be the herd leader or the herd leader’s lieutenant — someone from whom the horse takes direction and, thus, derives confidence.
That means that, if you keep your horse or horses at home, you must be in charge of them. You determine when and where they eat and get turned out, and they must go there calmly and quietly under your direction; they must stand reasonably quietly for you to groom or take care of them; and they must work when and where you tell them to work. If you board your horse, the grooms and trainer should direct the horse’s behavior this way, and your behavior toward your horse must support theirs.
No, you can’t achieve this respect by acting like Attila The Hun. You accomplish it with positive energy, with confidence and with consistency.
How' Watch a herd of horses, especially mares. Usually there is a lead mare, and rarely does she achieve that status by fighting. She just has a presence, a confidence, that tells the others, ”I’m in charge. Get out of the way and follow me.” And the other horses do, because she also treats all the herd members the same, every day.
And that’s what you need to do: Make your horse feel safe in his herd by being the leader, by being confident, relaxed, purposeful, and by being as predictable as possible in your actions toward your horse. If he behaves correctly, praise him. If he behaves incorrectly, reprimand him, immediately and at the correct level.
If you believe you’re doing everything you can to be your horse’s herd leader and he’s still not responding positively, then you need to figure out what you have to change in your horse’s life. Some of the questions to ask are: Does he have a physical problem I need to fix' Does he need to live next to or be turned out with different horses' Does he need more exercise' Does he need to do a different sport' Are you and he simply not suited'
Memory And Association
The two equine traits that make them such trainable partners are their phenomenal memories and their powers of association. These attributes are why we can participate in any of the dozens of disciplines we do. Actually, the top levels of most horse sports are about pushing those two attributes to the max.
But horses’ memories can also be their greatest weakness. They’ll never forget the seemingly stupid things, like the time a cat ran out from behind the tree next to the ring or the time the wind blew over the trash can at the end of the aisle.
They’ll also remember the rider with hands like a bricklayer or the rider who launched up their neck before every jump and threw them off balance. They’ll remember the time they didn’t want to go down a path, so they reared up, dropped their rider and never had to do it again. They’ll remember all kinds of injustices or abuses, whether real or perceived.
But they’ll also remember all the good things that happen to them — and both are why a horse’s life experiences are so important.
Really, training horses is rather like teaching children.
Sure, genetics play an unquestionable role in creating an equine athlete, but the environment in which they grow up and develop is at least as important (sometimes more important) in determining what they become. And it’s our responsibility, as their owners, trainers and riders, to understand our horses’ mental needs and to try to provide them with a beneficial environment so that they can be confident, useful partners, for us or for someone else.
Article by John Strassburger, our Performance Editor. A graduate A Pony Clubber, John has decades of experience in eventing, steeplechasing and dressage. As editor of The Chronicle of the Horse for 20 years, he covered six Olympics. With his wife, he operates Phoenix Farm, a breeding/training facility in California. John has written two books: ”John Strassburger: The things I Think Matter Most” and ”George H. Morris: Because Every Round Counts.”