Horse Behaviour

Tapping into your horse’s psyche: why it’s important for you to understand how your horse sees the world

To really understand your horse, you need to understand the world he lives in, how he sees things differently than you, even when you’re looking at the same thing.

Your horse lives in a world of hay and grass – food is a top priority in life for your horse because his well-being, as well as his survival, is directly tied to his gut constantly working – buzzing insects and herd dynamics.

By looking at the world through your horse’s perspective will open new ways for you to communicate with each other as your understanding of each other deepens.

The evolution of horses as prey animals has given them a particular way of interpreting the world that helps them survive.

The components of this perspective – like viewing the world as a series of threats, finding safety in numbers, and looking to an authority figure for guidance – make up the essence of your horse’s behaviour.

The person who understands this equine viewpoint (which is very different from a human viewpoint) is the one who will become very good at having conversations with horses.

Your horse is, first and foremost, food for others.

In the wild, horses are large prey animals that are at the top of most large predators’ menus.

Nowadays, horses mostly live in domestic situations where their biggest concerns are getting injured, being bitten by horseflies or being over-fed and under-exercised, but their brains don’t know that.

Your horse is the descendant of a small mammal called Hyracotherium but most commonly known as Eohippus (from Greek ēōs ‘dawn’ + hippos ‘horse’).

They flourished in North America and Europe during the early part of the Eocene Epoch (56 million to 33.9 million years ago).

Three eohippus in the forest.

Eohippus was a small animal, up to 50 cm (20 inches) tall at the shoulder, about the size of a fox.

Its back was arched and its hind legs were longer than its forelegs, which most likely means that it was adapted well to running and probably relied heavily on outrunning any predators to survive.

The instinct to flee first and ask questions later (if ever) is at the very core of every horse’s personality today.

Horses scare easily.

You don’t have to spend very long around horses to learn one thing about them: horses spook.

And they often spook at what we consider mundane things, like plastic bags, low-flying planes, a bucket placed in a spot where there wasn’t a bucket before.

To you, these things are barely a distraction.

To your ever-watchful horse, these are potentially life-threatening dangers.

Even though most domestic horses don’t have to flee from predators anymore, the instinct to run from anything potentially harmful is deeply ingrained in your horse’s psyche.

Your horse’s brain is telling him that he needs to be on guard in case there are any horse-eating predators lurking in the area.

When you understand how critical your horse’s senses, such as sight and smell, are to survival you’ll understand how he sees the world.

Horses need their herd.

Because closely associated with the get-the-heck-outta-dodge mentality is safety in numbers.

Just like the massive herds of wildebeest or zebra on the African plains, your horse has a burning, evolutionary need to be with others of his kind at all times.

Because his brain knows that large numbers mean better chances of survival.

Take a minute to pretend you’re your horse out in the field. Suddenly, a big predator appears in the periphery.

If you’re standing alone against the predator, how does that feel? How does it feel different if you’ve got five mates with you?

Living with your mates also means that there are five pairs of ears, eyes and noses detecting danger, which means you’re more likely to find out about a big predator sooner than if it was just you all by your lonesome.

Your horse’s love for others of his kind isn’t completely mercenary, though.

All you need to do is watch a herd of horses to see that they very much enjoy each others’ company.

Each horse has its own distinct personality, as well as likes and dislikes, but the one thing that’s true is that all horses thrive on the right kind of companionship and bond strongly to their herd mates.

Horses (or other equines) will groom each other, play tag and stand close together to more effectively swat away flies. They derive much needed psychological comfort from being physically near other horses and being able to touch them.

Two horses standing next to each other swatting flies with their tails

Horses look to a leader.

As they are very social creatures, horses have their own rules about how to organise their equine societies.

In any given herd you’ll find that some horses are dominant and others are submissive.

Horses have a precise pecking order in the herd and the physical ability, age, experience and personality of each herd member determines what role horses in a herd take on.

We, as humans, have greatly benefitted from horses’ intrinsic need for leadership.

Horses being able to submit to human authority (and I don’t mean by force, as is the case all too often) is what enabled us to domesticate horses in the first place.

Once you earn the respect and trust of your horse – just as a leading horse must earn the herd’s respect – he’ll begin to see you as an authority figure to respect, follow and come to for protection, support and companionship, just as he would a dominant horse.

When you fail to gain the trust and respect of your horse early on in your relationship, he’ll naturally step up and take charge.

Because from your horse’s perspective every herd, even one consisting of only two members, must have a leader.

And although first impressions matter with horses, you can still make up lost ground later by becoming more assertive and worthy of being the leader.

Dynamics in a horse herd aren’t fixed.

The rankings in a herd change all the time, when members leave and join a herd, when new foals are born, when disease, injury or age weakens one member and gives another one the opportunity to rise through the ranks, when a new stallion challenges and prevails over the reigning stallion of the herd.

This means that horses are always testing their superiors, looking for an opening, making sure the one above them is still worthy of that position.

It’s nature’s way of ensuring that the strongest and healthiest members of the herd wield the most power and have priority access to resources, in a bid to ensure the survival of the species.

And your horse will continuously test you as well.

Especially if you’re not displaying consistent behaviour.

Always remember that to your horse, it’s the natural order of things that the stronger individual should prevail over the weaker one.

And I don’t mean physically stronger either, because that’s a fight you’ll never win.

Gaining the upper hand with a horse is a purely psychological feat where you have to best your horse with experience, wit and determination rather than sheer physical force.

Horses that “misbehave” are often challenging the authority of whoever is handling them. And yes, horses will behave differently with different people – just as they know which individuals in the herd they are above or below, so they know that different humans let them get away with different things.

Horses are incredibly astute at determining the qualifications of those giving them orders.

For your horse to feel safe and secure in any given situation, he must feel that he has a strong leader protecting him and making the right decisions.

If you don’t measure up in this department, or if a horse only has experience of humans that don’t measure up as leaders, he will take that position from you.

When a horse has taken charge, you’ll see the horse leading the human instead of vice versa.

Even when a leader horse is being ridden, he’s still making the decisions about where, when and how he will move – no matter how much the rider pleads or whips him.

Equine followers feel safe when they have a strong leader making decisions and helping them determine what is dangerous and what isn’t.

When you do things right, your horse will see you as a leader and take comfort in your leadership and presence. He will defer to you when he encounters a situation that he is unfamiliar with or doesn’t know how to handle.

It’s at these critical moments when you need to understand what’s causing him concern and guide him through it.

If you say to your horse that things are okay, you must make sure that your word is law.

Your horse has a great potential for learning and can be taught to deal calmly with a wide variety of stressful situations, and you have to be the one to guide him through it and show him what kind of behaviour you expect of him in each situation.

Being a leader for your horse is a great responsibility and you must be confident and knowledgeable to be worthy of your horse’s trust.


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