The sense of balance is crucial to your horse and it is important for anyone working with horses to understand how it affects behaviour.
Immediately after birth foals being practising to stand. The sensory receptors, called proprioceptors, in the muscles, joints, tendons and skin sense the position of the body and its parts and send this information to the thalamus.
The thalamus, in turn, relays the information to the cerebral cortex to be processed. Position and motion receptors in the inner ear convey information about the positioning and movements of the head.
Normally, a foal will stand, walk and nurse within the first hour after birth
When the movements that correct balance have been perfected, the foal can make the exact correction at the exact right time; the brain regulating how big the correction needs to be based on how it learned to correct them in the first place.
This correctional response, or counter reflex, becomes automatic in a horse once it is learned and is involuntary.
Horses are able to traverse uneven ground and not fall over when pushed due to the counter reflex. Humans are able to balance on a wire for the same reason.
The size of the counter reflex varies, but usually, the brain will overbalance a bit
This means that just as the tightrope walker is about to fall the brain issues a correction to lean to the other side – but the correction is a bit more than needed and the tightrope walker will find his balance gradually after overbalancing a few times on each side.
In horses this can be observed, not only when they stumble or walk on uneven ground, but also when they feel a light pressure, pushing or pulling on some part of their body.
Horses can, of course, politely move out of the way when you apply pressure if they have been taught to do so by humans.
However, if you stand by your horse and begin to apply light pressure on his side to get him to move, his brain will initially send a correction signal to counteract the pressure he’s feeling and prevent him from falling over.
So, your horse will first push into the pressure before he will yield and step aside – if the has been taught to do so.
The counter reflex is involuntary and is not your horse being stubborn, disrespectful or behaving badly
In a worst-case scenario, you could get squeezed between your horse and the stall wall when you ask the horse to move away from you.
If he hasn’t learned to yield to pressure (and correct the correction, so to say), the counter reflex would cause him to push into you instead of step away from you.
If you then pushed back your horse would push back harder to maintain his balance and pin you between himself and the wall.
The horse might then not connect your flustered noises and pushing and flailing as a cue to step away from the pressure.
Eventually, he would most likely step away from your pushing efforts (yield to the pressure), but it might be too late if you were squeezed hard enough to bruise or break some ribs.
It is crucial for both the safety of your horse and anyone working with him that you teach him the basic skills of “good manners” – meaning teach him what is required of him and what different requests and signals from humans mean.
For instance, teaching horses how to yield to pressure is one of these skills.
This will decrease misunderstandings and confusion as well as accidents for both horses and humans
Horses and pulling back
The counter reflex is often also the culprit behind horses pulling back on their leads (when they have not been taught how to yield to pressure).
When feeling pressure on the head a horse will naturally counter the pressure to maintain balance instead of falling on its nose.
If the pressure does not let up, the horse will usually panic and throw its whole weight into pulling on the rope in an attempt to get away from the pressure.
Pull back accidents are often a direct result of this, both humans and horses risk injury in this kind of a situation where a heavy horse is trying to get away in a blind panic.
It is important to remember that horses can get spooked no matter how well trained they are and how used they are to being tied
Sudden noises or movements can jolt the horse and the sudden pressure from pulling the lead rope taut will trigger a counter reflex in the horse to maintain balance.
Since the counter reflex usually is a bit bigger than necessary, this will cause the horse to feel increased pressure. This can trigger a flight reaction in the horse which will then lead to a pull back panic as the horse feels trapped and tries to flee.
Train your horse to step into the release
It is well worth the little time and effort it takes to train a horse how to step into the release.
When your horse feels pressure on some part of his body he will not know how to release himself from the pressure without being systematically taught how to do so.
If your horse has not been intentionally taught something it’s best not to ask it of him until training is complete because you will get varying results and may inadvertently teach him the wrong thing.
This includes things like stepping aside and moving his front and back end when asked to, lifting legs on request and standing still while someone is working on his feet or grooming, moving forward when the lead rope is pulled etc.
The more consistently and systematically your horse is trained in basic requests, the better he will learn and the safer it will be to work with him when he understands what cues require what action.
It’s important to note that these skills should be specifically trained.
For instance, if your horse is just lead on a lead rope and left to puzzle it out on his own, the results will not be as consistent as if he is separately taught to move in the direction of the pressure when the lead rope is pulled.
Yield to pressure vs stepping into the release
A horse that isn’t trained to yield to the pressure, or preferably step into the release, might inadvertently learn that to ease the pressure he has to move towards the human holding the lead rope.
If a horse is tied down to a stationary object, like a trailer, and he tries to run to the nearest human rather than stay where the rope is slack (and he’s comfortable) he may get injured in a full-blown pull back panic.
Instead, if you train your horse to find the place where he experiences the most release, he’ll always strive to find the right spot to be.
Imagine a bubble around your horse, a space in which he can stand comfortably, without harassing, pushing or squeezing anyone around him
Training him to step into the release means training him to always find this “sweet spot” where nothing is being asked of him.
By always looking for that place where he feels the most comfortable he’ll become an expert at sharing space with others as he’ll be motivated to maintain his own comfort zone, and it won’t be so important if the cue is a push or a pull.
Only through repetition will your horse learn what your cues mean and through consistent training, he’ll begin to respond with a shorter and shorter delay.