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Horse Psychology 101

1. Horses Think they are a Prey Species

Horses evolved as a prey species. They are hard-wired to behave as a prey species. They just don't realize how very big they are and how very few predators exist anymore who are big enough to take them down.

When a horse first meets a human, it suspects the human is out to have them for lunch, which has, in fact, been the case for much of horse evolutionary history. Horses have a strong instinct for self-preservation. Horses flee first and ask questions later. If they can't flee, they will turn around and fight. But they would prefer to flee.


Most training is largely designed to deal with this prey mentality, and to help the horse realize that you are a friend, and then to help the horse learn to deal with scary things in a less explosive manner (de-sensitizing, sensory training, etc)

When wild horses "disobey" or "act dominant" with their human, it is out of sheer fear and a desire to preserve their own life against this perceived threat.


2. Horses are, first and foremost, creatures of MOVEMENT.

They live through movement. In the wild, their very survival depends on movement. They can also LEARN through movement


New adopters tend to be scared of the horse's movement. This is reasonable, in terms of preserving one's own safety, but it presents a serious training problem. A horse needs to move, and one who is not allowed to move will find a way to do so, when you least need it. Through learning to understand what is going on with the horse, we can develop a stronger internal framework from which to build a safer, less scary, and more successful experience with their adopted horses.


Training Example: When I was learning to work with Sparky, my first Mustang, in the round pen, I could not get him to perform the "inside" turn (where the horse turns to face you, then continues the turn in order to change direction). I asked my teacher, Jerry Tindell, what was wrong with my body language the reason Sparky did not "read" my direction. He watched me, and then replied that the problem was that I was not getting enough movement. Sparky could only learn to do this maneuver through movement. So I stepped up the pace, had him lope freely for about four laps, and then, voila! he did a perfect inside turn!


Let the horse move! Many new adopters, accurately assessing that a frantically-moving horse is a danger both to itself and to the human, try to keep the horse from moving. The problem, however, is that (1) the horse can simply become bottled up and shut down, not truly gentle, and will explode when you least can afford it, and (b) the only way to keep the horse still is to keep its world very small, and the horse remains uncomfortable in its new domestic environment. It is better to put the horse in a safe training corral that is large enough to keep the horse a safe distance from you, and let the horse move (but not so large that you can't get the horse's attention. Most people find that a round corral of about 35 - 40 feet in diameter - or a square pen at least 24 feet on each side, works well. A square pen that is 20 ft. on each side meets BLM requirements, and is adequate for a smaller horse, or a person with some experience.

3. Horses Are Social Animals. 

Horses are herd animals. Herds have a leader, some say a "pecking order." Horses are hard-wired both to want a leader and to constantly test that leader. Horses feel safest and most secure when they have a good leader, and they demand that their leader be worthy. Periodically, they will test and re-test their leader, to make sure the leader is still worthy of entrusting with their lives and safety. If at any time the leader fails the test, the horse will take over. The horse does not necessarily WANT to be the leader, but it wants "the best one for the job" to be in charge. If YOU are not the best one for the job, the horse will decide to take on the job.

Someone once asked me how I know that horses want a leader. Well, without being a horse, I can't truly know. So let's just say it's a functional working hypothesis.

Leadership is an important concept, especially for those who are greatly concerned with being "humane" in their relationship with their horse. They often fear that to assert one's leadership involves being inhumane. To me, being humane means acting in accordance with the horse's natural self, his basic hard-wiring. Letting a horse step on you, push into you, evade you, pay no attention to you, kick or bite, or be hard to control under saddle, etc., is not going to end well for the horse.

Which is more humane: a fair, firm, and consistent training/handling program, or coddling the horse, letting the horse call the shots, until one day it bucks you off, you get injured, and the horse is sent off to the sale barn or euthanized as a dangerous animal? Or simply never making any progress with the horse and finally just losing interest and giving him away?


Horses, whether in nature or in your barn, set limits and are quick to discipline one another - and all is done without hard feelings. To learn more about a horse's natural self, it is helpful to watch a group of horses interact at various times of the day, and in various situations throughout the day. It may be of comfort to you to see that there is absolutely nothing, short of using a weapon, that you can do to your horse that will equal the strength, precision and ferocity of one horse chasing another away from his/her feed pile. And yet, in just a few minutes, they will again be best friends, lying in the sun together.


Learning horsemanship, particularly the leadership part, can be a powerful and sometimes difficult inner journey for the human. This is especially true for many women, who have been socialized to be non-assertive "helpmates," for people who have been raised in dysfunctional or chaotic circumstances that lacked fairness or consistency, and for many people who are attracted to, but may misunderstand, "Natural" Horsemanship.

Dominance vs. Leadership: The flipside of people who are afraid to assert their leadership for fear of upsetting their horse, are the people who are too focused on it. They tend to see everything in terms of dominance and submission, winning and losing, and they misinterpret everything the horse does as being deliberate resistance or trying to dominate the human. Neither approach is accurate, and neither will be productive in the long term.


4: The Leader is the one who gets the other horse to move:

How do horses attain leadership? Through movement! They "ask" another horse to move. The leader is the one who can move the others' feet. When the other horse complies, it has accepted the leadership (a less romantic way of seeing it is "dominance") of the other horse.

Natural horsemanship training makes use of this natural equine hard-wiring. Through asking for movement, then directing that movement, the horse learns that you are just asking for movement, not trying to kill them, and that you are capable of directing its movements, and thus you become the leader.

Horses will typically "haze the newcomer" by chasing a new horse. Through this chasing (one horse moving another's feet), the pecking order is figured out, and once it has been set, the newcomer becomes an accepted part of the herd and peace returns to the band. When a new horse is introduced into my own horse pasture, the lowest ranking horse will try out the newcomer first. If the newcomer can chase off the lowest-ranking horse, the second-lowest then takes him on - and so on, until the horse's correct spot in the pecking order is determined, and then things are peaceful again.



















"Clacking" is a horse behavior exhibited when a weak horse - in this case a colt - wants to avoid being hazed, by showing that he is already submissive to the others' leadership.

5: Horses Need Companionship

Everything about the Horse Mind is designed to live in a society with others.

Just as Solitary Confinement is one of the worst punishments for humans, a horse forced to live alone is a sad creature indeed.

When separated from other horses, a horse will look to any sentient being for comfort and companionship. We can use this to our advantage when gentling a wild horse - if we are more available than any other animal, the horse will be more willing to turn to us for friendship than if there are other horses available. "Solitary confinement" should never last long, however.

If gentling takes more than a few days, or if you must "quarantine" your new horse for two weeks after getting it (a good idea from a herd health viewpoint!), allow it to at least have visual contact with other horses (as in - horses in a field down the lane, within easy view).


6: Horses communicate through Body Language and Energy.

As social animals, horses have a clear, effective, and complex system of communication with one another. Our job, as would-be leaders of our horses, is to learn to communicate effectively in that language: Body Language.

Wild horses can read us clearly. But can we do the same? Do we know what we are telling the horse? Can we read the horse's responses? It takes time and attention but we can learn, and we must learn if we are to be truly successful with our mustangs.

A lot can be learned by watching horses interact with each other.

Horses are, simply, EFFECTIVE with one another!

They also don't waste calories, so they always work with the least energy expenditure necessary to get the desired result. If gentle works, they'll be gentle. But when gentle doesn't work, they turn up the heat. As soon as the desired response has been obtained, they immediately stop. Within two minutes of an altercation, horses are back to being best friends.

Our job as horse handlers and wild horse adopters is to learn to become as effective in our communications with our horses as they are with each other.

7. The Horse learns the last thing that happens in a sequence: Always quit on something Positive!

While our goal is always the very softest of handling, the gentlest of cues, the most important thing is so "give the horse the right answer," (a quote from my wonderful teacher, Jerry Tindell) whether the route there was gentle or rocky. 


The horse remembers mainly the last thing that happens in an encounter or exercise or training sequence, so if you allow it to do something that you have not asked for, or if you allow it to avoid doing something you have asked, you have taught it to do just that. Stick with a request until both you and your horse get "the right answer."

Example of how "learning the last thing that happens" can backfire: Red Filly was a horse brought to us by BLM to retrain for an upcoming adoption event. She had previously been adopted, but returned. It was easily apparent why she had been returned. She seemed to want to kill anyone who went into her pen. Her favorite was to back you into a corner and double-barrel kick at you. Now let's be clear: this is not normal wild horse behavior.  It is too extreme. But how did she learn it? I have no way of knowing what actually had happened, but my years of experience being an adoption volunteer/mentor and my own experiences lead me to be pretty sure it went like this. The adopter went into the pen to start working with his/her new mustang. The adopter was nervous, a bit scared. The horse -completely randomly - made a movement, perhaps lifted a hind leg, and it scared the person enough to back off whatever they were doing. "Aha!" thought the horse. "If I lift my hind leg, the human stops pressuring me." so next time the horse lifted its leg with more intent, and got a "better" response. So then the horse kicked out with both legs and the human made a quick exit. The horse learned that threatening to kick was the quickest, surest way to get the human out of there. 


If you find, as we sometimes do, that you have asked for more than the horse can give, that you have asked for something the horse is simply not ready to give, then at least hold out until you get something positive.

If you are asking, for instance, to load into a trailer, and you discover that you are "in over your head" and the horse is not ready to learn this - keep in mind that the horse will remember the last thing that happens. So always quit on a positive. Maybe the horse won't load all the way, but maybe you can get it to just sustain a look into the trailer. Praise and quit right there! That may be enough. Or if you can get the horse to place one foot into the trailer, or take a step toward the trailer, maybe that's a good place to quit for the day. But always quit on something positive - never on a failure or a refusal.


Don't start what you don't have time to finish: I have learned the hard way never to start something with a horse unless I have time to follow through in case things don't go exactly as planned. Never quit on a failure, a refusal, or a negative behavior!


8. No Hard Feelings

Again, I have borrowed this phrase from my teacher, Jerry Tindell, who uses it often. The message is a profound one, if we can fully understand it. Horses are Here and Now - In the Present. What has happened in the past is far less important to a horse than what is happening RIGHT NOW. Horses do not hold grudges. Their relationships are not damaged when they are corrected or told to do something by another horse, even if they only obey after putting up a fight. They'll be buddies again in two minutes.


Likewise, when they test you to see if you're still in charge, it's not PERSONAL. It's just part of being a horse. As soon as you let them know that, yes, you are still in charge, they will accept it willingly - it's just part of their job to check to make sure. After all, a worthy leader in the wild can make the difference between survival and death - they MUST be sure their leader is worthy!


There are no hard feelings on the horse's part - don't get into hard feelings yourself, either! After something has happened, just let it go - don't brood that "the horse doesn't love me any more." The horse has let it go - you must learn to do the same.


Spend some time watching a group of horses - at feeding time is an excellent opportunity. You will likely see a few skirmishes over who gets what place on the feed line. The skirmishes may impress you as angry or mean or violent. The horses may kick, bite, and rush each other. It may appear that they really don't like one another. But come back a few minutes later, and the same horses will be sweetly grooming one another or lying together in the sun. No Hard Feelings!


Horses simply do what needs to be done, and move on.  If we can fully absorb that, we will be much more effective with our horses. No need for anger or temper tantrums (on our part), no fears that our horse won't love us any more if we make him do what we ask, no grudges.

No hard feelings.

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