Six Simple Truths About Horses
1. HORSES ARE INTO PRESSURE ANIMALS- Although humans train horses to yield to pressure (for example moving away from our leg under saddle, or moving away from us when we push on them in the stall) a horse’s instinctual response is to move into pressure. This is a survival mechanism in the wild. If a horse was attacked by a predator and ran away while the predator was biting him, chances are he would be left with a wound which may result in death anyway. By moving into the pressure of the bite the predator is likely to let go for a split second to re grip (think of a puppy and a chew toy). During that spit second the horse had the opportunity to kick out and flee with a less serious injury, improving the odds of survival.
Take the time to make sure your horse understands how to move away from pressure. When a horse becomes frightened he is more likely to move into pressure, especially if he is not consistently moving away from pressure under normal circumstances. A horse that gets frightened when tied and then pulls back is an example of a horse moving into the pressure of the halter.
2. HORSES THINK IN PICTURES- While humans tend to think in words and concepts, horses think more like an autistic person. They see a visual of their thoughts moving through the mind like a movie reel. What movie plays depends on what stimulus occurs. The most prominent memory of the stimulus will trigger the visual thought. If a horse has had a bad experience with a plastic bag, where the wind blew it around her ankles and scared her, this will likely be the strongest memory. Every time she sees a plastic bag her memory triggers a slideshow of the bag attacking her and her adrenaline shoots up and panic sets in.
Understanding that your horse does not rationalize her thoughts the same way you do creates an opportunity for change and growth. Changing the slide show is possible through creating a positive, more prominent memory attached to the stimulus. Bringing carrots in a plastic bag would be a good start to creating positive memory around plastic bags. If the memory is attached to trauma or your horse shows deep rooted fear I suggest getting the help of a professional to do some desensitizing and reprogramming. Desensitizing done incorrectly can actually compound the fear.
3. ROUGHLY TWENTY PERCENT OF INFORMATION TRANSFERS FROM ONE SIDE OF THE HORSE’S BRAIN TO THE OTHER- In simplified terms the right side of the horse’s brain is connected with the right side of the body and the left side of the brain is connected with the left side of the body, unlike in humans where there is cross over. In a horse, the portion of the message that transfers from one side of the brain to the other is around 20%. Have you ever had the experience of walking your horse down the driveway past a “scary” garbage can and they seemed relaxed only to spook again when you walked back up the driveway? This is an example of how only 20% of the information the right eye saw transferred to the left side of the brain.
Showing horses “scary” objects out of both eyes will allow the whole brain to process what it sees. Working with horses on both side of their body is equally important, especially when you are training a young horse.
4. HORSES ARE HERD ANIMALS- In the wild a horse relies on his herd for survival. Each horse has a different role within the herd. Being sent out of the herd is the worst punishment a horse can receive because he becomes more vulnerable to predators. This is one of the reasons round pen work can be so effective.
When a horse becomes insecure about being taken away from his friends and we get angry with him we are only reinforcing his concern for survival. By establishing a strong bond based on trust and respect with our horse we establish a safe, secure horse/human herd and the insecurity around leaving other horses will dissipate.
Another horse is a great way to create security around a new or potentially frightening situation. Having a calm, older horse with a youngster for the first few trailer rides is a great way to take advantage of the herd instinct.
5. THE LEAD MARE IN A HERD IS THE ONE WHO MAKES THE BEST DECISIONS FOR THE SURVIVAL OF THE WHOLE HERD- While the lead mare in a herd is a dominant mare, her dominance and assertiveness are only a part of the reason she is accepted as lead mare. Her ability to look out for the welfare of each member of the herd plays an important role in her leadership. The lead mare must be assertive, intelligent and fair.
To be a true leader in a horse/human herd means creating wins for you and your horse. Dominance without trust will only take you so far. Listening to your horse and making decisions that benefit both of you not only builds trust, it also establishes your leadership.
6. THE LIMBIC SYSTEM, THE PORTION OF THE BRAIN THAT DEALS WITH EMOTION, IS COMPARABLE BETWEEN HORSES AND HUMANS- As humans are predators and horses are prey we often think and react in different ways but when it comes to our abilities to feel and experience emotion we are very similar. Horses are all unique being with their own thoughts, feelings and emotions. As well as their individual personality a horse’s previous experiences and the emotions surrounding them affect how they behave and interact with others.
Remembering your horse is an original and individual being is essential in the training process. When a problem arises looking to your horse’s emotions will help resolve the root of the problem. Treating the symptom or surface behaviour with a cookie cutter method is often just a short term solution that results in the real problem surfacing in another area.