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Article #1:  Horses and Their Herd Instincts

by Wil & Beverly Howe

Equestrian Connection, 1988


     We feel the most important key to putting the horse and human in the "Proper Perspective" is the understanding of the horse’s psychology, their instincts. What motivates them to do the things they do, and how we relate to this behavior when handling the horse?

     First of all, the horse, equus, is a herd animal. In the natural, their family order is a herd where each horse is a born follower guided by a dominant figure, a lead stallion or lead mare.

     Have you ever noticed how in a pasture situation, with several head, there is a leader or "bully" who dominates all the horses, and there is a "low horse" on the totem pole who always gets picked on? If you remove the lead horse or "bully," what do they do? They whinny and make a fuss in the absence of their leader and immediately the second-in-command of the herd takes over and the pecking order is re-established.

     This constant struggle for leadership is apparent in our daily handling of the domesticated horse, the so-called push and shove of "who is the boss?"

     Second, horses are a prey animal and we must understand their reaction to fear. In the wild, the horse has no defense from a predator but to flee and outrun its pursuer. It will only fight back when cornered. If there is a way out, it will take it and run. The horse is truly a scaredy cat. This is why horses will often spook, bolt, and run from any situation they are unfamiliar with. This response to flee is panic, and it can take over the horse’s nervous system causing them to run with no regard to bodily harm. They will avoid any form of pressure at all cost if there is an element of fear.

     The horse’s reactionary thought impulses, which we as the handlers are most concerned with, are influenced by the signals they get from their environment through their vision. This is a complex subject and we will go into further detail in a later article. A horse’s vision is the main factor in its ability to comprehend.

     From factors related to their vision, we have found that a horse’s brain seems to function one side at a time. Horses can be governed by their strong side. Much like we are right- or left-handed, horses are too. To break that one-sidedness, they must be taught on both sides. This is why you will see a horse refuse to take a lead, or turn one way, or be hard to approach and catch on its off side. Only through repeated conditioning will a horse perform right or left equally as well.

     Horses are creatures of habit. They learn from performing a task over and over. Whether the exposure to repetition comes from a mare nuzzling and disciplining her young or the daily training that takes place at a stable, the learning process is the same. A situation repeated more than twice becomes habit. This is why a horse can so quickly pick up things, right or wrong. They do not know the difference between a good habit and a bad habit. They can tuck their heads or throw them, be submissive and mannerly or aggressive and ornery. Behavior must be taught. Any problem with a horse is a direct result of patterning: repeatedly allowing or promoting a type of behavior from a horse.

     The above factors lead us to the question of equine intelligence, an area where most people have been mis-informed. All of us have been exposed to these misleading examples of smart, loyal, and loving horses found in books, movies and television. Black Beauty, My Friend Flicka, Trigger, Mr. Ed, and The Black Stallion are but a few. These misconceptions are the cause of much grief when a novice horseperson finds out that their horse really isn’t an animal to be totally trusted.

     In general, you can steal the attention of any horse with a cup of oats, but a well-trained dog is impossible to coax. That is a difference that some people refuse to face. We believe the emotional relationship between an owner and his or her horse is only on the part of the human. A horse can be sold and placed in another environment and never give a second thought for its past owner, as some would like to think. The love and the loss is only what we feel. A horse can buck you off and break your bones and while you are in the hospital, the horse would feel no remorse or emotion regarding the incident. They are "here and now" creatures who are only concerned with their next meal and their own kind.

     We feel a horse will never "grow up and know better." They are as a two- or three-year-old child mentally who needs a leader and is not capable of taking care of itself outside in the wild. Like any child, they are only a product of their environment.

     Now that horses have been domesticated and forced to be conformed to society's modern ways, much is asked of this animal to cope. But cope they must, for they are dependent on us; their future and well-being lies in our hands. Mankind, who has dominion over all the animals, has the obligation to manage and treat the horse, the greatest and most versatile animal to ride, with proper respect. Man must use but not abuse. On the same note, these creatures of such strength and potential danger must fit into our world as well and abide by our rules. We must keep this in the "PROPER PERSPECTIVE" in order to survive. If your child weighed 1,000 pounds, you wouldn’t let him sit on your lap, slap you in fun, or run rampant in the house. Neither should we allow our horses to run over and "buffalo" us. Remember, who is the boss?

     Learning to understand the way a horse's mind works allows us to deeper appreciate and love our horses for what they are. It helps us to recognize the fact they need us as that important dominant figure in their lives and not to expect too much from our relationship with them.

   For more in-depth information on horses and their herd instincts, order Video #1.  

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