HOW HORSES AND PONIES THINK
By Abi Ricketts
. When we are around horses or ponies it is important to understand how they have survived until the present day. This information is designed to help you understand this more and may answer some questions for you about why horses do what they do.
Survival in the wild
Horses and ponies have come from a background of being able to roam over varying terrain as well as rivers or streams to find enough water and food to survive each day. They can go for long distances to find all they need including shelter and protection from the weather dependent on what season it is. The journey can be a very dangerous one so they are always on the look out for danger which may end their lives prematurely. Threats can come from any direction hence the reason for having eyes on the side of their heads giving them as much vision as possible all around them. They will tend to use a snake pattern when approaching things they are not sure of so they can thoroughly inspect it in both eyes and feel safe on each side. The second stage is for them to get close enough to investigate the object with their nose i.e. sniff it with enough space around them to make a quick exit if the object attacks. After they feel comfortable enough with the object to know this won’t happen they may play with it. Playing can involve testing the object with their feet or teeth which is very fun to watch although not so good for valuable objects like saddles, rugs, etc !!!! When roaming they will often drink from any source of water they can find. This can be dangerous because other animals will have the same motive to drink and eat there too particularly in the summer when it is warmer, and when a horse or pony drinks or eats they are very vulnerable to being attacked. This is for several reasons:
- They expose vital blood vessels in their neck when putting their heads down.
- They limit what they can see around them.
- They have to think more about a good escape route.
- Particularly at waterholes/lakes/large ponds where crocodiles, alligators, etc, may be hiding because as The Horse drinks these animals may come up and grab hold of the top part of their lip. After a while a natural relaxant is produced by The Horse’s body which makes it easier for attacking animals to kill the horse and eat them as well as other predators biting at their legs. This can be the reason why vets tend to use a twitch on the horse’s nose to calm them before treatment starts.
When they feel safe, comfortable and able to play with an object then they will tend to eat.
Why do horses/ponies live in groups?
Herd animals such as these rely on the old saying of ‘safety in numbers’ and seeing as safety is their number one priority it makes sense really. If one of them is on its own they are more likely to be an easy target for being eaten and have to be extra vigilant of things around them.
This is very much the case when sleeping or sunbathing - unless a horse/pony is feeling totally carefree about the environment it’s in it will not lie down but instead rest a back leg and sleep/sunbathe standing up. Usually if there is more than one of them in a paddock then you may find some lying down but there will always be at least one standing up on ‘sentry’ duty ready to warn others of impending danger and get everyone up/moving quickly.
When living in a group together, just like your school class, family or workplace, there is a hierarchy i.e. boss, teacher, parent, etc, who you look up to and they tell you what to do when. This is the same with a herd, there is always a leader or boss within the group and everyone else fits in somewhere underneath that.
The boss in a herd tends to:
- Move all the other’s feet whenever they need or want to.
- Get the best food and drink available first.
- Get the best protection/shelter from the heat, cold and everything else in between.
- Are the last to get killed or eaten because they have the others around them who are easier to get to.
You do not have to be the tallest, biggest, strongest, fattest, etc, in the group. What matters is your dominance over others and how many other horses or ponies can be moved out of your space when you feel like it.
The lowest in the hierarchy or order tends to:
- Be moved by everyone else in the group.
- Get the last choice of food/drink available.
- Have limited protection/shelter from the weather
- Are the first to get killed or eaten because they are often on the outside of the group and easy targets.
When living in the wild there are several situations when being lower in the group or herd can occur particularly when the horse/pony gets older, is injured or sick. Other examples can be when they are young (usually they need to be taught that rules need to be understood and not challenged on a regular basis !!) or become a part of a different herd. In theses situations they tend to start at the bottom and may work their way up to be nearer to or at the top depending on what the others members say.
THE DOMESTIC HORSE
By Abi Ricketts
Now that we understand how horses/ponies live in the wild (above) we can translate that into life in our human world and start to think about how we can help them see us humans as friends not threats.
Why do they see us as dangerous or a threat?
They tend to class anything that moves or makes a noise as dangerous or a predator. There are many examples of this in our everyday world some natural and some man made e.g.. vehicles, noisy trailers, plastic bags or any plastic flapping on fences/flying through the air, tarpaulins or similar covering items on trailers, long grass moving in a breeze/wind (good for predators to hide in then leap out and attack as the horse or pony goes past), dogs, pigs, cows/sheep/horses/ponies running up to a fence line or away from it as you ride or lead them past, etc. What other ‘predators’ can you think of?
Horses and ponies can also feel threatened when they are around humans and can see us as something that may not be trustworthy so we have to prove to them that we are. There are several characteristics that we all have which can be off putting to them:
- We go directly for what we want.
- We can do things quickly with lots of energy and make sudden jerky movements.
- We smell like meat and can all eat meat even if we chose to be vegetarian or vegan.
- We have eyes in the front of our heads so we can see what is in front of us without much vision on either side unless we turn our whole head.
- When we get worried, scared or hurt we naturally tense up our bodies, hold onto things that are in our hands as tightly as possible and grip on with our legs (if riding).
So as you can see from the list above, as well as the initial part, a lot of the things mentioned are the opposite to their way of life when in the wild so understandably the domestic life can sometimes be a scary one. In the domestic life they tend to be in smaller areas or fenced paddocks and sometimes we do not understand their wild side, which every horse has no matter how ‘tame’ they are.
Left brained versus a right brained horse/pony
You may be thinking ‘Hang on a minute The Horse only has one brain doesn’t it?’ What I am referring to here is more the way they think.
A right brained horse or pony is responding to a perceived threat or danger, they are only concerned about themselves and their survival into the next minute as well as defending themselves and/or getting to a safer spot as quickly as possible. Usually they are not thinking but reacting using their emotions and instincts to stay alive. Also they will not be concerned with you and this can be when a lot of accidents can happen, sometimes with serious injuries to the horse/human as a result. Most of the time they will not mean to hurt us but sometimes we do not give them enough space to move around us to find an ‘exit’ point or we act in a way which heightens their anxiety even more. One example of this could be holding the lead rope tightly and short/close to their head which if they start to go into panic mode could end up with them pushing you away/over, running over you and causing injury.
A right brained equine may:
- Be unable to stand still and feel the need to move their feet constantly.
- Have their head and tail held high.
- Swish their tail vigorously from side to side.
- Have their body tense including their jaw.
- Be calling out for other horses, company and/or be making short snorting noises.
- Have a worried, stressed, anxious look in their eyes.
- Have their ears flat back, pricked forward as much as possible and/or stiff.
- Nostrils flared/wide and possibly breathing quickly.
If a horse or pony is showing some or all of these signs then it is good to be cautious around them remembering your safety comes first and that you may need the help of someone more experienced to deal with the situation. If this occurs while riding then you may need to get off and help The Horse into a more thoughtful space and maybe even give yourself some time to process what is going on, then when you feel your relationship with them has improved try getting back on again.
A left brained horse or pony is a lot safer because they feel protected from danger/predators, are more able to survive things that might hurt them, also be able to think through/process information more easily and clearly. Horses will be working in partnership with their herd which needs to be you if you are around them. If they don’t see you as a confident, firm, fair leader they will look for something/someone else to base their trust and respect on.
A left brained horse or pony tends to:
- Keep their feet still (except for when swapping over resting back legs) or be slowing them down.
- Have their head down usually level or below their withers/top of shoulders.
- Have a relaxed tail, sometimes with a gentle swish to keep the flies away in warm weather.
- Have a relaxed looking body and jaw.
- Not be worried about what is going on around them and not having company nearby.
- Have a relaxed sleepy look in their eyes.
- Have floppy ‘soft’ ears.
- Have relaxed, soft nostrils.
- Rest a back leg (must have a relaxed body as well otherwise this may turn into a kick).
- Lick, chew, sigh, yawn and/or scratch.
In conclusion we need to understand their instincts/how they live in the wild, (the top part), our own instincts as well as learn how to’ read’ them which all helps to form a good solid trusting partnership between The Horse and human. If this reliable partnership is not evident on the ground then it is unwise to try anything on the horses back, we need to know they are with us mental, physically and emotionally before putting ourselves in this vulnerable position.
If you would like to develop an in depth, fun filled, consistent and unique connection with The Horse then either refer to the other pages on this website or get in touch with us using the details on the Contact us page. We can show you how you can play games on the ground as well as when riding which will enhance your knowledge of horses/ponies and can even enrich your life skills too, either use your own or make a new friend with one of our herd members.
We hope this information has been helpful for you.