AN INTRODUCTION TO HOW HORSES 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 drinks or eats they are very vulnerable to being attacked.
This is for several reasons:
1. They expose vital blood vessels in their neck when putting their heads down.
2. They limit what they can see around them.
3. They have to think more about a good escape route.
4. 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 horses 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 being lower in the group or herd can occur particularly when they get older, injured
or sick, are young and still to find their place in the group.
THE DOMESTIC HORSE
Now that we understand how horses/ponies live in the wild (information 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. noisy trailers, plastic bags or any plastic flapping on fences/flying through the air, 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 information so far, 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 a horse only has one brain doesn’t it’. What I am referring to here is more the way they think.
A right brained horse is reacting to a perceived threat or danger, is only concerned about themselves and their survival into the next minute as well as getting to a safe spot as quickly as possible. Usually they are not thinking but reacting using their emotions and instincts to stay alive. Also the horse 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 for an exit point or we act in a way which heightens their anxiety even more.
A right brained equine may:
1. Be unable to stand still and feel the need to move their feet constantly.
2. Have their head and tail held high.
3. Swish their tail vigorously from side to side.
4. Have their body tense including their jaw.
5. Be calling out for other horses, company and/or be making short snorting noises.
6. Have a worried, stressed, anxious look in their eyes.
7. Have their ears flat back, to the side and/or stiff.
8. Nostrils flared/wide and possibly breathing quickly.
If a horse 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. To put this into a more everyday setting:
Would you want to get onto a train if you knew the driver had never driven it before, had had no training or a instruction manual to refer to, the rails between this station and the following one were buckled/twisted and/or the new person was not being supervised by someone who knew what they were doing? Most of us would probably say no because we would feel unsafe.
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:
1. Keep their feet still (except for when swapping over resting back legs).
2. Have their head down level or below their withers/top of shoulders.
3. Have a relaxed tail, sometimes with a gentle swish to keep the flies away in warm weather.
4. Have a relaxed looking body and jaw.
5. Not be worried about what is going on around them and not having company nearby.
6. Have a relaxed sleepy look in their eyes.
7. Have floppy ‘soft’ ears.
8. Have relaxed, soft nostrils.
9. Rest a back leg (must have a relaxed body as well otherwise this may turn into a kick).
10. Lick, chew, sigh, yawn and/or scratch.
Using the same everyday setting:
Would you want to get on the same train used previously if the driver had 20+ years experience, had been through an initial training course plus refreshers, also had an instruction manual on hand and the rails had been thoroughly inspected for safety on a regular basis? Most of us would probably say yes and find it easier to trust that we will arrive at our destination !!!
In conclusion we need to understand their instincts/how they live in the wild (first 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.
Please refer to the other pages on this website if you would like to know more or contact us directly using the details provided on the Contact us page. We hope this information has been helpful.