Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Why it Pays to Think Like a Horse.

I find that it’s really helpful in day-to-day interactions with horses, as well as in my training regimen, to understand how a horse “thinks”.  This understanding is not only an aid in training but often can alleviate or head-off situations that might otherwise lead to frustration or even anger for all concerned, including the horse.

First, it is always dangerous to put human rationale into a horse’s behavior.  Horses are absolutely not rational beings; they do not have the capacity to function that way.  Horses are prey animals who survive by living in herds and by instinct.  They are what are sometimes called “fear/flight animals” and their very survival in the wild depends on instinct, not rational thought. 
Every foal is born as an essentially wild creature.  The training process often begins the day they are born as we humans begin to build their trust.  This is why many people believe in handling foals at birth and why it’s so important that you work with the mare so she is trusting too, of the people who will handle her foal.  It just makes everything so much easier!

Horses definitely respond to the herd leader.  They instinctively follow the lead mare so, when handling horses, we should aspire to be perceived as the “lead mare” or lead horse).  In other words: aspire to be the dominant one in the relationship.  This is why keeping a horse thinking about you when you’re riding rather than say, a spooky corner in the arena, so often works. 

Each time you reverse a horse or change directions, it’s good to remember that the horse often sees things as being completely different.  Maybe everything is going A-ok but then you reverse and suddenly the horse is spooky, well, this is the reason:  Horses have fantastic memories.  They may remember where you are but it looks different, the light is different, the shadows different, it’s just not quite the same (as it might look to you and me) and that difference will usually be perceived initially as “bad”.  Again, this is how they survive in the wild.  They must remember where the winter grass is or where the water is or even, where it’s safest to graze.  This works often to our advantage but if a horse has a bad experience it can also be very difficult for the horse to forget and learn that things are now safe. 
Horses also have very strong powers of association.  They can associate one action with a reaction for a good 6 seconds but after that they have no idea what relates to what.  So, if they’re being disciplined or rewarded, you need to be quick about it or your action might just cause frustration or be moot.

All training is based on a horse’s ability to remember and associate and on a horse’s need to rely on a herd leader.  A leader the horse can trust and respect.  With trust and respect comes the will to accept training and be an enjoyable companion for humans!  I hope this encourages you to “think like your horse” more often.  Talk to you soon!  JD

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