When you see a horse in a group pinning its ears back and making another horse run, it seems like horse A is simply being a bully and picking on horse B; however, horse A may well be practicing to save good ole horse B’s life.
Horses’ social lives are set up in a hierarchical pattern which developed over millenia to ensure the survival of the species. The herd has a clear leader whose main function is to keep the rest of the horses safe, and one of the ways this is done is by establishing and continually maintaining a pecking order. The alpha horse (often a mare) will go around during the day and just pin back an ear or extend her nose with her ears back and expect the target horse to submit and move. She’s just checking to make sure the herd is in working order, like having regular fire drills. If a threatening situation then develops, the alpha horse is followed unquestioningly by the herd…. at least if they’d like to live to see another day.
One of the most important things to understand about horses, whether you are an occasional rider or a dedicated professional, is that horses are prey animals. They don’t see the world in the same way as you and I (literally or figuratively). As predators, our eyes are set in the front of our head and we can “zoom” our vision in and out to scan the horizon for lunch. Although the tell-tale signs that indicate a possible meal have morphed over the years from a dust cloud kicked up by a herd of buffalo to a set of golden arches, we’re still predators somewhere deep down inside.
Our horses may have been transported from the hostile plains to a cushy stall and well fenced pasture, but they’ve actually moved far less from their inherent nature than we humans. Horses bodies and minds are set up to live the life of a prey animal. Most prey animals are set up with a “flight or fight” survival response. For some species – fight is their preferred method. For horses; however, it’s definitely flight. When a horse is frightened – its first response is to run like crazy and get out of Dodge. Run first – ask questions later.
Can’t run? Then comes the fight – biting, kicking, striking out. This affects us in a domestic situation in several ways. Ever get nervous while riding and feel your horse become more and more tense? He’s sensing your fear and getting ready to hit the road to save his skin – little does he realize that it’s him that’s making you fearful in the first place. If you can rein in your own fears (relax your shoulders, breath out and let your weight sink into the lower part of your torso) this communicates to the horse that you’re fine and he will likely settle as well.
Another way flight or fight presents itself is with horses that panic when they step on their lead rope. They can pick up their head, so they can’t check for predators, so they panic and try to run. As they discover they can’t get going – things spiral and they get ready to fight – but as soon as that foot comes off the rope and they’re able to move their feet again – the panic melts away and they go back to grazing. Similarly a horse that panics when tied usually only fights till he breaks loose – once he knows his flight ability has returned, he doesn’t run to the next zip code, but looks for the nearest patch of grass and settles right down.
Horses also have some tell-tale physical characteristics of living life as a prospective lunch for some wild carnivore. Their eyes are on the side of their heads, allowing them a wide range of vision. Ever notice how a horse will raise his head when he’s nervous or startled? When his head is up, his field of vision becomes nearly 360 degrees – only the areas directly behind and in front of him are blocked. This is why you’ll often see a snorting horse running through the pasture and turning his head a little from one side to the other – this allows him to fill in the blind spots a bit better.
Horses also have monocular vision, meaning they have a completely different view out of each eye. This explains why you can ride past a jacket hanging on the fence 5 times to the right without a problem, but when you turn your horse around – he freaks out and acts as if the jacket has just been left there by a little band of aliens. In his brain, since his right eye hasn’t seen it before – it wasn’t ever there. Clinton Anderson, a well-respected and hugely popular Australian horse trainer continually reminds students and viewers of his tours and videos that it’s like having two different horses. Whenever you are working to desensitize a horse to a scary object – be sure you work on one side till the horse is relaxed and comfortable, then follow the same procedure on the other side. You may be surprised how much of a difference there can be. I’ve worked with horses who have no problem having fly spray applied on one side of their body, but go to the other side and it’s a completely different situation. By the way – if you’d like to learn more about Clinton Anderson and his well-thought-out, systematic training method – check out his website: DownunderHorsemanship.
Understanding a bit about how your horse’s brain and body work can not only enhance your enjoyment of your time together – it can also help keep you and your horse safe.
Enjoy your horse life my friends!
Until next time,