Facts of Horses
A better understanding of a horse's mind can lead to more effective training methods. If everybody knew that horses learn by association, no horse would ever be whipped again; and if every rider understood that herd instinct of the horse, more time and patience would be given to timid horses. Fortunately, a global awareness of equine psychology is on the increase and in this article you will find ten of the most important facts of the horse's mind - and heart!
#1: The horse is a 'flight' animal.
In the wild, the horse is a prey animal. He is hunted rather than being the hunter. Nature has equipped the horse with powerful senses to help him protect himself. When a horse is faced with potential danger, he does not stand up to it and fight. Instead, he pivots and takes off in the opposite direction. This supports the famous theory that the horse is a 'flight' animal not a 'fight' animal.
Horses don't often wait until a threat is at a close distance from them. If one horse in the herd senses the slightest possibility of a predator nearby, you will find the whole herd galloping in the opposite direction, not stopping until they have far outrun the predator. Some horses will occasionally take off with their riders in that manner, galloping and bucking across fields. Although this sort of behavior is dangerous and should not be tolerable by the rider, it is quite difficult to gain control over a horse which believes he is running for his life.
In training a horse, it is not reasonable to demand him not to be frightened of something he is unfamiliar with. He might also be familiar with the object, but perhaps he was never taught that it is no cause of alarm. Remember that in hitting a horse to walk past a frightening object, you are convincing him that he has every right to be scared of it.
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FACT #2: Horses learn by association.
As mentioned above, if you whip a horse to get him past a scary object, you have just taught him that was right to be scared. The way it works in the horse's mind is as follows: he saw the object and was frightened of it, then he was smacked. This experience gets stored in his mind as 'being near the object is a source of pain'. The horse has associated the object with the pain, and has learned that he should avoid crossing near it at all costs.
On the other hand, if the object was associated with something pleasant, the horse will learn that being near the object is actually pleasant. For example, if the horse shies away at some flags, and was given plenty of reassurance from the rider - perhaps even a treat - he will associate the flags with the praise that had received. The next day, you gently reassure the horse past the object, then reward him with a treat, he will store the event in his mind as a pleasant experience.
Humans also learn many things by association. If you smell a perfume or cologne that an old friend of yours used in the past, your mind may instantly recall visions of your friend. Or if you played a song in your car once and had an accident (God forbid), playing it again in the same car will remind you of that incident. You have learned to associate sense (listening to the song) to situation (car accident). The horse's mind works in the same way.
By keeping this fact in mind, you should be able to teach a horse a great deal of things, provided of course that both you and the horse are calm and content.
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FACT #3: Horses have excellent memories.
People with phobias and certain psychological disorders often find the root of the problem originating during childhood. Similarly, horses with behavioral problems have often developed them during their early years. A horse can store an unpleasant incident in his memory for the rest of his life, making retraining a complicated, and time consuming process - just as in psychotherapy sessions provided for humans.
The good news is that horses store happy and pleasant memories as well. If a horse was ridden by a skillful and empathetic rider in the past which he has grown to like, then years later was ridden by the same rider once again, he will remember the pleasant, smooth rides with that rider and will be eager to please him/her.
Do not underestimate the horse's capacity to store and recall events from his past. The horse is an intelligent, sensitive creature, and he uses his memory to avoid the repetition of upsetting situations.
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FACT #4: Horses' emotions are highly developed.
Contrary to traditional beliefs, the horse is highly emotional. Horses can feel happiness, sorrow, fear, love, trust and distrust, excitement, boredom, stress, frustration, curiosity, and even jealousy. Anyone who watches horses intently will understand how a horse feels through the subtle signs the horse sends through body language.
Years ago, horses were often thought of as plain, dumb animals. Thankfully, more and more people are beginning to really listen to horses, making an effort to read their minds. There are now excellent new books on the market today which illustrate a better understanding of the horse.
So how can one tell how a horse is feeling? Anger and frustration may seem the easiest emotion to predict in the horse. A frustrated horse may express himself by resisting the rider, pawing the ground with his front feet, shaking his head, and various other performances. These actions can also indicate that the horse is excited or anxious.
My horse, Gerry, has a particularly cheeky character. I love him to death and he is well aware of that. I suspect he loves me too because he is always pleased to see me when I show up at his stable door every day. He whinnies, hanging one front leg in the air, and gives me an angled look as if saying, "I'm cute and cuddly and I'm happy to see you."
When we're finished exercising, he becomes particularly pleased with himself. He puts his ears back and wrinkles up his nose, revealing his teeth. Normally, this would be a sign of aggression, but with Gerry, I have come to understand what he means exactly. He only does this a few minutes before he is put in his stable; and since he knows he is done for the day, he tries to tease me by giving me these faces and trying to bite me while I put on his rug. He reveals those big teeth and lunges at me. Quite often he grabs my clothes with his lips, but he has never actually nipped with his teeth. I know that this is Gerry's way of expressing his sense of humor, and I have never been bothered by it. I could see in his eyes that he was having a laugh at my expense!
At other times when I lunge him, specially at the beginning of the exercise, Gerry clearly expresses how he feels put-off by lunging. He completes half a circle in walk then drops his head and makes a turn towards me with his ears flopping. I send him back to the circle and before I know it, he makes another turn and comes to me. He knows how much of a spoilt horse he is and this is his way of trying to talk me out of the lunging idea. He is in no way resisting or misbehaving, he is simply telling me that he's in no mood for lunging today.
Always watch your horse for signs, and you will be able to predict how he is feeling. A sad horse drops his ears and shows no interest in his surroundings, yet a bored horse could behave the same way. Horses mourn the loss of their friends, whether human, equine, or other, and may take months to recover. They could form close bonds with each other and will feel very lonely if that bond is broken. Your horse can love you the way he could love an equine buddy if you show him that you truly love and care for him.
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FACT #5: Horses are creatures of habit.
We hear of horses with bad habits all the time. At a certain point in their lives, something triggers the early development of a bad habit in horses. The repetition of the circumstance at which the horse showed early signs of a bad habit will enforce his behavior and will eventually become too difficult to overcome. If nothing breaks the chain of events that are suspected to lead to the development of a bad habit, the horse will keep it stored in his mind and will refer to it accordingly.
For a practical understanding of this issue, imagine a horse who has once bucked when the rider asked him to canter. The rider ignored this action because the horse soon cantered anyway. The next time the rider asked the horse to canter, he bucked again, and then cantered. In a short time, the horse has learned to express his excitement every time he is asked to canter and developed it into a habit. It would have been easier if the rider had stopped the horse the first time he bucked, gained control, then quietly asked him to canter and praised the horse only when he made a clean transition. Once a horse develops a habit, it usually stays with him for life unless retraining takes place. Breaking the pattern while the habit is in its early stages is always the best way to overcome it.
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FACT #6: Horses will only learn if they are calm.
Whipping, kicking, or screaming at a horse may get him to do what you want, but will never teach him more than to be afraid of you. Violence makes a horse tense and frightened, and may submit to you due to this fear, but once the source of fear is absent, the horse will go back to square one, plus a growth of distrust and suspicion towards whatever was requested of him.
In order for a horse to learn something, he must be calm and relaxed to focus on achieving the objective. Again, the relaxation will register in his mind the training session as a positive experience, helping him to look forward to it next time. The repetition of this positive experience will finally teach the horse what you wanted him to learn. It takes patience, but the results will be worthwhile.
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FACT #7: Horses do not consider food reward a trophy.
to survive. They may or may not catch a prey, therefore, food is not
always available. Horses do not view food the way that carnivores do
- no grass has ever ran away from a horse! When training dogs or other
carnivores, food can be used as an effective reward. However, with horses,
food can only be used as a general pleasant association - not as reward.
For instance, if a horse performs as you wanted, you may give him some
Polos. He will link the situation with being fed the Polos and will
store the event in his mind as a positive experience.
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FACT #8: Horses can learn overnight.
Time and time again, people have been surprised by their horses suddenly learning something they have found difficult in the past. In training sessions, some people find it frustrating that their horse is simply not cooperating. By finishing the session on a good note, i.e. a stroke and a walk on a long rein, you may be giving the horse a chance to register the last few moments in his mind. The next day, the horse may perform very willingly what you have been trying so hard to teach him. This type of learning is called latent learning.
Kelly Marks, Monty Roberts' protégée in the UK, recalls her first incident with latent learning when she couldn't get her ex-racehorse over a water ditch. After two hours of effort - and no violence against the horse whatsoever - she jumped off the horse and took him back, thinking that he will never jump a water ditch. However, the next day she jumped him over a small fence, then, with no particular optimism, she headed him towards the water ditch. The horse hopped over the ditch without the slightest form of hesitation. He never had a problem with ditches afterwards.
Giving the horse the time to asses a situation will help him learn quicker. Violence, such as kicking or hitting with a whip may bring results, but it will leave the horse tense and unhappy, and will not guarantee that the horse will respond the next time. Horses are intelligent, so allow them to learn. Never force them.
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FACT #9: Not all horses are created equal.
Everybody knows that horses are not created equal physically, but they are not created equal mentally either. Every rider, trainer, and person must be aware that some horses are better suited for certain disciplines than others. Bold, brave horses may enjoy the challenge of jumping cross-country, but pressuring a shy or timid horse who does not find cross country very appealing is somewhat a form of cruelty to the horse. Think of yourself rather doing one thing, but someone pressures you into doing something else you dislike.
Yes, horses can learn. And even a timid horse can learn to jump cross-country. I advice everyone to use their judgment in this matter. You should definitely not give up too early if you find that your horse does not accept what you want from him. Keep trying until you are positive that the horse is seriously unhappy. Remember that a horse may fail in one discipline, but may very well excel in another. It is always worth the effort to discover what your horse enjoys most.
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FACT#10: Horses mimic each other.
Many horse trainers take advantage of this fact nowadays. One must be careful though, because horses can pick up good habits as well as bad habits from other horses! This is why horses with stable vices are not preferred to be kept close to horses with no vices - there's a good chance other horses will mimic those horses and develop vices as well.
Sylvia Loch, a classical dressage trainer and author of many books, trains her horses to a high level of dressage. She had one horse in her yard who had never performed the passage despite her efforts to teach him. One day, the horse had a chance to watch her ride another advanced schoolmaster into passage. The next day, Sylvia was amazed when this horse eagerly performed the passage with the slightest effort from her!