Uncommon Horse Sense







 It’s far more important to understand the principles that allow you to teach the horse than it is to memorize a bunch of techniques or procedures.  If you understand the principles, you can make up the teaching techniques necessary to fit any particular horse, in any given situation.




The Horse, And How He Learns

Herd Importance, Structure and Socialization

      The horse of necessity and by nature is a gregarious animal.  Like many prey animals the horse depends on other herd members for his survival.  Predators are a constant threat and the many eyes of the herd help insure the detection of approaching danger.  Although the horse can bite, kick or strike; he is poorly equipped and not very good at defending himself from a physical confrontation.  His best and most practical defense is to flee; that is the one defensive strategy he is very good at, and is his first choice nearly every time he feels threatened.  This physical response to an emotional condition is both a blessing and a curse for us; it’s what makes him so useful (speed and endurance) and at the same time so dangerous (uncontrolled flight).  What seems to us like an irrational, reckless reaction is in fact an orderly, practical response for the horse, when confronted with a threat. 

     In the herd the horse finds the security he needs to survive.  The constant vigilance of herd mates affords him the opportunity to eat, drink, rest and sleep (for short periods of about 10-15 minutes) with minimal risk from predators.   Without this security all of these everyday necessities become dangerous, life threatening activities; done pensively and at great risk.  That is why keeping (housing) a horse out of sight and contact with other prey animals creates an animal that is nervous, apprehensive and irritable; he simply can't function normally.

      The social structure within the herd varies considerably depending on the environment, size of the group and learned behavior of the individuals.  Generally speaking, the basic herd structure is made up of family bands, bachelor bands and individuals not associated with either group.

      The size of the family bands varies with availability and dispersion of resources (food, water and shelter) and the experiences (learned behavior - what works and what doesn't) of the individuals.  It is usually comprised of a stallion, several mares, and their offspring.  When the young approach maturity (about two years of age) the fillies (females less than five years old) leave the herd to join other family bands and the colts (males less than five years old) leave the herd and join bachelor bands. 

      The bachelor bands are made up of colts and stallions that are unable to acquire or keep mares.  There is a social hierarchy within these groups similar to that of the family bands.

      Individual solitary horses are usually an older stallion (that once had a family band but is no longer able to keep his mares from leaving or from being stolen by other stallions) or a younger stallion that has broken away from a bachelor band in an attempt to acquire mares of his own.

      As with humans, the core unit for the survival of the species is the family band.  Within that, there is an orderly but fluid structure that is dictated by the environment and the experiences of the family members.  The two dominant players are the stallion and the lead mare, with the other herd members playing a host of subordinate roles.  

      For his part the stallion has two main priorities (and many lesser ones): to protect the herd from predation (which he does by serving as lookout, and rear guard when fleeing), and keep the herd together (prevent other stallions from steeling his mares, or them from wondering off). 

      The lead mare is in charge of leading the group when fleeing from danger, and seeking the necessities for survival (water, food, shelter, etc.).  She facilitates this by maintaining an orderly social structure within the group.  The stallion also takes part in maintaining this social structure, but due to his other priorities, is less involved.  It could be said that, as in the human family, the male (stallion) makes the big decisions, and the female (mare) makes the important ones. 

       Other family members interact and participate in a host of subordinate roles, the discussion of which goes far beyond the scope of this article. The position of any individual within the herd is not static and may change as a herd member matures and begins to assert himself, or other members leave or join the group.  We’ve all seen this with our domestic horses, the entire pecking order of the herd can change if one member is removed or inserted; new alliances may be formed, herd leadership may change, and sometimes the entire social structure is rearranged.  These changes can occur at any time, and any member is free to challenge another for dominance within the group whenever he desires.

      This social flexibility is what allows the horse to adapt to his environment (the natural one he evolved in, or the artificial one we’ve created); and, what we use to teach him.  The more we understand about this structure, the better we become at inserting ourselves into it, and controlling the behavior within it. 

      There are variations of social structure within the herd, individual behavior within that structure, and different styles of leadership.  As outsiders, it is difficult for us to understand and appreciate the complexity of this social structure (and in fact it varies from band to band); but probably the closest human social structure to that of the horse’s, would be that of our military. 

       When the wolves attack, decisions need to be made quickly.  A democracy moves too slowly.  “Whoever in the herd thinks the wolves are after us, raise your tail? (vote)  Now, who thinks we need to run, raise your tail? (vote)  OK, which way should we go? (discussion and vote)  Who should we have lead us? (nomination, second, discussion and vote) etc., etc.”  By the time a decision is made to run, there aren’t any members left in the herd. 

      A chain of command agreed upon prior to the advent of a crisis; which everyone agrees with, knows their position in, and responsibilities to; provides the best opportunity for all to survive.   It yields the most rapid orderly response time, and therefore provides the most security for each member.  

      For the individual horse, position within that chain of command is determined not so much by size, but by how he sees himself within the group.  Foals learn their initial position from their mother, but their individual personalities determine the later roles they will play, and where they are in the social structure. 

      When we insert ourselves into the group we first need to be accepted as a herd member and, following that, our position is determined.  Whether it’s a herd of two (us and the horse) or two hundred, the principles of herd leadership remain the same. 

     I’ve heard it said, and for a long time believed, that we needed to; “Become the herd leader.”  This implies two things that aren’t necessarily true:  First, that we have a history with the herd.  Yet we’ve all seen someone take a horse in hand that they’ve never handled before, and the horse immediately responds to their requests.  Secondly, that it’s a static condition; that once we become the herd leader, we are, and forever will be.   Yet we all know of someone that initially could handle their horse well, but now has lost that control.

      In the horse’s moment by moment world, he is continually assessing his environment, security, and position within the herd.  He doesn’t necessarily want to be in charge, but someone has to be.  In your herd of two (you and your horse) if you don’t take charge, he will, or he’ll find another leader.  This is necessary for both his security and survival. 

      What we really need to do if we are to be effective handling horses is to; “Learn to display leadership qualities.”  Since the horse is continually assessing his situation, we must be displaying these leadership qualities whenever he is aware of our presents.

 “When it comes to leadership, it is far more important to be trusted and respected, than it is to be liked.” (Dr. Steve Covey: The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People)   Too many horse owners think that if the horse likes them, he will trust and respect them, when the opposite is true; if the horse trusts them and respects them, he will probably also like being around them.

 How to display leadership qualities to the horse: 

 Be aware of your horse and your surroundings

      Because his primary method of defense is to flee, the horse is acutely attuned to his surroundings.  If you want the position of leadership in the herd, you too must be aware of what’s happening around you and be proactive in your response to any threatening situation.  What good is it for him to have you as a leader, if you didn’t even notice the wolves until they were chewing on his butt?

     You need to be aware not only of what he is doing, but also of what he is thinking.  Attention to his body language will tell you what issues concern him and need to be addressed.  This doesn’t mean you should react as your horse would, quite the contrary; the more concerned he becomes, the more calm and reassuring you must remain.  When he gains confidence that you will notice and address the issues that concern him, he becomes more relaxed and begins turning to you for reassurance and direction.

 Have a plan of action

      To provide security for your horse, not only do you need to notice the wolves, you need to know what to do about them.  Look ahead; watch for potential problems and know in advance how you are going to respond to each situation as it develops.  Be proactive; take corrective action before a minor problem develops into a major blow up.

      Get the big picture, and know how the pieces fit into the puzzle.  Set your long term goals with the horse in mind.  A long term goal for the horse is not winning some show next weekend, or even some award at the end of the year (he planned on living beyond that, and doesn’t share in your glory).  Your long term goals need to be based on how you (you and your horse) are going to develop a relationship both of you will be happy with five or ten years from now.

      Everything you teach your horse needs to be done with those goals in mind.  Use a step by step approach that starts at the very beginning and progresses the horse’s understanding of what you want him to do.  Don’t assume he knows anything until you have asked it of him, or taught it to him.  If the horse has difficulty learning something, it’s probably because you didn’t make the steps in the learning process small enough for him to learn; back up and break the learning process down into smaller steps.  Know how your horse learns, and set up your teaching program to make it as easy as possible for him to progress.  (We’ll cover these concepts in more detail in future articles.)

      Keep your priorities straight.  Quick fixes, gimmicks, and equipment that “make the horse” do something may seem like a solution; but often avoid the real issue, and slow down the long term learning process.

 Be willing to take charge

      For both the horse and the human there are three things that allow them to perform: the physical capacity to act, the knowledge of what to do, and the emotional ability to respond.  Failure to perform in any one of these three areas prevents us and the horse from being able to act.

      The physical capacity to act is determined by your physical condition (what physical activities you can do) and position (where you are relative to the horse and your surroundings).  No mater how big and strong you are, the horse is bigger and stronger; so don’t get in a fight with him.  You lead with your brain, not with your body; yet I see people constantly getting in pushing and pulling contests with their horse (on the ground and on his back).  Use your head; why pick a fight with someone ten times bigger than you?

      Your position relative to the horse or your surroundings often determines your success in directing him.  The horse literally lives or dies by his understanding of position, so it comes natural to him.  For you to be successful in taking charge of the horse you must not only be able to physically respond, you must also be in position to respond.

      The knowledge needed to be able to perform the role of leadership is based on two things: what to do, and how to do it.  What to do is determined by where both you and your horse are in your planned program of learning (you do have one, don’t you?).  How to do it, is just as important (if not more so) as what to do; for it determines what kind of relationship you will have with your horse. 

      The two extremes of this are what I call the B&B approach (“begging & bribing”); or the BIS approach (“beat into submission”).  The B&B approach develops a relationship in which you are often frustrated because of your lack of success, and the horse becomes disrespectful and unresponsive. “Please get into the trailer, I’ll give you a sugar cube if you do.”  The BIS approach develops a relationship which is very inconsistent; you are successful in some areas, but an absolute failure in others.  The horse becomes very wary, afraid and untrusting; and very reactive (rather than responsive) whenever he’s asked to do something.

      The best description I ever heard of “how to do it,” was at a clinic by Ray Hunt when he said: “Do as little as possible, but as much as necessary.”

      The emotional ability to act is dependant on our ability to stay calm while under duress.  This, to a large extent, is based on two things; our knowledge (what to do, and how to do it) and our experience (the application of that knowledge). 

      There is no substitute for experience.  Experience not only expands our knowledge, but also the understanding of its application; which in turn grants us assurance of success.  This assurance gives us the confidence to remain patient and calm, and allow the horse the time he needs to learn. 

      You can have one experience two hundred times, or two hundred experiences one time.  The more horses you handle and the more activities you participate in, the more experience you gain, the more knowledge you accumulate, and the better you become at applying that knowledge in a clam, patient, and reassuring way.

      I see too many people “act” out of anger, rather than “respond” with confidence, when the horse is dealing with a life threatening situation.  For us anger is caused by one of three things: fear, pain or frustration.  As we “act” out of anger, the horse “reacts” out of fear; and we’ve started a snow ball rolling down hill that will continue gaining size and momentum the longer the cycle continues.

      Many people don’t act soon enough, and then go way beyond what was necessary once they do act.  For example: The horse becomes concerned with what he perceives as danger to his survival, the handler doesn’t notice the danger or his concern; the horse realizes this and decides to do something to save himself, in the process he steps on or pushes the handler to escape the danger; the handler now out of anger (fear, pain or frustration) punishes the horse for stepping on him for “no reason;” the horse is now not only afraid of the initial threat, he’s also afraid of the handler.  Had the handler noticed the issue and addressed it before the horse felt threatened, the snow ball never would have started rolling.

  Be willing to die for your horse.

      If he is to place his life in your hands, he must believe you will do whatever is necessary to take care of him.  That’s what the lead mare or stallion are willing to do, so if you want to take their place in the herd, he must believe you will do the same.

     The priorities of displaying leadership:

 First:  Take charge of yourself.  Have a plan: know what to do, how to do it, and be able to respond.

Second:  Take charge of your horse.  Recognize not only what he’s doing, but what he’s thinking; then encourage or discourage the thought or action. Give him clear, decisive directions.

Third:  Take charge of the other horses in the herd.  This gives him security (he doesn’t have to worry about what they are doing) and helps solidify your position as herd leader (if you’re in charge of the horses that boss him around, you must really be in charge).

Finally:  Take charge of the situation. Address the issue at hand in a timely, authoritative and positive manner.

 How Not To Display Leadership Qualities To The Horse:

      The horse lives in a very simple world of taking care of his basic needs (food, water and shelter) surviving attacks from predators, and perpetuating the survival of the species.  His primary method of accomplishing this is through movement; every part of his physical and mental well being is geared toward this movement; it defines his very existence.

      Whether you think it’s important or not doesn’t matter; in the horse’s world, whether it’s a herd of two (you and the horse), or two hundred, who ever is in charge of the other’s feet, is the leader. 

      The following are some examples of the horse being the herd leader (in charge of you):

Ř      Any threatening gesture from him that causes you to move, hesitate, or change what you were about to do.

Ř      If the horse pushes you with his head or body (runs into you).

Ř      If the horse moves around while being: groomed, haltered, saddled, bridled, or mounted.

Ř      If the horse won’t let you touch certain parts of his body: ears, flank, sheath, underside of tail, etc.

Ř      If the horse won’t stand still while on a lead rope, or while mounted.

Ř      If the horse allows what other horses do, affect his behavior (disregards what you are asking, moves without permission).

Ř      If the horse threatens you, pushes you out of the way, or disregards your directives to get to his food.

 Leadership is Leadership:

      In the horse’s world someone has to be in charge.  Whether you are standing next to him on the ground, sitting on his back, or driving him from a carriage seat doesn’t matter; you’re either in charge, or you’re not; if you’re not, he will be, or he’ll look for someone who is. 

      This leadership is being judged, assessed, challenged and granted on a moment by moment basis.  He’s always learning, so you must always be teaching.  Display leadership qualities at all times, and your horse will accept you as the herd leader.

      In the next article, we’ll discuss building this leadership by understanding the principles of: Trust, Respect and Communication.