Uncommon Horse Sense







"We will never solve the significant problems we face with the same level of thinking we were at when we created them."

Albert Einstein



The Horse, And How He Learns


     Millions of years of evolution and natural selection have developed Equus Caballus (commonly referred to as the horse) into an animal not just aesthetically beautiful in form and function, but also superbly able to survive and adapt to an incredible variety of environments. Dog may be considered "manís best friend" but it could be easily argued that the horse, in all his various forms and sizes, is "manís best partner;" for without the horse, civilization as we know it would simply not exist.

     Before he became our partner in the advancement of civilization he was just one of countless species hunted and killed as a food source. But of all the species man has hunted and/or domesticated, the horse stands alone; he is the one animal who is willing to set aside his instinctive behavior (albeit, tentively), to take up a partnership with his enemy. His influence has been so pervasive and penetrating that nearly every part of European, Asian, American and much of African culture carry his mark. He has provide us with transportation, moved our commerce, changed the way we conduct agriculture, carried us into battle, inspired us in art, music and literature, and has been an icon in religion and mythology.

     Though in much of the world he no longer plays a major role in providing our power, he still holds an almost mythical place in our culture; for the mere glimpse of his form, or the sound of his hooves, still turns our heads, and lifts our spirits. As a testament to his continued popularity, itís interesting to note that there are more horses today in the United States than there were one hundred years ago when the horse was the major source of power.

     Despite this long history of use and domestication, and thousands of years of historic writings, there is still much misunderstanding about his nature. When the horse was used every day, the knowledge of how to handle and teach him was passed down from generation to generation. Terms like "horse sense" were (and still are) used to describe knowledge so common and universally understood, that no one saw the need to write it down for it to be remembered, or to pass it on for posterity. (You donít need to write down the telephone numbers you use every day, only the ones you donít.)

     With the advent of the automobile the horse gradually became obsolete; so why bother passing knowledge of his training to the next generation, theyíre not going to need it anyway. With the exception of a select few who still "needed" to use horses in their everyday lives, the basic knowledge of his training was lost to the changing times. With the resurgence of the horseís popularity, now for pleasure rather than work, came a demand for instructors who could guide owners who had virtually no understanding of the animal they were dealing with.

     Although there are some current writings on the subject, much of the historic written information on the training of horses deals primarily with the horse from an intermediate level on up to advanced training. This assumes the horse has already been trained in his basic skills. So, now we have not only a new generation of owners, but also of trainers; who studied the writings of the old masters, understand the advanced education of the horse, but lack an understanding of his true nature or the basic education he needs to perform at these higher levels. Itís like trying to teach algebra or calculus to a student who hasnít yet learned what numbers are, and doesnít know how to count, add, subtract, multiply or divide.

     To be effective as a teacher it is imperative you know your student. Without an understanding of the horseís physical, mental and emotional capacity and/or state, learning is at best; slow, reluctant and laborious.

     In our mechanized, fast paced, predominately urban society, we have been removed from nature and have become accustom to instant gratification. We approach the horse as if he were a machine. "How do I make him go?" (How do I start this thing?) "How do I make him stop?" (Where are the brakes?)

     Our view of the horse is reflected in our approach to his education. We use equipment and gimmicks to fill in for our lack of knowledge and understanding. This forcing of our will on him triggers his survival instinct and pushes him farther from us, mentally if not physically. At best we end up with a reluctant slave, when we could have had a willing partner.

     One of the keys to understanding behavior (ours and the horseís) is to realize that: "We do not see the world as it is, we see it as we are" (Dr. Steven Covey, The Seven Habits Of Highly Effective People). Because of our removal from nature (urban culture) people tend to view the horse from extremes: "magical mystical" or "dumb, ignorant beast." The truth of the matter is, he is neither.

     What I would like to do in the following series of articles is to present a basic understanding of the nature of the horse; how he thinks and sees the world; and how we can use that understanding to teach him what he needs to know; not only to survive in our world, but also become a "willing partner" in our endeavors.

The Nature of the Horse

     Throughout his fifty million year evolution; from his early beginnings as a relatively small four and three toed herbivore (eohippus Ė "eo" Greek for "dawn," and "hippus" Greek for "horse") to his current state of development, the horse (Equus Caballus) was and is, first and foremost, a prey animal. That fact dictates a way of seeing the world no amount of domestication or selective breeding can appreciably alter. If we are to successfully handle and train the horse, we must understand that nature and how it affects his behavior and response to the world around him.

     Many people mistakenly think that because their horse is domesticated, was born in a barn and raised in a pasture, the natural instinctive behavior he was born with, no longer applies to him. That thinking is at the heart of nearly all "horse training problems," and nothing could be farther from the truth. It would be like me pouring a cup of coffee into the North Sea as I flew over it and then saying to myself; "There, now the North Sea tastes like coffee."

The Five Senses

     The horse like us perceives the world around him through his five senses. This perception however, varies considerably from ours due to the fact that he is a prey animal. A complete description of the horseís senses and how he uses them to survive could easily take an entire book, so Iíll just hit a few of the highlights.


     The horse has the biggest eyes in the animal kingdom, which gives you an indication of their importance to his survival. The most obvious difference between how he sees the world and how we do is demonstrated by their positioning on his head. Our eyes are on the front of the skull facing forward (predator) which gives us binocular vision in one direction, his are on the sides of the skull facing outward (prey) which gives him monocular vision in two directions (bilateral). Because of this he sees the world in two halves, a right half and a left half, his brain functions similarly when processing this visual information. This bilateral functioning of the brain, results in the horse learning and remembering on the side the information was perceived. Therefore, if we want the horse to be able to perform on both sides of his body, anything we teach the horse on the right side must also be taught on the left.

     The advantage of this bilateral arrangement is that it gives the horse a wider field of view. Although he has a blind spot directly to the rear of the skull (and to a much lesser degree to the front) he has a field of view of about 300 degrees, compared to ours of about 180 degrees. The disadvantage is that in this monocular vision he has very poor depth perception. Only to the front of the skull, where the two fields of view from each eye lap (binocular vision), does the horse have good depth perception. Therefore when alarmed from behind, the horse will raise his head (elevate the sight plane) and turn his head to investigate the previous blind spot. If something is detected (and the threat isnít eminent) he will turn far enough to place the object in the binocular field of view for further investigation. If the threat is eminent he will flee immediately upon detection.

     Also, the horseís eye does not have an adjustable lens that can be focused like ours. Instead the retina is closer to the lens at the top and bottom allowing the horse to focus on distant objects in the upper and lower portion of the lens, and closer objects near the center. The horse brings objects into focus by tilting and/or raising or lowering his head. What is often mistaken as shying is merely the horse try to focus on an object.

     Because many predators hunt at night, the horseís eye has evolved with many more rod cells than cone cells on the retina, which allows him to see in low light conditions. It was once believed that this arrangement meant he saw the world only in grey tones; but it has since been proven that, although he canít distinguish color as well as we do, he can perceive some differences in color. The degree of this perception has yet to be determined.


     To a much greater degree than humans the horse can listen to and differentiate multiple sounds at the same time. Each ear can be rotated independently to discern sounds in front, to the side and to the rear of the horse. The bilateral functioning of the brain allows him to simultaneously attenuate sounds in two different directions at the same time. By watching the ears the observant handler can determine where the horse is focusing his attention; and yes he can focus in two different directions at the same time. The ear also plays a role in the nonverbal communication within the herd, expressing his feelings and thoughts.


     That long nose on the horse isnít there just to be a repository for his teeth, the horse has an olfactory capacity akin to that of a dog. In his natural world he uses it to locate water and food, detect predators, track and identify other horses and acknowledge herd hierarchy. Native Americans, recognizing the importance of smell to the horse, would breathe into their horseís nostrils to solidify their relationship in the herd.

     You may have observed a horse when presented with an unfamiliar odor such as an unusual food or the urine of a strange horse, sniff deeply and then raise its head and lift its upper lip. This is called Flehmen, and is done to expose the odor to the Jacobsonís organ located under the upper lip. Itís believed that its primarily purpose is to detect pheromones.


     Many consider the horseís sense of taste only when choosing his feed or the treats they give him as a reward, but it should also be considered when choosing equipment. Each horse is an individual and the equipment you use should be based on what works best with him, but there are differences in the horseís preferences in materials used for bits. Stainless steel bits are popular because of their ease of maintenance (no rust), but that ease of maintenance doesnít leave the horse with a bad taste in its mouth, it leaves it with no taste in its mouth. Itís been shown that horses prefer the taste of copper, or even better yet sweet iron (iron that rusts), to stainless steel. Some of the best bits have a mouth piece thatís made of sweet iron with copper inlays, horses seem to salivate more and keep their mouths fresher with these.


     Because of his size people tend to think the horse isnít very sensitive, and treat him accordingly. But if youíve been around horses for any length of time at all, you realize it really doesnít take any more force to get a horse to respond than what a fly can exert. Horses are incredibly sensitive and tactile. If you blindfolded your horse so he couldnít see and were sitting on his back, you couldnít reach up and rub your nose without him knowing it; he can feel that slight movement through any saddle.

     It follows then that if heís that sensitive you really donít need spurs to get your horse to respond to your leg. If he doesnít respond itís because he didnít know he was supposed to. He was either not taught to respond, or more likely, taught not to respond because the leg pressure was released at the wrong time (a discussion weíll cover in more depth in future articles).

     Horses love to be rubbed and scratched, they do it to each other all the time. If you want to reward or relax your horse, a good scratch or rub is better than a treat. Contrary to what you see a lot of people doing, patting your horse is not soothing or relaxing to him. A pat feels more like a reprimand or punishment to the horse than a reward. Yes he will learn to tolerate it, but if youíre going to reward him, why not do it with something he actually likes, not just learns to tolerate. The rule of thumb is, "pet, donít pat" your horse.

     When I pointed this out to one lady she insisted that because her dog liked being pat, her horse did too, because they were the same (meaning they were both her pets). I asked her how they could possibly be the same; one eats the other one for a living? She still insisted there wasnít any difference, so I asked her do an experiment for me; when she feed them that night she should feed the dog a flake of hay, and the horse a hamburger, and see if either one was happy.

     Touch is a significant part of the horseís nonverbal communication. If your horse is in any way uncomfortable with you touching any part of his body, heís telling you he doesnít trust you. That lack of trust can easily trigger the horseís natural instinct to flee, and get you or the horse seriously hurt. It may not seem important to you, but in order to have the horse comfortable enough to learn from you, he must also be comfortable enough to have you touch him anywhere.

Basic Instincts

     Instinct is defined in the dictionary as: "a largely inheritable and unalterable tendency by an organism to make a complex and specific response to an environmental stimuli without involving reason and for the purpose of removing somatic tension"

     Being predators, it is difficult for us to understand the depth that instinctive behavior plays in the horseís psyche. As predators much of our understanding of the world is based on our learning after we were born. The prey animal however is born with nearly all of the behavioral information he needs to survive, and his experiences are used to modify those instincts and allow him to adapt to his environment.

     The most amazing thing to me about the horse is not how fast he can run, or how high he can jump, but how plastic his mind is. Of all prey animals, the horse is the most willing to set aside his instincts and change his behavior to adapt to his situation. This is what allows him to not only survive in vastly different climates and environments, but also allows us to modify his behavior to make him useful to us.

     All horses, whether domestic or wild, are born with the same instinctive behavior; as the wild horse gains experience he sharpens those instincts; as the domestic horse gains experience he dulls those instincts. We can never change the instinctive behavior the horse is born with, we can only teach him that he doesnít need to use those instincts to survive, right here, right now. For the horse itís a moment by moment world, so how we behave in each of those moments tells him if he needs to revert back to his natural instincts to survive, or if he can ignore them.

     In the following series of articles Iíd like to present an understanding of how the horse thinks and sees the world; and how we can use that understanding to teach him, not just to respond to our cues (reluctant slave), but to become a "willing partner" in our endeavors.