Prior to Joanne and I hitching up, I had essentially no experience with horses. So after 30 years of being around these critters, it has been personally interesting to look back at how my attitudes toward and interaction with horses has changed. I remember my views when Joanne took me on that first “romantic???” ride as we were courting. Mostly terror ! However, as a result of this close association with horses over a period of time, I have seen my total outlook and manner of dealing with horses change. I have gone through a lot of trial and error experiences and observed their behavior. Now when I add in a dose of “Psychology Today” to this, look out. Here comes Horse Freud. There are a couple of observations that seem to jump out and may be of use to consider.
PREDATOR VS PREY or “FIGHT VS FLIGHT”
If we go back to our basic biology class, we may remember about the food chain. Plants are the bottom of this chain. The energy that plants capture is passed on to the animals on the upper links of this chain. The next link up the chain is the herbivores (plant eaters). We all know the horses fit into this group. The links in the chain after this point are the predators (meat eaters) that kill plant eaters for their food. Of course our dogs and cats fit into this category. So what does all of this have to do with horse psychology? Well, if you take a look at horses in the field you see a number of things. First of all horses usually tend to stay in a group. If a foal falls asleep in the field and the herd moves away, the foal will immediately run back to the herd when it wakes up. Frequently horses that are kept isolated from others develop habits such as pacing the fence, weaving, cribbing, etc. They have a need to be in the herd. When horses are separated from each other, they call (whinny) incessantly for one another. Cats and dogs, on the other hand, being predators are more solitary animals. They lay by themselves and do not necessarily have the desire to be with others of their own kind all of the time.
As you well know, herbivores such as cattle, sheep, and horses are all herd animals. They have the instinct to gather in a group for protection. Herd animals also share the same defense mechanism when they “perceive” a threat to their welfare. They attempt to escape. In its simplest form this is the classic flight response. To escape a perceive threat they immediately run away to safety. If they don’t excape, they normally thrash about wildly in an attempt to escape until either subdued in some manner or they become exhausted. The word “perceived” is important since horses tend to jump to conclusions on what is a threat. We’re probably giving the horse a bit of credit talking in this manner. It is highly questionable whether the horse has the reasoning power I am talking about. Anyway, assuming a horse perceives it is about to be eaten, probably the best thing to do is run away now and think about it later. Predatory animals such as dogs and cats do one of two things if they perceive a threat. They either become submissive by laying down and cowering or they raise the hair on their back and turn to fight.
Due to the major differences in behavior patterns, it is important to realize that horses have to be treated differently than dogs if we are going to get along with them effectively. Consider the differences between a puppy and a young foal. Puppies are real rough-housers. They love to play chase, they wrestle with children on the floor, the do all sorts of aggressive behaviors. Dogs like to be jumped at, patted roughly or scratched in an vigorous manner. If a person got down on the barn floor with a foal in the same manner as with the young dog, the foal would be doing everything possible to escape from the situation. Once again, the foal perceives a threat and therefore uses the only tools it has available. It either shys from the situation in the first place or runs away if at all possible.
It used to really gripe me when Joanne would tell me to go out in the field and get so-and-so horse. I would dutifully get a halter and lead rope, head purposefully into the field to bring back my “quarry”. Obviously, the horse usually figured out that it was “quarry” also and most often headed off to the high country. Then the chase was on. “I’ll corner that nag.” You know the rest. I would wildly chase the horse around the pasture, wear myself out, get really irritated and finally admit defeat and head back to the barn empty handed. Then, Joanne would pour salt into the wounded ego. She would just walk out and “catch” the horse. I couldn’t figure it out. I thought it must be one of those female things.
Finally one day I must admit, “The sun rose over Marble Head”. There was a lot more going on when Joanne went to “catch” a horse than I had noticed. It occurred to me that she was dealing with her horses idea of “perceived threat”. When Joanne goes into the field, she does a number of things to convince the horses that she was not a threat. She is effectively meeting the horses on their terms and in their timeframe. She walks about the field slowly. She tries not to look or walk directly toward the horse. She takes a soft rather than erect body posture, sometimes bending to one knee. She talks softly to the horse. Frequently she stops short of the horse and extends a hand full of grain. Normally after a few seconds the horse walks up to her. If the horse doesn’t move I’ve seen her back a couple of steps away and the horse then moves toward her to the grain. It is a rare occasion that Joanne does not come back with the horse she wants. Looking back on this, the horses obviously “perceived” a threat from me but not Joanne’s approach.
Certainly there are some hardcore cases. We have had a few. One mare we purchased more or less ran to the other end of the pasture for a long time but after a time of hand feeding vitamins to the mares out of a bucket in the pasture, she finally came around. At first she was very wary about eating out of the bucket. It took a long time to win her confidence. When she finally started taking her first tentative nibbles we made sure to not react to her and moved on to feed the other mares. Believe it or not, this mare became one of the biggest pests. Obviously she was initially attracted to the prospect of food. Later on she spent much time pushing others out of the way to get her share of scratching when we went out to the field to see the horses.
In conclusion, I guess the biggest lesson that I have learned about interacting effectively with horses is that everything seems to work out better if they have a sense of trust in us humans. They are, by nature, highly suspicious and easily rattled. It seems the best approach that I have found is to give the appearance of gentleness with slow deliberate movement. Restraining a young foal terrorizes it unless this difficult lesson is approached carefully and with patience on the part of the handler. The bottom line is that we all know horses are not dogs. It should be just as apparent due to their major differences, we (theoretically being more intelligent) need to make sure we understand these major differences. We also need to use our knowledge of the flight response to effectively work with our animals so that both man and horse end up with positive experiences and trusting relationships.