WHY DO HORSES BEHAVE
LIKE THEY DO AND WHAT IS IMPORTANT TO THEM?
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"Ethology is the scientific and objective study of animal behaviour, usually with a focus on behaviour under natural conditions, and viewing behaviour as an evolutionarily adaptive trait"
"Zoology is the study of animals, their behaviour, physiology and evolution, as well as their interactions with each other and their environment.
Zoologists study how animals evolved and the impact of environmental change on their survival"
A horses behaviour is a direct reflection of the 55 millions years of successful evolution s/he has endured as a prey animal.
And in order to really understand
the horses mind we must realise that they was firstly hunted by man, before we domesticated
the horse to aid us in our own evolution.
Therefore who can blame them if horses still see us a threat at times, and its through these naturally primed prey animal instincts, as to why even the most well trained domestic horse can still over react to a slight stimulus, as the equines instincts are never far from the surface, as they have been developed to flee from all dangers, whether that be perceived or real, and to ask questions about this later from a safe distance.
Plus after their species were hunted for all those years, the equine brain has become hard-wired into thinking like a prey animal, and its this that affects the horses behaviour in our domestic world.
Through these prey animal instincts,
horses can be extremely emotional creatures, that are more sensitive at times than you or I can possibly imagine, and because we don't function that way ourselves due to our own predatory hard wiring, we can sometimes find it hard to understand these innate behaviour and needs, often saying things like "don't be silly" when a horse is getting worried, which is not the best approach to deal with your horses worries.
Due to this horses have evolved to read our body language and intentions far earlier than we can anticipate, which has developed through their need to anticipate predatory threats to their safety, and most of the time we aren't aware of our own behaviour in response to equines due to this, though this can be a skill anyone can learn if trained to do so correctly.
Tragically I see and hear of people trying to override these instincts by forcing horses into becoming compliant .....but never do we need to use aggression, or a bigger bit, or tie your horses head down, or whip him to try to force him into anything as if you put your request to the horse in the right way he will willing do what is asked 99.9% of the time.
I have discovered many of these facts from the horses themselves, after rehabilitating a long list of both clients horses with behavioural issues, as well as our own herd including hundreds of unwanted rescue horses who came to me with behavioural issues too.
Despite having a wealth of experiences with horses, I still strive to learn as much as I can, as to be able to help more horses, as well as other people to have a better understanding of equidae in all his complexities, which includes following my own study into academic paths through my university education, along with ongoing research into horse behaviour, nutrition and diet, grass and grass toxins, including toxin binders and minerals, along with how the horse socially interacts, and learns, through the study into zoology, and ethology, in addition to the many different clinicians, and inspirational horse men and women I meet along the way.
The one thing I have found that that all these teachers have in common is that they all know that in order to be good with horses you need to know how horses think and what
is important to them.
So understanding how the horse thinks through Equine psychology
is the most
important thing you will ever learn about horses, and this in turn will
make them like you more and give you more success with them. Therefore I have written below about the 2 basic modes of behaviour that we can slot our horses into in order for you to learn how they think and why they behave the way they do, which I have broken down into the 2 halves of his/her brain for a black and white straight forward approach . . . . . although the horse doesn't actually only use one side of his brain for this.
RIGHT BRAINED/ELEVATIONWhen your horse is in this mode his only concern is flight or fight and if you get in his way he will run over you as he is in full survival mode and will run through a brick wall if he thinks he has too!
Reading a situation with a right brained horse will really help you to help the horse and stay safe, so you should be looking for on how tense the horse is, and on how they hold their heads high while staring without blinking, which is a tell tale sign this flight mode is starting. Other clues is maybe they will be jumpy or spooky, and often though not always, they behave completely irrational though some fake being ok by just shutting down on the outside and some become catatonic, robotic and regress into their own heads as by a form of escapism as a coping mechanism, which just shows how traumatised they actually are.
Horses can be
very dangerous and extremely unpredictable when they are in this instinctual RIGHT-BRAINED mode so you should definitely not RIDE your horse if he's like this -trust your instincts and GET OFF for your own safety and don't let others bully you to get back until he has returned to a left brained state as your personal safety is paramount
Nobody wants their horse to behave like this
but please try to understand why s/he is acting this way. Your horse is
actually scared for his life and is genuinely worried that he's going
to be eaten RIGHT NOW!
Please don't forget that the Equine species has been
somebody else's dinner for millions of years because your horse definitely
doesn't and these over reactive actions are because he is a prey
animal and when he's right brained he behaves very much like a 700kg rabbit and just doesn't realise he can hurt you in the process as he not thinking clearly enough because of sheer fear and terror.
Thankfully there are strategies to get him
out of this mode which we will cover later in these lessons, which should only be implemented by experienced handlers that understand what is happening.
What you must come to understand is that the words "there there and easy boy" have no impact when a horse has crossed the threshold and become very scared, as they have no ability to learn anything or calm down enough to feel your mood when he's scared for his life like this so my advice is SAFETY FIRST and keep him well away from you by using a minimum of a 12ft Lead line and having him at the end of it when he is in right brained mode, or better still have him in another space completely as this is the safest thing for both of you until he calms down or you develop your skills enough to help him calm down.
So hopefully you now understand that no learning can take place when your horse is in this Right Brain elevated mode.
Therefore please don't ever try to teach a scared horse anything new or tell him off for being silly as it's a total waste of time, because the information just doesn't get absorbed when his adrenalin is up and he's not being naughty, he's genuinely frightened for his life.
To best understand this I'd like you to imagine
you are hanging of the edge of a cliff with just your fingernails keeping you there,
about to plummet to your death at any moment-do you think you could
learn anything new when you were this scared or could anyone calm you down enough to reason with you, or would you get braver after being punished for your fear? Well this is how your horse
feels so try to understand his fear- his only thought is his survival.
MODE 2-RATIONAL, CALM AND THINKING:
LEFT BRAINED/NON ELEVATED
is when your horse is calm and thinking.
Left brained posture is typically relaxed with the head being low as shown with a group of horses here at our centre...... and your horse is breathing easy-perhaps even blowing or licking and chewing. He has no
tension is his body and displays a soft eye with relaxed ears and his tail is loose rather than clamped. This is how we want our
horses to be and if you want to teach a horse something new then
this is the correct time to do that as relaxation and confidence are the master facilitators of learning in equines.
Everybody wants their horse to be left brained and some horses naturally are that way in their characteristics, due to their breed, spirit, upbringing and whether they have had positive interactions with people in the past or not as unfortunately is sometimes the case. The good thing is we can also teach the spooky or scared personality types to be more typically left brained with practice and positive associations with humans as shown later in these lessons.
SO WHAT IS ACTUALLY IMPORTANT TO HORSES?
We put horses in stables as we live in a house and think they should too. It's called anthropomorphism
when we do this and putting human feelings and reactions onto animals is not fair on them as it clouds our thoughts about our horses needs as we try to humanise them. Horses are innately a wild animal with wild characteristics such as fleeing and spooking and they just don't put value on the same things as we humans do-material possessions for example don't even register to a horse, and punishment of any sort will teach him nothing but fear or aggression. They genuinely couldn't care less about whether they are wearing the latest designer rug or not-lol.
Being a prey animal the most
important thing to our equines is....
Horses NEED to be with others of their own kind for emotional, as well as physically well-being. Without the herd your horse is not complete and I find it very cruel to expect him or her to live with out other horses around. The herd provides everything that your horse needs to feel safe and give him emotional support, so please don't ask him to live alone. It's true that you can use strategies to be accepted as a herd member, but you will never substitute the effects on him as living with a genuine real horse herd, even if that is only a herd consisting of him and another.
2-SAFETY AND SURVIVAL
The need to feel safe is your horses number 1 priority and part of that means having a good, calm and trustworthy proven leader to look towards for reassurance that allow him to feel safer when he questions things like when he spooks which is where the use of Equine Psychology comes in. Horse can be taught to relax quickly after they have spooked if taught that you are the Alpha and take all leadership responsibility away from your horse, and this is established through groundwork exercises and trust, which is earned and not instant to horses:)
3-COMFORT AND RELIEF.
Your horse is looking to be just left alone in peace with no eyes on him or any demands/requests or pressures from you in any way in order to sustain his comfort. A way to reward him that most people have never tried is to reward him with "release" by releasing your eyes, and pressure from hum by leaving him alone for 30 seconds or so after he has done what you asked.
This approach is a powerful motivator and reward for horses as it is how other horses behave in a herd, and if we implement this natural equine language into our interactions with horses, it will make your horse try harder for you next time as this reward is very important to a horse but sadly rarely used. Comfort is not about soft bedding or snugly covers to a horse -it is about being left to be a horse and this type of reward gives him that.
4-PLAY AND SOCIAL INTERACTION
If the other 2 previous needs are met then your horse will want to socialise with others of his kind and hopefully that also includes you as he now starts to see you as the freaky 2 legged herd member too :) Each individual horse will have their own play drive, which depends on their confidence and personality as well as environment and what they learned from their mother-was she playful or serious etc... There are many games you can play with your horse that can replace the term "work" or "training" and this can make it a lot more fun for both of you.
You'll notice this need is actually your horses last need- as if your horses is scared he won't be interested in any food, plus bribing horses is never the answer to our horses training issues and often creates more problems than it solves-but
a treat could be used as a reward
AFTER your horse has tried hard for you so don't
rule out a carrot or cookie as a well done reward to a horse you have bonded with.
Another part that your horse is also interested in is......
PAYMENT FOR TRYING, WORK AND EFFORT
So let me ask you this basic question-
would you work for an employer for free? Your answer is of course NO and your horse would answer in the same way if he is allowed an opinion -so out of the above first 4 items please ask in future when you set him a task "what is in it for him?"
Also please don't ever be one of these ignorant people who I have met along the way that believes the horse knows he has behaved badly and then omit his food that day as a punishment. Punishment and horses are two words that should never go together.
What is going to motivate him to want to be with you in humansville rather than being with his herd safe in his pasture?
Scratches, Comfort, a Treat, Safety, Play and Stimulation all have their place but correct timing is also essential and we'll cover this soon.
Please try to think about these things when you are with your horses as it will benefit both of your relationships with each other to try to see it from his point of view.
You are responsible for the safety of you and your equine and Natural Horse will not be responsible for any injury either to you or your horse for the incorrect use of any of these techniques.
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