The history of the human race and that of the
horse are closely intertwined. The human fascination with horses dates back to
our caveman ancestors and, perhaps, even beyond that. The earliest recorded
history of mankind is in the form of drawings etched into the stone walls of
caves. Many of these drawings are depictions of horses. When archeologists
uncover remains of ancient civilizations, more times than not, they also
discover evidence that horses were part of the social and economic structure.
Many facets of the human fascination with horses
are understandable. As horses became domesticated, they became beasts of burden.
They were used to till fields, pull heavy loads and transport goods and
passengers from place to place. Horses brought prosperity to those cultures that
learned to domesticate them. Horses extended the range over which men could
explore, hunt, trade and wage war. An army traveling and fighting on horseback
has a distinct advantage over one that is on foot. The horse is also an
important item of our social fabric. Competitions, races and games involving men
and horses are as old as man’s domestication of the animal itself.
Not all of our fascination with horses can be
explained in practical or utilitarian terms. The grace and beauty of the horse
enthralls us today in the same way it enthralled caveman artists of many
millennia ago. Horses are living works of art. On any given day, more people
pause along roadsides to enjoy the beauty of a horse galloping across the field
than there are visitors to all the art museums in the world. And horses have
always been subtle symbols of wealth and power. The Bedouin tribesmen of the
Arabian Desert are quick to point out that “a man’s treasure is carried in the
bellies of his mares.” There are few in Kentucky who would disagree!
Above all else, it is probably the mystique of the
horse that so fascinates and perplexes us humans. Embodied in the horse is the
same range of abstract and intangible personality characteristics that we find
in ourselves. Judged from the human perspective, some horses, like some people,
are fearful and others bold; some have a strong work ethic and others are lazy;
some appear to have the desire to win and while others are non-competitive; some
react rationally to situations, others irrationally; some always seem to be
good-natured while others are hostile; and, some are said to be honest and
others dishonest. Perhaps our desire to understand the horse is nothing more
than a desire to understand ourselves and the people around us.
For hundreds of years we have used selective
breeding to influence what our horses will look like and how they will move. By
careful mating, we can influence the horse’s size, color and shape. We can breed
horses that will run faster races, pull heavier loads, cut calves out of the
herd more nimbly, or endure long treks through uninviting terrain. We can
genetically influence whether a horse will prefer one gait over another, whether
its neck will be long or short, its nose dished or level.
Despite all of this selective breeding, the foal
born in your stable last night inherited the same ten traits, as did the horses
depicted on the wall of the caveman. These ten, inherited traits influence how
the horse perceives the world around it and how it reacts to its environment.
These traits include anatomical, physiological and behavioral characteristics
that are intimately linked. The ten traits determine how the horse responds to
training and interacts with its handlers and other horses. These ten traits are
embedded deep within its DNA and are shared, without exception, by every horse
that was ever born. When one understands the ten traits, the personality of the
horse is not as mysterious as it first appeared.
True horse people understand these ten traits and
use them both as a means of influencing the horse to respond in a predictable
fashion and as a means of avoiding the danger inherent in being around horses.
No horse can fulfill its potential unless its
trainer understands the ten traits. No horseperson will ever fulfill his or her
potential without first understanding the ten traits. No person is safe working
around horses without first understanding the ten traits.
Here is a summary of the ten traits every horse
inherits. The following chapters discuss each trait in detail and explain how
you can use each to your advantage when dealing with horses. Understanding these
inbred characteristics will unlock the secrets of horse behavior.
1. The Secret of Flight:
The horse in its wild state depends upon flight as its primary survival
behavior. The horse’s natural habitat is grasslands, prairie or steppes. Its
primary enemies in nature are the large predators, particularly those of the cat
and dog family, such as lions and wolves. Anatomically, physiologically and
behaviorally the horse is a sprinter. Considering its enemies and its habitat,
sprinting straight away from any frightening stimulus is the best way for horses
to survive. To understand horses, above all else, the natural instinct of this
species to flee from real or imagined danger must be appreciated.
2. The Secret of Perception: Prey species must be more perceptive than
predators if they are to survive. Horses are a prey species that live with the
danger of being eaten by their predator enemies. They are programmed to be on
the lookout for danger and are always prepared to flee from it in an instant.
Inexperienced horsemen often fail to appreciate the extreme perceptivity of the
horse. Horses have an uncanny ability to detect sensory stimuli that are far too
vague for us to sense. We commonly interpret the flight reaction caused by the
stimuli as “stupidity.” Horses are incredibly aware of their surroundings, so
much so that people often misinterpret the horse’s reaction as “psychic” or the
result of a “sixth sense.” However, the responses, which elicit such opinions,
are caused by reactions to the same five senses we possess: sight, hearing,
smell, taste and touch. What is difficult for us to identify with is the
superiority of those senses in the horse and the swift flight reaction that a
stimulus to those senses can provoke.
3. The Secret of Response Time: The horse has the fastest response time
of any common domestic animal. “Response time” or “reaction time” is defined as
the ability to perceive stimuli and react to it. Prey species must have a faster
response time than a predator or they get eaten. The horse is such a large
animal that the speed of its response time is hard for us to comprehend. This
short response time is essential in a flighty creature. It isn’t enough to run
away. One must run away instantly and at high speed to survive.
4. The Secret of Rapid Desensitization: The horse is more quickly
desensitized to frightening stimuli than any other animal. Why is a
flight-oriented creature so quickly desensitized to frightening but harmless
stimuli? If this weren’t so, horses would spend all their time running and there
would be no time to eat, drink, rest, or reproduce. So horses, in nature, must
quickly learn to ignore basically frightening but harmless things such as
tumbleweeds, thunder, quail and other herbivorous prey species, such as bison,
antelope, or deer. Once they learn, they never forget.
5. The Secret of Learning: Not only do horses desensitize
faster than other domestic animals to frightening stimuli, but other kinds of
learning are obtained with similar speed. If a novel experience, such as the
first shoeing, the first trailer loading, the first saddling, the first worming,
the first experience of any kind is traumatic, the horse will henceforth fear
Conversely, if a novel experience is made
pleasurable and if comfort rather than discomfort ensues, the horse will
remember that and will be more accepting of such an experience in the future.
The reason that great trainers are able to obtain results with startling
swiftness, is due to the fact that they use technically appropriate behavior
shaping techniques in a species which is inherently able to learn with great
speed - a matter of survival in a prey creature which depends upon flight to
6. The Secret of Memory:
The horse’s memory is nearly infallible. Horses never forget anything!
Fortunately, horses forgive and were it not for that fact, a majority of
professional horse trainers could not make a living. Horses can and do survive
inept, improper and inhumane training methods. Many of them manage to become
satisfactory performers, although the information yielded by the relatively new
sciences of ethology (scientific study of animal behavior in their natural
surroundings) and behavior shaping show us that most of our traditional training
methods are inefficient and cumbersome.
The donkey and its hybrid offspring, the mule,
have as keen a memory as the horse, but unlike horses they do not forgive. Thus,
donkeys and mules are notoriously more challenging to train than horses. All
good mule trainers can train horses, but the reverse is not true. There is truth
in the old saying, “Mules must be trained the way horses should be
Horses categorize every learned experience in life
as something not to fear and, hence, to ignore; or something to fear and, hence,
to flee. This is extremely useful in the wild and utilizes the species’
phenomenal memory, but it often creates problems in domestic situations. If a
horse categorizes a harmless stimulus (such as an electric clipper, a piece of
plastic, a white cat, a flag, a tractor, or a veterinarian, etc.) as something
to run away from, it creates major problems to those of us who must handle it.
What horses experience creates lasting attitudes, especially if the horses are
young. It is incumbent upon those who must work with horses not to cause bad
experiences that the horse will forever regard as a reason to flee. This makes
it especially difficult for farmers and veterinarians because everything they do
is frightening and some things are painful.
It is, therefore, the owners’ responsibility to
desensitize (train) horses to accept such routine procedures as farriery,
veterinary examination including invasion of the body openings and basic
therapeutic procedures such as dentistry, intubation, and oral or eye
7. The Secret of Dominance Hierarchy: The horse is the most easily
dominated of all common domestic animals. It is a herd animal, subject to a
dominance hierarchy and because it is a flight animal, the horse needs
leadership to know when and where to run. In the wild, horses need leadership
and readily accept it. Even naturally dominant individual horses (which are the
exception in all animals that live in groups) can be dominated and rather
quickly if one knows how to do it. The methods by which this can be accomplished
most effectively are not natural to human beings. We must be taught.
8. The Secret of Control of Movement: The horse is the only common
domestic animal that exerts dominance and determines the hierarchy by
controlling the movement of its peers. It is understandable that in a species in
which the ability to run away means life or death, positional control is the way
in which leadership is established. Dominant horses make threatening movements
towards subordinate herd members. The submissive individual, yielding its space,
reaffirms the role of the dominant leader.
Control of movement is the basis of all horse
training disciplines. Horses accept our dominance when we cause them to move
when they’d prefer not to, or when we inhibit their movement. Thus, trainers use
many techniques to control flight in the horse. These techniques include round
pens, training rings, longe lines, driving lines, hobbles, lateral flexion of
the head and neck, vertical flexion of the head, lateral control of the hind
quarters, snubbing green colts to experienced horses and working them in harness
next to an experienced horse.
9. The Secret of Body Language: Each species signals subordination or
submissiveness with a body language instinctively understood by their own
species. Horses give subtle signals when they are willing to submit to any
domination. We must learn the body language of horses by experience or by
education. As we shall see, the body language, or signalment, of horses is
unique to the equine species. It is imperative that people handling horses learn
to read the body language of their charges.
10. The Secret of Precocity: The horse is a precocial species,
which means it is neurologically mature at birth. Commonly, the newborn of prey
species is precocial. For example newly hatched chicks, ducklings, goslings,
quail, grouse, newborn fawns, calves, lambs and foals are fully active soon
after birth. Unlike kittens, bear cubs, puppies or newly hatched owls or hawks,
all of which are predatory species and quite helpless at birth, the precocial
species must be quickly able to recognize danger and flee from it.
The imprinting period of the precocial species is
immediately postpartum, when they visualize and memorize what they see move and
want to follow and respect it (which in nature is usually the mother). This
helps them to stay with their dam and the herd and they are quickly imprinted to
do so. In species with delayed imprinting periods this occurs much later (six or
seven weeks in puppies, for example). These imprinting periods permit immediate
learning and permanent retention. The best time to teach horses, therefore, is
right after birth. Attitudes, temperament and reactions can be shaped in just a
few hours if we know how.
The book will cover each of the above subjects
in depth, and then describe how to solve behavior problems using this