Let’s first define what horse psychology is. It is the scientific study of the horse’s mind and its functions. Encompassing the mental characteristics or attitude of the species.
This field of study is growing so we may discover better ways to communicate and care for them. The best way to understand any animal is not through domesticated study but through field studies in the animal’s natural environment. It is in the wild where horse psychology has given birth to new concepts of understanding.
To best understand horse psychology it is best to first understand herd behavior. Horses are a herd animal and of the flight kind. They also live by a pecking order or hierarchy social order. Their first instinct to danger is to run or flee. If they are unable to run they will fight. Cows however, even though they are a herd animal, will bunch together for safety first before choosing to flee. Rapid movement is what sets off both kinds of herd animals.
Herd animals are also placed in the category of “prey” animal. A prey species means that it is killed and eaten by predator animals such as lions, wolves (or people). So our challenge would be to not act like a predator and instead demonstrate language that does not bring about the dominant emotion of FEAR while also respecting their need for a pecking order structure.
Horse Psychology In Action
I am often asked, if my horse is always at the bottom of the pecking order with other horses, won’t he/she be the same with me? The answer in horse psychology terms is, have you proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that you are the strongest, fastest and most brave when faced with perceived danger? Do you show your horse that you are the best leader that he can follow? Keeping him safe, comfortable and loved? Or does he get glimpses of inconsistent behavior? Sometimes you lead, other times you follow?
A good indicator of needing to apply more horse psychology strategy would be if your horse often tries to bite or push into you. They would never try to do these things to their leader, that would be too disrespectful and the consequence would be severe.
We must ask ourselves these questions whenever we handle our horses in order to apply horse psychology.
Here are some anecdotes using the horses perspective to explore horse psychology further.
"I HERD IT THROUGH THE GRAPEVINE”
There I was in the field with my herd mates and I had to chuckle. At first I didn’t know what they were talking about, since I thought we decided our pecking order already. It went like this: there was my Mom and she was #1, then there was me #2, my buddy close at hand #3. This is how our horse psychology works.
We asked the same question throughout the day, ”Who is the strongest, fastest most brave to lead us?” So far it always ended the same as the above. I would challenge my Mom who always assured me she was leader, then my buddy would ask and I would need to remind him that I was a better leader than he, and that’s the conclusion day after day.
Except this one day. My buddy #3 motioned with a head toss and tail swish, LOOK don’t you see, here comes #4!
I looked over to see if a four legged creature like us was arriving, but what I saw instead was a two legged one. Looked like a predator of some kind. My Mom didn’t motion at all yet my buddy was loudly saying, ”Oh good finally someone below me that I know isn’t as strong a leader as I”.
Was this YOU?
“A DAY IN MY PASTURE”
Welcome to my herd. I live in a pasture with 2 others. We have an orderly life that has worked for us for thousands of years. We give each other no names just positions where we instinctively know where we fit in.
I am #3 my closest companion is #2 but we both look to #1 for our safety. We are concerned only with survival for we live in the NOW, never in the past nor do we fret about the future.
It was decided that #1 will lead because she has the qualities of a great leader. In horse psychology only the bravest leader will do. This is necessary for my survival so I will go anywhere and do whatever #1 asks of me because I trust and respect her. She has proven this time and time again. Sometimes she can be very firm with us when we challenge her leadership but she is always fair and we never get insulted or hold grudges.
We always keep a close eye on her every move. If she senses danger & runs we will act too, never without question or reservations. When she is calm the rest of us are calm as well. So far she seems to always know what’s right.
#1 often reminds us that she is the leader, sometimes several times a day. This raises our confidence and assures us that she is the most capable. Even when #2 sometimes tests her authority.
There was this one day though that #1 was not feeling well and this two legged creature (looked like a predator to me) came in and took her away. We wasted no time determining who would lead in her absence since this was about our herd’s survival. We simply must have a leader, it is the strongest rule in a herd environment. There is safety in numbers. The scariest place to be is when you are sent away from the herd and are alone.(There was this one time I was put in a square box by myself and there was not one of my own with me. Boy, was that frightening! I am after all claustrophobic by nature). Being alone often means you are defenseless against predators. And we all know that predators kill and eat us!
Let me tell you what a predator looks like to me. Their eyes are on the front of their face. They stare directly at what they want. They smell like what they eat (meat) and they walk in straight lines, focused only on what they are looking at. I find this unsettling. For we prey animals have eyes on the side of our faces (so we can see almost all around us at the same time looking for danger). We walk in arcs (to use this vision at all times to see more clearly all around) and focus on many things at once. And of course prey animals smell much different.
Oh, I almost forgot, these predators also make a lot of vocal noises. If you are not sure what I mean just ask yourself, would you like to live next to a dog kennel or a horse farm? The noise level is much different.
We prey animals prefer to use our bodies to communicate. Like sign language I can communicate all I need to say with my body parts.
I have tried over & over to read this body language from some predators I have met but I always get mixed messages. Their vocal noises and their bodies almost always contradict one another and I get confused. I wish they would learn my language since I know I am not going to be able to learn that those languages they call English/German/Italian/French/Japanese- there are just too many!
So, back to my pasture. We live by a few guidelines that must come in an order for our lives to be harmonious. It goes like this:
First: Safety - boy, if I don’t feel safe I will become emotionally scattered. My flight or fight instinct kicks in.
Second: Comfort - I will seek comfort with my herd mates and enjoy a relaxed environment because I must save my energy in case of danger. Something can jump out from a bush at any time and eat me! Comfort & discomfort are what motivates and shapes my behavior.
Third: Play - I am a very social animal. I like to kick, strike, bite and chase. It’s fun!
Fourth: Food - I like food and prefer to munch all day long. My stomach is small but I need a lot to keep me going. I will not eat if I do not feel safe.
If you would like to know more about my life, I have met another #1. We call her #1 but I hear other predators call her Elaine Polny. I hope to meet more like her. I am told that she works at a place called Horses by Nature (www.training-horses-naturally.com) and can be contacted by phone at (905) 936-1032 or
She teaches other predators how to communicate using horse psychology, body language and other natural horsemanship and clicker training techniques.
Oh, I almost forgot, she also educates other horse owners about the Barefoot Trim. It’s the way I like my hooves trimmed because shoes do so much damage to my feet over time.