Whether you are handling a horse from the ground, or from the saddle, it’s a big help to have some understanding of basic horse psychology. This makes it easier to predict how your horse may react in certain circumstances, and how he might respond in his interactions with you.
Always remember, a horse does not think like a human.
He doesn’t process ideas in the same way, and his priorities are different than yours or mine.
To understand equine behaviour, you should first study how horses relate to one another in a natural situation, i.e. in the wild, and not in the artificial environment of enclosed fields.
Basic Herd Structure
The most fundamental natural drives (instincts) have a huge impact on how horses respond to us, and our attempts to train them.
- Horses are herd animals; they always feel more comfortable in company
- Horses are prey animals; everything might be out to eat them
Starting with those principles in mind, let’s look at basic herd structure.
In the wild, horses live in large herds with a clearly defined hierarchical structure. Contrary to popular belief, the herd is not led by the stallion, but by the dominant, or lead, mare. She leads the herd between grazing grounds, while the herd stallion drives from behind, keeping all his wives together and seeing off other stallions seeking to steal his mares.
Aside from these two, hierarchy within the herd is determined by position and attention, and not, as used to be believed, by aggression (‘pecking order’), which is nearer to what we see in the artificial situation of small fields with limited food availability.
The nearer to the centre of the herd, the safer the horse is from predators. The ones on the outside are most likely to be eaten. Gaining a safer, inside space, is achieved by either moving in when a previously more dominant horse loses attention, or by jostling – shoving the weaker-willed horses to the outside of the herd, using their large shoulders.
Head height denotes dominance – the more dominant the animal, the higher the head carriage.
The dominant horses in a herd have responsibility for keeping watch for predators, so their heads are held high for a clear view. Submissive horses are confident to allow their dominant fellows to watch for threats, so their heads are down, grazing.
To relate this to horse training, gaining a cooperative and safe equine partner means two major things:
- You need their attention
- You must gain control of their shoulders. Not their heads – their shoulders.
Take a look at a dressage test sheet. At the bottom, under the collective marks, you will find ‘Submission’. What is the first word in the description of submission? Attention. It’s that important – it is the first component of submission.
So, how do we gain a horse’s attention?
This is, of course, largely a training issue, although on perhaps more levels than you might realise.
How often do you hear people complain that their horse ‘has the attention span of a gnat’?
I hear it rather too often, I’m afraid, and almost certainly these riders do not understand the reasons behind this apparently stubborn inattention.
Aside from individual strength of character, let’s consider four training components that affect a horse’s attention:
One of the most distressing things to a horse, is to be out of balance.
Because the unbalanced horse is in danger of falling over and getting eaten.
The moment a rider sits on a horse, he compromises the animal’s natural balance. We sit towards the front of the horse, overloading that end and making him more likely to stumble, possibly fall, and guess what? Get eaten!
Training a horse to carry the rider in a balanced, biomechanically functional manner (what we call an ‘outline’ – more below), is the only way to address this situation, and is limited by how fast an individual horse learns, and by the development of the muscles needed to cope with this artificial situation.
It also demands a rider be balanced in the saddle – for more novice riders, gaining a truly balanced position should be a priority, because of the impact an unbalanced rider can have on his horse’s anxiety levels.
An unbalanced horse will always be outwardly focussed, watching for danger (predators), and give the impression he has that ‘attention span of a gnat’.
Only when a horse feels confident in his balance – with a rider on board – will he be able to pay full attention to its rider.
A horse must have confidence in his rider, and be willing to permit his rider to keep an eye out for danger, rather than looking for it himself, which manifests as inattention.
Confidence is gained by never asking a horse to do
- something he is not physically capable of doing, or
- does not understand.
Either of these things will make a horse anxious, and therefore inattentive. Training must address both his physical capability and his understanding in a logical, progressive manner that goes at the pace that individual learns at, i.e. training cannot be rushed just because a rider wishes it so.
Here we need to touch a little on the process of how a horse learns.
Horses learn by memory; they do not synthesise ideas.
A horse does not spend time thinking. His only occupations are eating, fleeing from predators, and breeding at the appropriate season.
This must be taken into account when training: only if the trainer/rider is 100% consistent in how they interact with the horse, will training be fast and successful.
If, for example, you teach your horse to go in a particular way one day, then the next you are too tired to be bothered, you have only a 50:50 chance of the lesson sticking. It’s a numbers game. Horses have excellent memories, so if you are not consistent, their response won’t be either.
If you are less than consistent, his memory will tell him he doesn’t need to pay attention to you, because you don’t always mean the same thing.
This is why purchasing a well-trained horse doesn’t always work for the amateur/inexperienced rider. For one thing, the horse is used to consistent signals from his trainer, and can become confused by the erratic movements of the less experienced rider, causing anxiety and, guess what? Distracted and unpredictable behaviour. For another, that excellent training may well begin to unravel as the new rider’s demands do not conform to the consistency of the professional.
A functional outline also addresses another aspect of submission. Whilst its foremost importance is in training a horse to carry his rider without damaging his body, it also addresses that aspect of submission that relates to head carriage.
We talk about a ‘functional’ outline, because the specifics vary between different end goals for your horse. For example, a horse used for long distance riding, hacking, or Western riding, will be functional with a longer outline and lower neck carriage than a Grand Prix dressage horse or a show jumper. These higher frames are the end product of long-term physical training, not of merely shaping the neck using the reins, or gadgets.
The important components in a healthy, functional outline are:
- an arched and lowered neck frame which is key to
- engaged core muscles that
- lift and round the back, and
- tilt the pelvis so the hind legs are bought forward underneath the body.
Teaching your horse to lower his head and neck (seek the bit) is your starting point, and impacts his attention by encouraging a submissive (head down) posture.
Shoulder control, and consequently steering, is both a matter of training, and of riding technique. While it seems counter-intuitive, the rein on the outside of the turn must be the dominant one.
A horse’s neck is very bendy. Not so much the rest of his body. Turning the neck does not turn the body. Conversely, keeping the neck fairly straight makes it more possible to turn the entire unit. This is done by pressing the outside rein against the horse’s neck.
Riding in a counter bend will also demonstrate the influence of the outside rein in turning the horse’s shoulders: although he will be looking to the outside, his shoulders will travel along the line/circle you desire. This also confirms that turning the neck does not turn the horse in the direction his head is pointing.
Gaining control of the shoulders gives you the ability to position the horse however you want: circles without falling in or out, keeping his body genuinely straight, and all the lateral movements. Once you master the skill set necessary to this level of control, you can expect your horse to pay full attention to your requests because you will have achieved the dominant position in the partnership – not by aggression, but by working with his nature.
Whilst it is certainly possible to ride, and to learn to train a horse, without this understanding, a decent working comprehension of how your horse views the world (and you!) will make you a more efficient, and a more empathetic partner.
When we talk about submission to a rider, the most desirable result is that sublime cooperation where communication is so subtle, horse and rider appear to be one creature.
To quote the FEI handbook:
“Submission does not mean subordination but an obedience revealing its presence in the horse by its constant attention, willingness and confidence.”
This is only possible if the horse trusts his rider to be the one responsible for watching for threats (i.e. the dominant one), and this can never be achieved by force, only by patience and working with your horse’s nature.