Why Are Horses So Spooky?

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Question:

Why are horses so spooky?

Answer:

Before we can ever hope to understand, let alone control the movement of a horse, it is important to know the various behaviors that motivate a horse to move in the first place. Being a prey animal means the horse’s first reaction to danger is to run, hell bent for leather, away from the perceived threat. React first, think later.

Everyone knows that horses are flight animals; in fact, horses are the very definition of flighty and depend on this behavior for survival. What is often misunderstood about horses is, how deep the flight response goes in a horse’s nature and that every movement a horse is capable of and every step he takes has some significance. Everything about the horse is linked to its flight response. Crazy as it sounds, even their laziness is related to the flight response. By nature horses are generally lazy, for the sole purpose of preserving energy in case it is needed in flight. In the current trend of natural horsemanship, far too much is sometimes made of the predator-prey relationship, since horses, after all, have been domesticated for thousands of years and don’t really think of humans as carnivorous predators. However, it is important to understand that the prey instinct is the origin of the horse’s behavior as we know it today and it is what motivates their movement.

Horses are herd animals, again related to prey-dom, meaning their survival is dependent on the herd. There are safety in numbers. Herd behavior is another important motivating factor for a horse and is present in our everyday dealings with horses, more so than is often recognized. Again, every movement a horse makes has meaning and when given a choice, the horse will always move toward the protection of the herd. These are fundamental and deep layers of horse behavior and the subject could fill many volumes, but the one thing we can deal with here, is to develop an understanding of how we can control the movements of a horse in our presence.

The first thing to understand is that the horse feels safer when he is moving his feet, and the more nervous or uncertain he gets, the more he wants to move his feet. Yet there is nothing a horse likes better than to feel protected enough that he can snooze, standing or prone, knowing that the herd leader is watching out for his safety. The herd leader, a/k/a boss mare, is responsible for the safety of the herd and with a second’s notice, must be able to motivate the entire herd to flight. She earns the respect, admiration, obedience and, most importantly, attentiveness of the herd by dominating every move they make and by controlling the resources of the herd (you’ll recognize the boss mare easily, she’s the one standing in front of the water trough, playing in the fresh clean water and slowly sipping until she is satiated, while the rest of the herd stands in line, thirsty but patient, awaiting their turn in the pecking order). The boss mare controls the actions of each herd member through her body language. When her head is down in the grass and she is quietly munching, her herd mates will be relaxed. When her head comes up, ears prick forward and her muscles tighten, the rest of the herd knows to prepare for flight. They will follow her anywhere on her signal.

Just to make sure the horses all pay attention to her in times of stress, the boss mare will periodically push the herd individuals around a little so that they are in the habit of responding to her. When she directs her gaze at an individual flattens her ears and takes a step toward him, the subordinate horse knows to immediately move away. If they don’t respond quickly enough, she might leave some teeth marks on his rear end. Subordinate herd mates will quickly learn to watch the body language of their leader at all times and to respond without question to her movements.

Wouldn’t it be nice to have that kind of relationship with your horse? If you have the opportunity to observe a herd, you will learn to recognize the subtle communications that constantly occur. For instance, a frightened horse will elevate his head, tense his ears, stiffen his tail and hold his breath; all of these actions communicate an outside threat to the other horses and they will instantly act the same way and look in the same direction. A relaxed and safe horse will lower his head (the lower it goes the more relaxed he is), relax his ears, lick his lips, chew, drop his tail and take a deep sigh.

Horses communicate with their body language, with the head position, ear position, facial expressions, feet, tail, mouth and nose. Horses receive communication from us in the same way, whether we know it or not. The desired relationship between horse and human is that of a herd of two. According to the laws of the herd (the only rules horses really understand) the hierarchy is linear, meaning each and every individual of the herd is either dominate over or subordinate to each and every other individual. In your herd of two, your choice is clear: you must be the dominant member, the alpha individual, the “boss mare.” You must earn this respect, admiration and obedience by controlling the space of your horse and the “resources” of your herd (if your horse is frisking you for treats, HE is controlling the resources).

The first step in controlling your horse’s movement is to control your own body language. Your horse will notice your posture, eye contact, your foot movements, the elevation of your shoulders, the tone of your voice and the rhythm of your breathing. Be aware of the actions on your part and know that you are constantly communicating with your horse through your body language.

If your horse takes a step toward you and you back away, you have just told him he is in charge. If you get scared, tense your muscles and hold your breath, your horse will mirror your actions and instantly become frightened. All horses, no matter how high in the hierarchy, will gratefully accept the leadership of another individual, as long as the leader has demonstrated their commitment to controlling and protecting the herd.

For a horse to accept a human as leader, that human must be able to control the horse’s space and must never betray his trust by causing him fear or pain. Once they have accepted the individual (horse or human) as leader, they will be relaxed, compliant, obedient and happy. In natural horsemanship, we use ground work (round pen and lead-line) to control the horse’s space so that he becomes subordinate.

Beyond just controlling his space, we learn to communicate with the horse through our body language, to develop a strong bond and trust between leader and follower. The horse must be treated firmly but with kindness and above all, your interactions with the horse must be consistent so that he can learn to trust them. This kind of relationship with the horse is the ideal, but one that many horsemen find illusive.

To have a horse that is happy, respectful and obedient, who willingly does whatever you ask and responds to your most subtle cues, you must first become his leader and earn his respect. Learn to control your horse’s space and communicate with your own body language in a way that he understands, and you will not only earn his respect, but admiration as well.

–Julie Goodnight, Clinician and Trainer

Dominated Horse

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Dear Julie,
I have a 13-year-old Paint Horse mare who is very dominant. She came to my barn as a two year old and I already had an18-year-old gelding and a 4-year-old mare. In just a few days, she was the Alpha.
Her ground manners with me are quite nice, but the problem seems to be related to her strong response to outside stimuli, whether it is a horse or something else. This is particularly a problem when I am trail riding—as her attention is quickly diverted. Generally, I will begin to do leg yields or ask for something that I know I can get, but occasionally she catches me off guard.
Additionally, if she doesn’t want to do something, she just stops. I ask once, tell once, and then use a crop or spurs. Her response is bucking and head tossing, but then she moves on. Everyone knows to clear out when she stops, as the scenario unfolds about the same each time. Her teeth have been checked and she doesn’t appear to be saddle sore. Could you share your thoughts with me?
Thank you so much for your time.
Dominated No More
Dear Dominated,
If you’re certain you have ruled out any physical issues in your mare, then you have to look to training.
As for getting and keeping your horse’s attention, here’s what I suggest. Even though you say her ground manners are good, I would work her on the ground first, in the easiest location, then in any environment where you have trouble keeping her attention. I would work very doggedly on two issues: 1) don’t move your feet unless I tell you to, and 2) keep your nose in front of your chest at any time you’re in my presence.
Controlling the feet and the nose are very critical for keeping your horse’s focus and obedience, especially from the saddle. But you must have complete control of the nose, shoulder, hip and feet from the ground first.
Most people think they can control the feet and the nose but when you get to it, the horse is in total control of when and where he moves his nose and feet. There are numerous articles about this type of lead line work in the Training Library on my website so I’ll let you read about it there. I also have a video called Lead Line Leadership that shows a series of exercises you can do from the ground with any horse to gain respect, focus and obedience from your horse.
Secondly, I would begin to reinforce the “nose” rule when I am riding. Any horse I ride, I don’t care the age or training, is expected to keep his nose in front of his chest while I am riding. I do not let them be “looky-lous” or vary the track on which they are moving. A simple correction with the opposite rein (if he is looking right, use the left rein) is all it takes. In about thirty seconds to a minute, I can teach the horse this rule. The problem most people have in correcting is the technique and the timing; in fact, those two words cover any and all horse and rider problems. To correct the nose properly, you have to use perfect technique and perfect timing.
Technique: you must bump lightly UP on ONE rein. Ninety-eight percent of riders will pull back instead of bump or flick up on the rein. Seventy-five percent of riders pull rather than bump, and with both reins. You want to bump lightly and smoothly (not jerking) with your thumb pointed up and out, so that your wrist twists open. Bump exactly in this manner (not pulling back) until the horse brings his nose to your hand.
Timing: you must release sooner rather than later. You must release when the horse first makes an effort and then ask again for just a tiny bit more and release. The horse is focused on the release and if it doesn’t come immediately, he will stiffen and resist. Apply the correction 100% of the time; this takes a lot of concentration but once your horse learns the rule (keep your nose in front of your chest) he will comply. But first he must know you will correct him, gently but relentlessly, before he will comply (this is true of all things with horses, they must know you’re committed before they are obedient).
Before you loose control of your horse, you lose his nose position. Enforcing the nose rule, is keeping your horse’s focus on the task at hand and what you have asked her to do. This requires concentration and persistence on your part too. I would either put my horse to work or disengage his hindquarters every time her attention wanders (which is obvious by his ears and nose position). Put him to work by just asking him to do something (stop, go, turn, backup, circle, trot a circle, walk-trot-walk transitions, etc.). When she is compliant, let her relax and as soon as her attention wanders, put her back to work. All you have to do is create an association between her actions (losing focus on you) and having to work harder.
There are many articles on my website about disengagement and why and how you do it. I would start with making small turns R-L-R-L in a random pattern. Every time I change the direction of my horse’s nose and shoulder, I am gaining more control and keeping her neck relaxed and moving side to side. I am also bending her whole body, moving her feet and disengaging the hindquarters. As she relaxes and focuses on me, I let her go straight; horses get tired of circling and turning quickly, so she will look for what gets her the release. Again, timing and technique determine the success.
Technique: Make random turns in both directions using your whole body to turn, starting with your eyes, making sure both hands point in the direction you want your horse to turn, not pulling back on the reins, but to the side and up with the inside hand. (see articles on equitation and rein aids in my Training Library). Your hands would be applying the leading rein (inside) and the neck rein (outside). Never turn a horse quickly or ask him to do something in anger. Your leg aids must reinforce the rein aids and control the horse’s barrel too (the reins control the nose but the rein and legs control the shoulder and the body of the horse).
Timing: Always cue the horse slowly to turn so that he might possibly have time to move his head before the pull comes on his mouth. When your horse’s attention wanders, do not rush to the correction, but slowly and methodically ask the horse to do something. Ask him to perform his paces in a perfunctory manner, not in a punishing manner.
When the horse balks on you, you simply need to move his feet. But do not try to kick or spur him into action, that will almost always lead your horse to explode because his feet are stuck in one place and you have lost control. Pulling his nose to the side and disengaging his hindquarters will un-stick his feet, then you can move right into changes of direction and controlling the horse’s nose. If need be, turn him in the direction he wants to go to get his feet unstuck but immediately turn his nose the other way. If this horse is obedient to your legs at other times but suddenly “pulls up” (suddenly bulks and refuses to move forward) on you, kicking her or spurring her more will not necessarily help and may cause a burst of movement from your horse. Bending and disengaging will un-stick the feet with less drama. So when she plants her feet, rather than get in a big fight over asking her to move her feet, ask her something different: flex, bend, disengage, leg yield, etc. Ask, release. Ask, release. Ask something else.
That’s what I would do with a horse whose attention is wandering and leading her to be non-responsive and disobedient. Good luck and be careful!
Julie Goodnight