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Alpha Natural Horsemanship

‘Ask with lightness, encourage without forcing, correct with softness’
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Equine Natural Survival Instincts


I truly believe in the necessity of understanding horse physiology and why horses do what they do.  It explains why horses act the way they do and provides the insight to use that knowledge to improve our horsemanship.  Before we can ever hope to understand and communicate with a horse, it is important to know the basic psychology that motivates a horse’s behavior in the first place.   First and foremost all wild and/or domesticated horses are born with Natural Survival Instincts; so it is difficult for humans to appreciate what it is like to be a horse and why they do what they do unless we know and understand these instincts! We can influence their training positively and distinguish them from learned behaviors. When we do not understand their natural survival instincts we can unwittingly avoid teaching our horse how to misbehave furthermore:

·         No horse can fulfill its potential unless its owner/trainer/rider understands the natural survival instincts.

·         No horse person will ever fulfill his or her potential without first understanding these instincts.

·         No person is safe working around horses without first understanding the ten traits. 

The amazing part about a horse is; if his human gets better, he gets sharper. So, the horse you are on---even if he is seemingly thick, disconnected and dull at that moment---is actually a master just under the surface. It is up to you to access that sensitivity that every horse was born with. Liberty training can help you take that next step, enabling your horse to go from waiting on you to communicating efficiently with you.


Although all equine are born with natural survival instincts horses vary a lot.  While horses all neigh for much the same reasons, some neigh more than others and all their neighs are different.  The roots of their survival instincts are the same but their training programs, routines, passions and fears vary.  The relative strength of their feelings and the way they cope differ from horse to horse and from time to time.  These desirable and/or undesirable personality trait differences shown at any point in the horse’s life are influenced by:

  • Genetic Hereditary Variation - it is difficult to estimate how important the genetic contribution to character is.  From birth a foal is heavily influenced by its mother’s attitude but isolating foals from birth would not make their ‘natural’ character emerge more strongly since it causes so much disruption to the development of identity and social behavior that it tends to produce abnormal animals. Horse breeders know that one family line tends to produce certain characteristics of temperament.   Some breeders state that the sire’s character has more influence than the dam’s and some studies show that aggressiveness to other horses and hard to catch follows the mother’s character.  Character type has been the subject of a good deal of work and some studies discovered that animals of different character type become fearful, anxious, irrational, overanxious and rational more or less easily.  The types of factor that are probably inherited are:  activity drive [strong hormonal influence] tendency to flight, nervousness, boldness and excitability.  Nervous horses tend to be thinner then placid ones, similar to humans.   Unhappy horses of whatever character type tend to lose weight also.  Eye position, as well as difference in visual activity, clearly influences a horse’s information about and to the world.  Coat color is an old saying; it is often stated that grey horses are more nervous, particularly at night; that chestnuts tend to be irritable, that blacks turn vicious more easily.   It is true disorders but how much to the preconceived prejudices of their trainers, cannot be distinguished; horses are so sensitive to the attitudes of their handlers that they are quite capable of providing good evidence for all sorts of subjective notions, true or imagined! 
  • Paste Experience – interacts with genetic make up to give the horse a kind of working plan for behavior.  Since genetic background varies, the effects of experience on character differ; thus severe handling will make a placid horse obedient, a nervous one terrified and excitable, a bold horse vicious, an experience that is traumatic and nerve shattering to one horse will be shrugged off by another.  As the effects of these experiences build they shape the horse’s attitude and also its future experiences.  It is a mistake however, to think that all a horse’s fears and upsets arise as a result of unpleasant experiences.  A horse’s innate sense of self protection leads it to be head shy naturally and a trained horse that is still head shy or protective about its ears has not necessarily been beaten about the head; it may well be that his protective feelings are particularly strong and that the extra care and patience necessary to habituate it to being handled have not been applied.
  • Present circumstances – Horses reveal different aspects of their characters according to how well their present conditions fulfill their needs and what suits one horse or even most horses, does not necessarily suit another.  Happy horses are merry and alert, even if they are naturally nervous, unhappy horses are unhappy in difference ways and for difference reasons according to their primary character type. When I visit and evaluate horses most horses are interested but some are irritable and troubled despite coming from closely related genetic stock.  Studies maintain that the owner’s character is evident from the behavior of their horses.  So I wonder whose character am I looking at?  Experience tells me that Undesirable Behaviors are created during past experience and present circumstances while handling, training and/or riding due to not understanding the Natural Survival Instincts every equine is born with!  Understanding these traits is paramount to understanding horse behavior and why they do what they do.  Each horse is different because they have different desirable and undesirable behavior traits linked to the instincts they are all born with; so we do an evaluation and use it to develop a horse specific training plans and implementation strategies!  We need to understand these instincts to understand our horse if we are to have a positive relationship. The following discuss each natural behavior instinct in detail and must use each to our advantage:

Fear/Flight or Fight

Although all the instincts are important; experience tells me perhaps the most important is the fear instinct, commonly referred to the fight-or-flight instinct. The horse in its wild state depends upon flight as its primary survival behavior. Most of the bad habits we deal with, such as being hard to catch, bucking, spooking, pulling, kicking, or barn sourness, are impulsive reactions rooted in the horse’s survival instinct.  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. Again and again I see horses placed in situations when no time has been spent nor training given to reduce their fear. People often get hurt because they did not take the time to build trust with the horse, or to familiarize the horse with surroundings, activities, and training methods. Your horse should always be comfortable with your presence before you train or ride (excluding careful halter training and early round pen or lunge line work in which your goal is to build that trust). This may mean confining the horse to a corral with repeated contact, giving treats (being careful never to lose respect), and whatever else it takes to get the horse comfortable being around you.  The fight-or-flight response arising from the fear instinct is “reactive,” an immediate action in response to a stimulus in the horse’s environment where every fraction of a second counts for survival. This is good for horses but bad for humans because, as the trainer or rider, we want the horse to think before it acts. We want a “response” to our pressures and cues, and when confronted with a situation on the trail we want the horse to act responsively, not react impulsively. The difference between responding and reacting is huge.  To understand horses, above all else, the natural instinct of this species to flee from real or imagined danger must be appreciated.  


Dominance and Herd Hierarchy

Horses don’t just prefer a strong leader and a herd dynamic; they crave and need them. Without them, they are frightened and lost. Imagine a herd of horses out in the wild. If you take one away from the others to a different side of the mountain, that horse doesn’t remark on the tall green grass and the nice “alone time.” Instead, he uses his first set of basic survival instincts to get back to his herd.  The horse 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) will accept us as its leader and rather quickly once we establish trust, respect and confidence we can gain leadership if we know how. Keep in mind that it is instinctive for horses to impose, bully, and fight for position on a daily basis. If you do not have position above the horse, your ability to earn controlled responses is about the same as a yearling trying to tell the dominant mare what to do.  The way to true enjoyment and be safe with horses is leadership.  Dealing with horses is a dangerous sport and no trainer or person can say that, with this technique or that technique, safety is guaranteed. But we can take steps to set ourselves up for success, including learning how to communicate and how to be the leader.  The risk with prey animals, like horses, exponentially increases when they don’t have the security of a good leader: When taken away from their home environment or away from their herd mates, it takes good horsemanship to help them become trusting and confident. A horse is not looking at the outfit you wear but what you can offer him to curb the prey-animal survival instincts. He is looking for someone to reassure him that he is safe and take care of him, leading him through any danger.  Leadership is the most essential ingredient to successfully playing with horses in close proximity: on the ground, under saddle or at liberty. Without structure and respect between you and your horse, any horse activity has heightened danger, including liberty. Leadership is the path to a strong relationships and communication is the big secret.  The premise of human leadership is that I want my horse to look at me in the same way he looks at and keeps track of his herd mates. My goal is to win his trust in me to make the right decisions.  I do this by recognizing/accepting the desirable traits it as to offer and using a progressive step by step strategy to fix the undesirable traits!  


Control of Movement

The feet of the horse are of paramount importance in the fight or flight response. Control the horses movement by directing the horse’s feet is the basis of all horse training disciplines. Horses accept our leadership when we cause them to move willingly when they'd prefer not to, or when we inhibit their movement. Thus, trainers use many techniques to direct the horses feet and suppress its flight. These techniques may include round pens, training halters, lunge lines, driving lines, hackamores, lateral flexion of the head and neck, vertical flexion of the head, lateral control of the fore/hind quarters, ponying/snubbing green colts to experienced horses and working them in harness next to an experienced horse.  When we use progressive step by step training plans; exercises, aids and cues to control the horse the head, neck, front shoulders, rib cage and hips to direct the horse feet and its movement we get to their minds!  This moves you up the hierarchy and gain leadership in the mind of the horse. We should never attempt to ride, pack, or do any advanced training until the horse moves freely and willingly upon request on the ground. This is easy enough to do in the round pen or on the lunge, and then in close quarters, with leading, stops, and starts. Controlling the horse’s forward, backward, and sideways movement adds to your position of leadership. The equine 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 equine 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 starting with the Foundation of ground training involving exercises that prepare the horse for mounted maneuvers to reduce and suppress flight in the horse. 

Body Language

Equine communicate with body language and express themselves with movement.  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 of horses is unique to the equine species. It is imperative that people handling horses learn to read the body language of their equine.  Learning to read our horse’s body Language gives us Insight to how our horse feels, how they relate to the world and more important how they perceive us.  Our horse’s language is based on its Emotional, Mental and Physical state as follows:

·         Curious or Perceptive

·         Submissive or Dominant

·         Confident or Fearful

·         Restless or Content

Horses are very perceptive; they will quickly learn to respond to our own body movements [if we remain calm on the inside and light on the outside] to direct their feet and it is my experience the results are more readily accepted than whips or training sticks with string.   The intensity of the feelings [inside softness/outside lightness read more] dictates the most probable action of the horse.  Knowing the intensity tells us what our response should be.  Sounds complicated?  It is not, in fact it is a very simple language.  Suppose we are doing ground work or riding and our horse is mildly curious with a tarp laying on the ground.  Chances are he will stare at it, lower his head and slowly walk to it, smell it and mildly walk on.  On the other hand, if our horse tenses up, stops and becomes overly nervous, blow out of his nose, stiffens his front legs at this point he is preparing to run off!  We need to visualize our energy connections and transfers; this is the result of managing our emotions and directing our force, as necessary!  We do this through postural, positional, gestural and expressive signaling of our intent to the horse. Sometimes this energy direction serves to “bring up life” in the horse; other times, it is a means of pacifying the horse, “reining in” the energy for movements that require enhanced and measured concentration.  When I am working with a horse that is excitable and nervous, I think “low energy” and re-create the feeling my body has felt before, like it does when I’m tired. My energy will drop in my body on the inside and not radiate away from me on the outside. The horse feels this lowering of the energy and is influenced by the lower energy emotion I am projecting. The horse will reflect what I do because reflection is what it does naturally in the herd. The individuals of the herd reflect the emotion and behaviors of the other herd members. By contrast, if I have a horse that is lazy or dull, I will bring my energy up using the same thought techniques. I think “high energy” and recreate the feeling my body has felt when I am happy or excited. My energy comes up in my body and radiates away from me in all directions. The energy flows faster from within with more energetic movements from the outside yet we must stay soft on the inside and light on the outside. This too influences the horse to reflect what I bring to the relationship and helps to increase its behavior to be more energetic.  Training horses has an optimum duration. “Get in, get out, get it done.” Training horses has also an optimum pace. “Like dancing move with, not against, the motion.”


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.  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 equine 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 starting with the Foundation of ground training involving exercises that prepare the horse for mounted maneuvers to control flight in the horse. These techniques include round pens, training rings, lunge lines, driving lines, hobbles, lateral flexion of the head and neck, vertical flexion of the head, lateral control of the hind quarters, ponying/snubbing green colts to experienced horses and working them in harness next to an experienced horse.  Here are examples of the five senses:

·         Smell—horses have an "excellent" sense of smell.

·         Hearing—"The horse's range of hearing is far beyond that of a human ear," he said. Additionally, he noted, the ears swivel, giving the horse the ability to pinpoint where sounds originate. This was critical for survival in the wild.

·         Touch—"A horse's sense of touch is extremely delicate, which is why an ill-placed saddle pad or a single fly can cause extreme irritation. "The sense we have in our fingertips is what the horse has all over his body."

·         Taste—Ever tried to sneak Bute or a new supplement into a horse's feed, only to have him turn up his nose? Horses have a very tactful sense of taste. When grazing in the wild, it's important for horses to differentiate between good grass and moldy forage.

·         Sight—The sense that varies most from ours is the horse's eyesight. While horses’ depth perception isn't particularly strong, other factors enable them to "see things we're not even aware of,". The horse's laterally placed eyes allow for nearly 360° vision, a crucial survival mechanism for the wild equine.   Additionally, please note the horse has superb night vision and sees in muted, pastel colors during the day. The equine focusing system is also different from humans, he said. When a human eye transitions from focusing on close-up objects to far away objects, it takes one and a half to two seconds to adjust try it—look at something close up and then look at something far away, and try to focus on how long it takes the eyes to focus. Horses, on the other hand, make the transition seamlessly. This is because different parts of the eye have different focusing capabilities. Horses use the top portion of their eyes to see up close, which is why they often lower their heads when investigating something. The lower portion of the eye sees far away, which is why the animal will raise his head when looking at something in the distance; when the horse holds his head up high, he's considered to be in the flight position.

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, sometimes it must run away instantly and at high speed to survive.


 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 completely forget.



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 that procedure.  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 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 survive.



The equine’s memory is nearly infallible.  Arabs and Mules nearly never forgive if we mistreat them; mules in particularly if we make a mistake training can be difficult to retrain.  Depending on the severity of trauma we can not erase it but we can suppress it.  Fortunately, most 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 ethnology (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.  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 Ferrier, veterinary examination including invasion of the body openings and basic therapeutic procedures such as dentistry and oral or eye medication.


Please Note: 

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 because if you don’t train them right the first time they will be next to impossible to retrain.  Although horse are more forgiving if you don’t train them right the first time it will be at least four times more difficult to retrain.  All good mule trainers can train horses, but the reverse is not necessarily true. Speaking from experience; I believe in the old saying, “Horses should be trained the way Mules are trained.”