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Understand Horse Behavior Basics

 

Horses need leadership.

Without it, they develop behavior issues ie: they become insecure, spook, herd-bound etc...  It is up to you to convince the horse that you are his herd and his leader.  Spookiness can instinctually manifest itself as “flight or fight” behavior particularly when you start exposing your horse to unfamiliar things by putting them in strange environments. In addition to environmental exposures, you should plan on working with your horse on the ground to continue his exposures and experience. Before starting “in hand” work spook-proofing your horse, it is important to understand how a horse’s mind works. Then, using this knowledge, you will be able to choose how to approach each horse in a way that will help him to be confident and calm.

 

Horses are instinctively herd bound

In addition to having a natural “flight or fight” tendency, the horse is instinctively herd-bound. In the wild, horses live and move in groups and their safety and survival depends on co-existence within a herd. They graze together, go to the watering hole and drink together, and run from danger together. The stragglers (the young, lame or injured) that get separated from the herd, are vulnerable to attack from predators such as wolves or mountain lions, and usually don’t survive long.  Horses sense this, and so the herd takes on an exaggerated importance to the horse, one that can mean the difference between life and death.

 

Horses cooperate with each other

Horses as social animals tend to cooperate with each other. Each herd has a strong social hierarchy. Horses are totally reliant on their leader, and they fall into place within the herd based on their rank. Each horse’s behavior is determined by how he/she ranks within the herd. Rank plays such a big role in horse behavior, that at the watering hole, the horses will line up in order of rank, and wait to take their turn to drink.  Some people think that a stallion is the leader of the herd, but the stallion’s job is mostly breeding, protecting his herd from other stallions and predators. The stallion will also chase away the young colts when they are old enough to breed, and will sometimes baby-sit and play with the young. The role of leadership, as far as day-to-day survival; (where to eat, when to go to the watering hole, etc.) usually falls on a mare.  In a sense, the stallion and highest ranked mare co- lead, each with defined duties of their own.

 

Leadership to a horse is absolute

A horse’s respect for his leader is absolute, but that leadership is constantly challenged anyway. This is nature’s way of preparing for a replacement should something happen to the one in charge. The leader must earn the right to leadership, and must have enough strength to sustain it. If the leader falters, due to lack of strength or for any reason, the second ranking horse will automatically take over. The other horses will know this and readily accept the change in leadership without any confusion at all.  So how does this instinctive behavior affect you and your relationship with your horse?  Let’s start by examining what happens when you take a horse away from his herd. 

 

Horses that are of Higher Rankare confident horses that have natural leadership tendencies away from its herd, s/he may not become overly anxious, but s/he will step into a leadership role and start making choices for itself. S/he may feel the handler is irrelevant and ignore her/him. After all, s/he’s thinking in a herd mentality, and since its herd leader isn’t present, s/he’s got to take charge of itself.  As the leader, the horse’s behavior will change and s/he may:

 

  • Start pulling against you when you lead her/him. S/he will feel like s/he needs to guard her/himself, becoming tense and keeping its head elevated and nostrils flared to sense what’s going on around her/him.
  • Become restless when contained, and may have trouble standing still when tied.
  • Refuse to pick up her/his feet, unwilling to compromise her/his ability to run.
  • When ridden reluctant to focus on her/his work, staying alert and watching out for any perceived danger.
  • Stop going forward, changing gaits even refuse backing up
  • Become distracted to the point of tripping as s/he moves, since a/he isn’t watching where s/he is going.
  • Become spooky about things that don’t normally affect her/him.
  • Refuse to load in a trailer
  • Buck, rear and even bolt

 

A horse that is lower in rank, when removed from the herd, will develop even more anxiety and difficult behavior. Without the confidence needed to lead himself, his main concern will be to find a herd, any herd, as long as it means he doesn’t have to make choices for himself. In some cases when separated from other horses, he may break ties, and weave, paw, buck or kick in his stall. He may whinny loudly calling for help, knocking into you with his head as he frantically looks from one direction to another. When ridden, the horse may refuse to leave his herd-mates, or the barn area, and may rear, spin or buck to avoid doing so. In either case, a horse that finds himself without a leader can become extremely difficult to handle and ride.

 

Horses need to be trained!

Even though a horse has strong herd tendencies and fight or flight instincts, he can be conditioned and trained to behave in a controlled manner. But, for the horse to overcome these instinctive responses, he well need to feel secure in his relationship with you, and will need to learn to respect you as his leader. And, just like the equine herd leader needs to earn his right to leadership, you too will have to earn the right to become your horse’s leader. As your horse’s leader you will need to:

 

  • Be educated on “Establishing Leadership starting on the Ground”
  • Take the responsibility of making decisions
  • Lead down the right path
  • Communicate expectations clearly
  • Teach patiently on the ground and in the saddle
  • Set and enforce boundaries and rules of behavior
  • Build a positive relationship
  • Offer praise, rewards and incentive

 

Horses need ongoing Leadership

When you stop to think about it, it’s actually quite a big job and responsibility to be a leader in any capacity. Yes, I did say job- and jobs do involve work! And you thought that horses were supposed to be relaxing and fun! Well, they can be, but only when they are safe to handle-which is the end result of hard work.  A lot of people feel that once a horse is trained properly he will be calm and safe for anyone to ride and handle. But even a horse that is professionally trained still needs to have ongoing leadership and proper handling to retain his conditioned behavior. If handled incorrectly, over time, a trained horse’s behavior can regress to a fairly untrained state.

 

Confidence is important!

A horse ridden by a skilled and confident rider may seem confident and calm, but when ridden by a fearful person, the same horse can loose his confidence and seems to forget his training. The horse’s confidence doesn’t originate from the training process only, but also from the feeling the rider gives the horse. The horse can tell when the rider takes charge, when he’s brave and sure, and he will respond to that rider with confidence. The horse can also tell when the rider is fearful or unsure, and will respond accordingly, with insecurity and reluctance. The horse responds to whatever feeling he gets from the person that is handling him.  "If a horse fails to do something that is because he was not trained to do it.  If a horse fails to do something properly that is because he was not trained proper and/or the rider was not trained properly!”."

 

Offer correct leadership on the ground and in the saddle

Before a horse can be trained to respect you and trust you as a leader, you will have to offer him correct leadership starting on the ground and in the saddle that is easy to understand. It your leadership is appropriate and strong, the horse will be respectful and controlled. If the leadership offered is weak and confusing, the horse will start filling in for you, and take control. A kind and mannerly horse that has had consistent training and handling may fill in for you in a positive way, but an evasive horse, or one that hasn’t had any consistency, may take over in a negative manner becoming dangerous to handle or ride.  Regardless of how much training your horse has had the key to his behavior rests in how you handle him on a routine basis. This puts the burden of the responsibility on you and how you handle your horse! To override your horse’s natural flight or fight instinct and herd-bound tendency, you must become his herd and leader, and earn his trust and respect. And, if you want your horse to behave with consistency, then you will need to be consistent as his leader, enforcing the same rules, the same way, all the time.

 

Horse will challenge your leadership

Keep in mind that horses are hard-wired to challenge their leader and at some point, your horse will challenge you.  He may do it in a small way that would be easy to miss. You must stay aware of every small disobedience and test of authority and act on it immediately.  If not checked, the challenge will increase. Whenever you are challenged, immediately re-assert yourself as the leader. Don’t let these challenges discourage you, and keep in mind that the more consistent you are with correct handling, the less you will be challenged.  The amount of difficulty and challenge the horse will give you in regard to spooking, anxious behavior and being herd-bound will be partly determined by the horse’s previous experiences. A horse that has worked with a variety of people that have consistently offered good leadership and correct handling and training, will be more willing to accepting leadership from anyone. The horse has learned that people are the leaders and are to be trusted and respected.

 

Horses handled by many people

In contrast, if a horse has been handled by many people who haven’t learned to establish leadership, each using different methods and rules, (some not having any rules), the horse will learn that he can challenge us and take control most of the time. It is much harder to influence a horse like this with an inconsistent background to accept our leadership, although with time, it is possible. Once we convince the horse he should follow our lead, the likelihood of challenge still exists, as he will fall back on his memories of taking control. He will have to be reminded over and over who is in charge. A horse like this may learn to accept you as his leader, but will still challenge every other person that handles him to determine who’s in charge.

 

Some horses are more suited to be leaders then others, and the same holds true for people. Some people find leadership enjoyable and thrive in it, and others find it difficult and stressful. To have a successful relationship with a horse, it is important to recognize in yourself your capacity for leadership and to select a horse that will compliment your natural personality and ability. If you are uncomfortable with leadership, then the horse described in the first example, one that has learned to consistently respect people as leaders would be more suitable for you. Selecting a horse that is lower ranking and more submissive will also makes it easier for you to be successful. If you are comfortable taking charge and deal well with challenges, then you might be compatible with the type of horse described in the second example, or a bolder, high ranking horse.

 

Will having a well trained horse solve Leadership Issues?

There are many other equine training problems that exist besides anxiety, spookiness, and being herd-bound, and the root of many of them are related to a leadership issues. To be successful and safe around your horse, it is imperative that you learn how to take the lead role. Buying a perfectly trained horse won’t solve the problem either, in the long run, you will need to learn leadership skills to maintain the trained horse’s good behavior. Planning to send your horse to a trainer to be educated and learn respect, trust, and obedience is also not enough. The horse will learn to respect and trust the trainer and follow his lead, but, when you take your horse home, unless you take the same role as the trainer, your horse will feel lost in his relationship with you. The best situation is to participate in the training process and study with a trainer that is willing to work with both you and your horse, teaching you how to be a good leader; to train on the ground/in the saddle and handle your horse correctly yourself.  Keep in mind also that developing good control on the ground will help you have better control when mounted. Please note; It is not about what the trainer can do with your horse!  ”It is about what you can do with your horse!”