The Psychology of Horses
The Importance of Play and Socialization
Allowing your horse to have playtime and socialize with other horses is very important for his health and well-being. In these ‘modern’ times it is not unheard of for horses to be kept either in stables full time, or in separate paddocks. A lot of the time this can be to prevent injury to the horse, and sometimes when they play or socialize they will kick out at each other. BUT, the psychological impact that non-socialization is having on your horse is a far greater risk to his wellbeing than a run with some horses. It should be noted here that if your horse is normally paddocked alone, then steps need to be taken before just putting him in the paddock with a mob – steps far to lengthy to get into here.
That said, I’m not saying to let your horse have a good old run with his mates prior to running the Melbourne Cup (though it would probably increase his chances of running a great race). Timing with performance horses needs to be taken into account.
The 2 fillies that you see in this clip are having a great time – one of them is my horse – a 2 year old stock horse / paint that I have just brought in from the paddock to begin preparing her for starting, the other a 2 year old pony that is a clients horse here for starting. Given their similar ages I thought they would have a great time – and as you can see they did. After gallivanting around the arena, they groomed each other for a good 5 minutes and then proceeded to graze.
If our horses are isolated, some of the things that we can do to mimic our horses interaction with each other is to spend time grooming them (not just that quick brush before you ride), and learning to play with them online and at liberty (obviously liberty would be the closest to them running with their friends). Something is better than nothing, however nothing we do can completely replace their need for companionship.
Another reason for socializing your horse is to ensure that he learns how he should behave – this may sound laughable, but I have come across horses weaned at a young age, and then put in a separate paddock to ensure no injuries – and these horses have very limited social skills – and I mean when interacting with humans. Your horse’s manners are developed from day 1 – and the value of a ‘great broodmare’ in my eyes increases if she is the type to put manners in from an early age – not an aggressive mare, but certainly one that sets her foal up for success when he finally meets the rest of the herd. Horses that are well socialized as youngsters are excellent to work with, as they understand the concept of ‘manners’. Horses that have been isolated from a young age have developed very limited skills when it comes to simple manners, and can take longer to train, as their basic skills are so underdeveloped.
Hope this helps
Fear And Resentment – What are you telling your horse?
I find this subject intriguing. I get sent a lot of horses that are ‘spooky, not confident, shy a lot’ – and all the other names that we call them. When you start to look into the issue it really is a multi-layered subject.
For example. On a base level we may think that the horse is just spooky. And maybe he is – but at some point we entered into it. I’ll try and explain. Say our horse shies at something out on the trail – our human instinct is to tell him to ‘just look at it’ so we try and force him to the object – kicking, screaming, crying, begging. But do we stop and think about the horse in that moment? His instincts are telling him to run – and here we are, trying to be his leader, forcing him to go towards it! We have to make a decision – either get on with the trail (so go past the object without making a fuss), or we need to start doing exercises around or near the object, until our horse builds the confidence to go to it. But if we just back up a little here – we also need to make a decision on whether we are dealing with actual ‘fear’ or a lack of respect. If we are talking about a water crossing for example – maybe we are talking about a lack of respect for the rider causing the horse to refuse to cross? Maybe we haven’t given him a chance to look at the water and find out how deep it actually is?
If we make the decision that it is fear – we then need to assess whether we put it there in the first place. When I was a teenager I used to ride past a property that had a donkey – and it was often kept in a stable which meant you could hear him – but you couldn’t see him. My horse used to shy at the donkey – but looking back, the donkey probably scared the both of us – the first time we rode past – but then each time we rode past it was probably my body language telling shadow to be afraid because I ‘Knew’ that he was going to be afraid. Here’s a quick test – finish this sentence – ‘My Horse is Afraid of ______________’. If you can answer that question with a definite answer then your body language is probably telling him to be afraid of it. It is probably you that begins to tense up, gather the reins, hunch down a little in your seat, tighten your thighs, stop breathing, clamp your jaw shut – all the while your horse who is in tune with your body language starts to think ‘o-oh’ something is about to happen so I better get ready to run. So he tenses up, lifts his head, takes a big breath of air, engages, maybe starts to prance on the spot, and then we start telling him he is wrong – and then it goes from bad to worse.
It is probably one of the hardest things to get past – because our instincts of self preservation have kept us alive for thousands of years – just as the horses instincts have kept him alive – and what we are trying to do, what we need to do – is try to over ride our instincts (the actions we start to take to protect ourselves). Instead when we begin to get nervous, or we think our horse is getting nervous we need to take actions that cause relaxation – not more tension. We need to be hyper aware of our body and relax – unclench muscles, jaw, thighs – we need to breathe deeply and calmly. Our horse will feed off us so if he is scared and we get scared, or we get scared then he gets scared – either way we are fuelling the fear.
It is also important to practice these relaxing techniques – once we are in a ‘situation’ it is too late – we need to have practiced what we are going to do, so this becomes our instinct. My partner teaches martial arts – and it is the same philosophy – you need to practice your defense (your relaxation in the case of your horse) over and over so it becomes second nature – you cant go and do one self defense class and think you are ready – when the ‘situation’ arises – you will have an adrenalin surge and whatever you have practiced will take over.
Food for thought,
Keeping it interesting for your horse.
It is vital to keep your training sessions interesting for your horse. When he looks at you is his thought ‘oh cool I wonder what we are going to do today’? Or, ‘Oh no, here she comes again’.
There are so many different things we can do to add a little interest to our sessions.
When riding we can – train somewhere new, go trail riding or trekking to the beach, teach them something new, try something completely different – if you train dressage, do jumping, if you train jumping, go chase a cow.
On the ground we can – train new skills, do more ground work, go for a training walk,
When we are talking just ‘interest’ do you ever spend down time with your horse? Doing nothing at all? When I my first homebred foal was born I used to sit in the paddock and read a book – and she would instigate the contact, she found it curious and interesting that I was there. Are you always expecting something when you see your horse (to ride, feed, groundwork)? Maybe just turn up one day and ‘spend a little time’.
Keeping it interesting for your horse is sure to improve his (and your) performance.
Playtime for your horses
I have written before about the importance of playtime for your horse. Naturally he has energy to burn, skills to learn and he does this a lot of the time by playing with his paddock mates. If I am called out to a problem horse, one of the first questions I ask is if he is in a paddock with other horses – and If he is not I let the owner know that putting him in a paddock with other horses is going to help and solve a number of his behavior issues.
We all know that horses are a herd animal, and yet we are motivated to keep them separate from other horses for a multitude of reasons – preventing injury from kicks and bites, preventing ‘marks’ for our show horses, ease of care – feeding etc. is easier if he is isolated. But often we forget to look at the cost of having our horse alone – and I’m not talking about financial cost.
Keeping your horse isolated can hinder his development and psychological well-being. In a herd situation there are clear roles and responsibilities for every horse in the herd – from the matriarchal mare (boss horse) who leads the herd to water, food and shelter. To the stallion that fights off stallions and of course keeps the herd growing. You may think that as our horses are domesticated they no longer need to fight off threats, or find food, or breed. But our horses don’t know that. They have survived for millions of years as a prey animal by having keenly developed senses – we can’t simply put them in a ‘safe paddock’ and expect them to head in and understand that their fundamental needs will be taken care of. In my opinion it is still vital for our domestic horses to have paddock mates, though for different reasons now. Now our horses are no longer having to walk miles a day to find food and water, and we have introduced better pasture through pasture improvement, and grains through commercially developed feed, they need more outlets to burn excess energy.
Having excess energy can cause your horse to ‘act out’ in a number of ways – boredom can have him windsucking, chewing fences or developing habits such as head tossing (while standing in the paddock) and pacing fence lines. Once we start handling our horse in expectation of riding this excess energy can present in nipping, kicking and once we are riding undesirable behavior such as pig rooting, jig jogging etc. Isolated horses are often insecure as they have no leader telling them what to do – keep in mind that the matriarchal mare in the mob tells everyone what to do – there is a heir achy after this, however she is normally an older mare in her teens and remains the boss until she becomes to ill or weak to continue her role – then the 2IC mare takes her place and keeps the mob alive. Your young horse is never meant to be responsible for these decisions – this is why these horses can develop such severe behavioral issues – kind of like leaving your 5 year old home alone for the weekend – if it manages to survive its going to be fairly stressed by the time you get home.
In addition to boredom and excess energy your horse can never truly relax whilst he is isolated – you will often see in a herd situation several horses laying down for a nap, but most times there is a horse who is standing, and keeping watch for any potential threats – if he is alone he has no one to keep watch while he sleeps. I had a client who had a horse isolated, put him in with another horse and once they were settled in he laid down and slept for a few hours – and to this day she tells me he lays down and sleeps when he never did before.
A herd will also teach your horse social skills and manners that are going to help you in his training – I have worked with a lot of youngsters who were isolated when they were small, and they all were pushy, bargy and disrespectful of space – all skills that a herd situation would teach them.
Along with teaching personal space, boundaries and life skills, living in a herd is your horse’s natural state. Take a look at the 3 videos and the differences in the skills that are being learnt by your female horses in comparison to the males – the males (the 2 palominos and the 2 bays) are learning fighting skills – take notice of them aiming for the jugular vein, the knees and hocks (if you can’t run you can’t fight me), where the girls are learning and practicing herding skills – these might come in particularly handy when your mare has a foal. Again – your horses may never be going to fight or breed but their mental health depends on development of these skills – and if they are learning about them in the herd, they are not trying to instigate learning with you.
How boys play
I love to hear your feedback – leave a comment here or on my Facebook account.
What impact are you really having on your horse?
An interesting subject, and one that I cover in my lessons and clinics – but how much do our moods affect our horses?
At the recent confidence clinic we spent a lot of time on our self-awareness – our anxiety levels, how we were feeling, and how to adjust our state into one of calm and quietness. We had many interesting moments at the camp – but one for me stands out. It was day 1 and we had headed into the arena after some group work, and we were working on simply ‘parking’ our horses. When the participants, horses and coaches first arrived in the arena there was a level of energy – nervousness, excitement, anxiety in both the owners and horses alike – in addition the grounds were about 4 inches deep in lush grass that the horses were extremely interested in. We spent time grounding ourselves – focusing on our breathing, clearing our minds (a standing meditation if you like), and simply sending a ‘bump’ down the line when our horses tried to eat. Then pure magic happened. The horses went from fidgeting, walking, eating, pulling, bumping into their owners, and the owners went from fidgeting, micro managing, to an amazing 2 full minutes (yes I was timing it) to complete peace. The horses, the owners came to a place of pure in the moment, calm, confident, bliss. Without being there it is hard to understand the profoundness of this moment. I’m not even sure that all the participants understood the significance of the experience, but what had happened was that all of the horses, in that moment, tapped into their owner’s calm, quiet demeanors and had realized that they were ‘ok’. The very thing we seek from our equine relationships.
So, to answer the question I posed – we have a massive impact on our horses, all the time. From the time they are born our horses instinctually read the ‘state’ of the herd or the group that they are in – if the group is excited – then we are all excited, if the group is frightened, then it pays to be frightened – if you are not then evolution has had a way of reducing these undesirable traits.
So in the journey of horsemanship or simply owning horses, our goal is to ‘be the boss, the alpha, the leader, the confidant. The one that our horse looks to in times of need – however we don’t usually practice an awareness of self.
We expect, or we want, our horses to be calm, confident and willing, and yet we arrive at the paddock after a stressful day at work or school, after a fight with our partner, or when we are tired and cranky, and we expect them to ‘ignore that bit’. In fact most of the time we don’t even realize that cause and effect is happening right under our noses. We think more like this “oh great I had a fight with my partner and now my horse is nervous and spooky (or acting out), that would be right its ‘one of those days’. Bullshit. The reason we have ‘one of those days’ is because we allow the first thing that happens in the morning, to dictate to us what the rest of the day is going to be like, and we carry that baggage (anger, anxiety, helplessness) to each encounter that we have that day (both human and animal) and then each encounter is tainted.
I’m not saying we need to go through life as emotional flat- liners not responding to the things that happen around us – but what I am saying is we need to be mature enough to think “that fight with my partner this morning has really set me off – I need to calm down and reset before I work with my horse today” or whatever it might be.
We need to own our state, and change it if it needs changing – we have external influences every day that can change our state, our horses do not understand this.
If we want his respect we need to behave like we deserve it – by being consistent, confident and calm.
Food for thought
Keeping him stimulated…
Horses are designed to travel for miles each day, grazing, looking for water, etc. We remove them from this by keeping them in confined paddocks, stables and the like.
Recently I moved my horses around – I moved my girls from their paddock into the boys paddock and added a horse, and I moved my boys into the girls paddock and reduced their herd numbers. What I noticed in the following few hours was my horses delight in exploring their new surroundings and in the case of my girls – meeting their new paddock mate and establishing the new pecking order.
It got me to thinking about how something as simple as changing paddocks got them stimulated and exploring.
If you can’t change paddocks, try introducing something new to the paddock so they can explore it. Horses are a lot like children in their need to be stimulated – and while we tend to ride them and try to introduce new training etc., putting them into a new paddock can be just enough to get them motivated again.
I have written articles previously on keeping the rides and training interesting, and after seeing my horse’s interaction the other day I thought that this was a way for them to be stimulated without human intervention.
Food for thought,