Written By: Walt Friedrich
Most of us want to be buddies with our horse. We’d so very much like for him to like us as much as we like him. We’ve taken him into our hearts in the way we automatically do with many beings, human, canine, feline — unequivocally and with total sincerity, expecting there will eventually be a corresponding response.
We can rough-house with our dog, cuddle with our cat, even sing with our canary, all with little fear of conflict, but with our horse there are some natural cautions we automatically follow; we are always aware that he weighs in at about 1,000 pounds, he’s capable of crushing our foot merely by standing on it, biting off a finger with one snap of his jaw, even killing us with one well-placed kick. Because he’s a horse, he thinks and reacts like a horse, and that’s so easy to forget when we anthropomorphize him — though awareness of his power always lurks in the back of our mind.
But he is not a human; he is incapable of thinking and behaving like a human – and his behaving like a horse and not a human is the most significant source of potential conflict and frustration, even danger that we face. You don’t want those 1,000 pounds to be upset, frightened or angry, because they can fire off in an instant and if you’re in his way, you don’t stand much of a chance to escape. The point of this writing is to alert you to specific horse behaviors that, if misinterpreted, can result in your serious injury or worse.
Fortunately, there is but a small handful of key specific areas of difference between him and us which, when we understand them completely, can make all the difference in the world for our safety. Let’s call them Pillars of Understanding – and let’s examine Pillar One: the Social Hierarchy.
A horse is a strongly pre-programmed fella, raised with a herd mentality, taught as a baby by his mother as well as every other horse in his herd the ways and means of his very existence; he learns who’s the alpha, and he learns where every other herd member including himself sits in that hierarchy – he also observes how the hierarchical rankings may change from time to time, and he observes how to handle intra-herd situations as they arise. He sees the rankings change, often as a result of violence of some sort – anything from a tooth-and-hoof slugfest between those at the top of the ladder to determine the herd alpha, to – and this is of great importance to you and me — as little as a nip or kick or a nudge between lower members as they might jockey for in-herd position, and he sees benefits to being higher on the ladder. His ability to understand all that – his cognition — is built-in from birth, then programmed by that natural school of hard knocks, his herd.
Now contrast that with your dog, whom nature has endowed with an entirely different learning experience. As a canine he knows from the start that his pack has just one alpha, the “top dog”. Bring him into your personal “pack” – your family – and you become his alpha. When he wags his tail at you and looks into your eyes with his own soft and warm orbs, then nuzzles you, he’s signaling subordination and affection, and you love it, of course.
That’s the relationship many of us want with our horse as well. But when your new horse nuzzles and nickers at you and you get those same soft and warm feelings and you reflect them back to him, you may be setting the stage for conflict, which can get dangerous.
The hard thing to accept is that your horse’s nuzzle and nicker that look so soft, warm and friendly may not be quite what they appear as you interpret them. It could be an offer of friendship, but he is invading your space – a no-no in horsedom – it may also be an alert to show you that he doesn’t consider you to be his alpha! You won’t see him act that way toward another horse unless he’s making a minor power grab in the hierarchy. You may view him as your huge, friendly, loving equine doggie, but he sees you as a fellow herd member, either subservient to him or dominant over him – and you need to learn his body language to help you to understand which it is. Those nuzzles and nickers that spell “love” to you are the same as he uses when manipulating another horse in his herd to gain position, and in the herd, they can be followed by a nip or two or even a kick. The real danger here is that you don’t necessarily know how he means his initial “cuteness” with you. If he’s fresh from the herd, it’s time for you to back off and get your guard on; uninvited space invasions are danger signs.
How to handle it in a moment; first, understand that while he’s not human, he is intelligent, and he can learn to modify his behavior if it gains him something. Give him a reward for that cuteness, like a treat or a scritchie below his ear, and in future he’ll use it for that purpose, and you may be safe from it’s going any further. But your scritchie is a space invasion, too, so for your safety, learn to look for and recognize the body language signals during the cuddly moments – his eyes, nostrils and ears will tell you volumes about what’s really brewing in his head, and if you’re leery about what you see, back off.
If he sees you as subordinate, he’ll treat you accordingly, which can be dangerous to you. That could include a nip or even a kick immediately following your kiss of affection. More clues might be his head pushing you and rubbing on you, he may walk into you or even over you as you lead him, and come grooming or saddling time you may see aggression behavior like pinned ears, swishing tail, even a threat to kick. His two major motivations in life are cooperation and aggression, and all this is relatively low-level aggression with you as the “aggressee”. It’s important to your safety that you read his signals correctly.
How to handle this form of aggression? Treat him as he treats you – because he completely understands it. Now, I’m not an advocate of corporal punishment except when the infraction is clearly intentional and as clearly understood by him as by you. And no matter what, you’ve got to be cool through it – don’t act through anger. A horse is always just a horse, behaving like a horse naturally behaves, and if you allow your temper to control the situation, he can become a horse that’s frightened of you. Then, at minimum, you’ve lost the trust and love connection you wanted in the first place, but at maximum you may start a physical exchange you don’t have a chance of winning. You do want a horse that loves and respects you just as you do him, but you don’t want him believing he’s your superior, thus you must not allow his aggression toward you.
But do let your punishment fit his crime – a space invasion gets an immediate slap on the invading body part, for example – but you’ve got to do it within two or three seconds or he’s lost the connection. For bigger stuff, like a deliberate jamming you into a wall, add a huge, scary shout to your very firm smack. Use a riding crop if one’s handy, but just one good, hard smack is often all it takes. And at that level, don’t worry or even feel guilty, it’s just the same language horses use dealing with each other – only gentler.
As in almost everything horse-related, timing and body language are paramount. If he pins his ears when you approach with the feed bucket, don’t feed him. Feeding him now just rewards that bad behavior. Put the bucket out of his reach where he can still see it, and wait until he’s wearing his friendly face, then feed him. It’s just another tiny form of crime and punishment — he’ll get the message.
If I can leave you with just one unforgettable thought, it would be to remain both alert and calm at all times. Alert to avoid sudden surprises, and calm because you don’t want to hurt your horse, you just want to teach him some manners when dealing with you – and other humans by extension. Anger is just a big multiplier – too bad there’s no on-off switch except our own mental control.
It is so easy and natural for us, as humans, to misinterpret our horse’s body language by reading it as though he were another human. Learn the key differences, then be sure to read them correctly, and your lives together will be much safer – and happier.
This has been Part 1 in a series of writings intended to explain the fundamental differences – those that can get you into trouble — between your world and your horse’s. Please watch for future explorations of these differences.