Written By Walt Friedrich
In an earlier article we examined the horse's natural way of communication with others of his species, and how, by domestication, he uses those same natural ways with us. It's the only "language" he knows, and it's virtually all body language. Because neither of us is perfectly fluent in the other's language, misinterpretations can (and do) occur, and when someone is hurt as a result, it's usually a human. This brief series is intended to suggest some of the conditions that can result in unintended but serious damage to ourselves.
Since we're not horses, we're limited to "reading" our horse from a human perspective, and we can "get it" wrong - and he can misinterpret us as well. For example, we like to "pet" him with our hands, as a way of showing our love and appreciation of him. But horses are very conscious of their personal space, and except for human and equine “friends”, do not allow others into it without an invitation. Sometimes, our horse rejects what we intend as overtures of friendship and mutual admiration. How often have you raised your hand to his nose, just to render a brief pet, only to have him turn away emphatically?
His action may not mean that he doesn't want our affection; it usually does mean that we've invaded his private space, and he protects it. Fortunately, most often his reaction is as mild as just turning away - another horse invading his space without invitation may well get at least a nip, possibly much more than that as he defends his personal territory.
The point is to use caution in treating him as a human or even a pet pooch. Though we may have the best of intentions, his misinterpretation could result in our receiving a serious reprimand in the form of a kick or a nip…or worse.
He can also do us serious damage with no intention at all to do so. Consider: as prey animals his kind discovered ages ago that long life is much more dependent on an ability to escape danger than to take it on and fight it out. And with threats like perpetual lunch-hunting mountain lions sharing his environment, escaping a threat calls for instant action and great speed, letting nothing stop or even delay him. Horses are huge animals of great power, and they dance to their own music, not ours; his sudden reaction to an unexpected touch of our hand on his nose should be taken as a tiny hint of what can happen if we're in the wrong place at the wrong time.
His needs are far different from his predatory neighbor’s. He's got some pretty good defenses to keep the big cats at bay; he knows his territory down to blades of grass; as a healthy adult he's faster than the big cats (except for the cheetahs, but they don't share his territory); and he's extremely quick to react to danger. Instant escape and tremendous speed and endurance are his only true defenses, and he takes no chances.
To illustrate the difference between him and us, consider this hypothetical: you and I and a horse are standing in a pasture, chatting, all nice and close to each other, when a prankster sets off a firecracker just behind the horse. Your reaction and mine is to immediately look toward the sound to determine what it was, and then decide if we need do anything about it. In other words, we think about it, just for a second or two. But what does the horse do? He's instantly at full speed, running like blazes at virtually the moment of the sound, because his instinct yelled, “mountain lion!” - no time for thinking. If you or I are in his path, too bad for us - he runs right through us to escape, and we could be just lucky to survive.
Why on earth is there such a different reaction? You and I can tell very quickly whether or not a sudden situation is an emergency, because rather than to run, our first reaction is to look and evaluate, and then take whatever action we deem necessary. But that takes time. In his case, survivors of his species learned through the millenia that the sudden presence of a predator means they'll either get moving or they'll be the mid-day meal. No time to think, even a few milliseconds can make the difference, so he doesn't bother to look, he's just gone.
Good thing, too, because his vision, although superb, has an "Achilles Heel”. A brief explanation here of equine vision: with eyes located on the sides of his head, a horse has almost 360 degree vision. Each eye "sees" independently of the other, affording him superior peripheral vision; but while monocular vision is great for awareness, it has no depth perception, meaning the horse has difficulty in determining distance using just one eye. (He switches to binocular mode by turning his head to view with both eyes simultaneously, resulting in superb vision - in 3-D and with depth perception.) Further, his monocular vision is slow to focus, meaning it takes measurable time for him to see clearly, and although it's a matter of just milliseconds, it's too long when the view is of a mountain lion.
And so because his inability to recognize and identify instantly what he sees can be dangerous for him; his instinct is to move first and look back later, from a safe distance. The problem for us is that when we’re near him when he spooks, we’re in danger of his taking us out as he escapes – and he’ll spook from many more causes than just the sudden bang of a firecracker. You can't stop him from running through you; it can happen much quicker than you can react to avoid it.
But you can prevent it; he's your horse, and you want to spend quality time with him and not be paranoid about it. So when you're with your horse, it's excellent practice to form the habit of being always aware of your surroundings, and never in his potential flight path if he were to spook. We all know that hanging around his butt puts us in the line of fire from his howitzers (hind feet), but pay attention to his front as well, because that's the way he'll run. When you're dealing with his feet, stay on yours - don't sit as you do footwork on him, but rather, bend - even though it can be hard on the back. Don't daydream when you're on saddle - pay attention to your surroundings. And it's always wise to avoid cramped quarters when you and your horse are together -- his reaction to a fly bite can be enough to get you squashed and stomped.
This has been Part 2 in a series of writings intended to explain some fundamental differences - those that can get you into trouble -- between your world and your horse's. Please watch for future explorations of these differences.