Horsin’ Around 11-16-09
Fort Collins, Colo.
Last time we talked about how a horse visualizes objects and reacts to what he can see. I feel this is important to understand and deal with our best friend. Quick reflexes and panic did characterize the prehistoric horse but we need to understand that most horses today have that same characteristic today. I don’t know how many of you have taken a wild horse to raise and train, but I do know it takes time to get them to trust us and not be afraid of everything new to them (and everything is new to them).
Horses raised in a gentle environment are quite different but still have that primary feeling of survival. Horses will panic into flight without much thought for consequences. Young horses in particular will flee without thought of injury from running into objects or running to total exhaustion. They are simply carrying out the behavior that helped them survive. Usually as a horse gets older they tend to outgrow this tendency, but some never do.
Horses are built with an extensive system of ligaments that allow them to sleep while standing. This dates back to survival days by allowing them to be up and flee when startled. This makes sense too because it takes a horse time to get himself up off the ground. In times of being out on the range a horse needs to be able to break and run when danger appears. I have noted that my horses, as they get older, tend to lie down and sleep in the hot sun during daylight hours out on the pasture, but hide in the barn at night and never lay down.
I still don’t understand why horses put so much trust in humans but they do. And eventually they tend to want to spend time with us and depend upon us. I don’t understand it but do appreciate this fact. There are, however horses, because of abuse, who never learn to trust humans, and this is sad. But this willingness to serve its owner, even at sacrifice, is what endears the horse to us even though it does cause problems at times.
Flighty horses should be handled with strong equipment, like a halter and lead rope, and must never be hurried into new and strange situations. Even horses who are controllable at home may not be easy to control in strange surroundings. The handler should be able to impose his/her will on the horse without provoking an unmanageable confrontation. We see this often at play days, competition for beginners.
An instance happened as I was leaving a rodeo bible camp. Most everyone had left, and on the way out I observed a family trying to load a horse in a trailer. They were very frustrated and the young girl did not have any idea what to do. Naturally I stopped and asked if I could help. The folks gladly handed me the lead rope. I tested the horse and he told me that he did not want to get in the trailer. Some friends stopped and asked if I needed help and I told them to stick around.
Then I began working the horse in a circle behind the trailer, each time driving him closer to the back gate. After a while I would stop him at the trailer gate and pet him, then drive him around again and again. This was showing him that if he did not get in he would have to work harder. About 15 minutes he loaded. Then, I backed him out, circled him again, and loaded. The horse understood that if he did not load he would have to work. It was his idea to rest from having to work.
When working with a horse, I have learned to study their attitude. Ears and eyes tell me a lot of what they are thinking. If the ears are pointed forward in a ridged way, they are either very interested or afraid of something in front of them. When I am working a horse in the round pen I like for their ears, especially the one on the inside to work forward and then point to me. This tells me that the horse is listening to me as well as paying attention to what is ahead.
The eyes and nostrils show emotion as well. Wide nostrils reflect interest, curiosity or fear. When the eyes are wide or flash, nostrils wide of dilate, and muscles tense, the horse is likely to react. The reaction might be only a slight start, a reverse in direction or both. If the fright intensifies, the horse may bolt, rear, or buck.
The information in this educational article is based on information form the textbook, “Horses: A Practical and Scientific Approach” by Melvin Bradley.
Prior to his retirement, Roger Thompson was a CHA certified instructor of advanced Western horsemanship and beginning English riding.