Using Behavior to Your Advantage in Training Your Horse

Woman getting horse ready for training by studying his reactions.
Woman getting horse ready for training by studying his reactions. Shutterstock

No one questions the value of being able to "read" horse language as evidenced through behavior. While training your horse, you should be aware of three important components:

  1. How the horse's behavioral instincts and traits influence its reactions to you and training
  2. How your behavior influences your horse's attitude
  3. How the right amount of exercise at the right times prevents behavioral problems in your horse

Understanding how the horse's behavioral instincts and traits influence its reaction to you and training places you in a winning position.

The horse is a herd animal and because it is a flight animal, needs leadership to know when and where to run. In the wilds, horses quite readily accept the leadership of a dominant horse. If the dominant horse begins to run, the herd follows.

Horses evolved as prey animals, and humans are viewed as predators by horses.

In a domesticated setting, the human becomes the lead animal; therefore awareness of human body language and vocal tone becomes very important.

In a species in which the ability to run away means life or death, the animal with the control of position becomes the leader. The subordinate herd members yield space and accept direction, thereby allowing the dominant animal to be the leader.

In training, control of movement by the human in charge works well as the basis for most training techniques. Once you realize how important it is, you will better be able to use the horse's natural behavior and the need for herd membership to gain its trust so you become the dominant leader.

Horses evolved as prey animals, and humans are viewed as predators by horses. The realization brings into focus several important points that can help you as you go about training your horse:

  • The eyes have it! With eyes in the front of our heads, we often approach the horse focusing intently upon it as does the predator in the wild. When we look a horse directly in the horse's eyes upon approach, it causes fear and distress inherited from a long history of prey vs predator.
  • With eyes on the side of the head and with a blind spot in the near front of its vision and also in back, a horse may be startled to discover that a human/predator has crept up on it, or it may turn its head away or walk backwards to keep the human within its vision.  This is often interpreted as the horse not wanting to be caught or be cooperative in spite of the fact that it is simply trying to see what is going on around it.
  • When attempting to catch a horse, we often try to corner and trap it against a corner or fence. When a horse feels cornered or trapped, the situation triggers the fight or flight response, leading the horse either to try to run away by jumping the fence, or to charge or kick the human/predator.
  • Little things like a trash bag suddenly blowing across the trail or a loud, unexpected noise will trigger the fight or flight survival behavior. Horses are naturally programmed to be on the lookout for danger and have the swiftest response time of any domesticated animal. Working with your horse to desensitize it to frightening stimuli will give it new confidence in dealing with its world.

How a horse's vision influences its reactions

Early training

Early training

Light training normally begins at the age of two. While not yet physically mature, most experts agree that the two year old benefits both physically and mentally from training at this age.

By taking into account the way the horse sees its world, we can be much more effective in our interactions whether while training or simply interacting on a day-to-day basis.

When approaching a horse, approach from an angle which allows the horse to keep you in its view at all times realizing that as you draw closer, it may swing its head around to get binocular vision of you as you approach. This doesn't mean it is trying to get away from you or is threatening you; it simply wants to watch as you approach.

Using horse sense to gain cooperation

Horse's perceptions

Horses are constantly "reading" their humans. Just as horses watch each other for signs of attitude, they also watch people.

Signs of body tension in a human are alarm signals to horses. Tense, frightened people, or stiff, jerky movements indicate danger to a horse.

The people who get along well with horses are relaxed and unhurried, always speaking with a calm voice that helps the horse relax.

When you need to catch a horse, walk toward it in a relaxed manner, but not directly.  If there are other horses around, stop and pet or speak to them.  Many times this will arouse the curiosity of the horse you want to catch and it will come over to investigate because of its natural herd instinct.

When the horse approaches, don't suddenly pounce on it, but take your time and continue interacting with the other horses, then reach out and casually touch the horse you want to catch talking to it in a calm voice.

Make it a point to carry a halter over your shoulder often when you go into an area with horses. Horses will get used to seeing the halter and will not see it as a threat.

If the horse you are trying to catch is not cooperative, catch the other horses and bring them into a group. Horse's want to be in the herd, and most likely the horse you want to capture will attempt to join the group.  Do not allow it to do so until it is willing to work with you.

Working out with your horse in a round pen will help your horse gain more trust. Trainers use this technique to work with flighty horses that are difficult to catch.

Move the horse around in the pen at a trot by standing in the middle of the pen and moving toward the horse's hip. Then step forward toward the horse's shoulder and ask it to stop. When it stops, have it turn toward you.

If the horse is uncooperative, continue to make him move around the pen. Again, ask him to stop and face you. If he doesn't allow you to approach, keep it moving until the horse allows you to walk up to it in a relaxed manner and touch it.

Once you have established this technique in a round pen, you can also use it in the pasture or paddock.

Your energy level is very important when working with a horse. If the horse is excitable and nervous, keep your energy level low and calm. Move slowly and take deep slow breaths. If, on the other hand, the horse is lazy or uninvolved, exhibit a high energy level to gain movement from it.

Help your horse control its fears through desensitization

Horses categorize objects and experiences into something to fear and to flee from or something not to fear and hence, to ignore. If a horse categorizes the movement of a plastic bag, the sight and sounds of a moving tractor, or the noise of clippers as something to fear, it will attempt to run away. This creates major problems for horses and people.

Trainer's tips

Trainers desensitize young horses by, for example, swinging a rope around the horse's body. At the start, the horse will become nervous and will shy from the trainer's rope. The trainer keeps swinging the rope UNTIL the horse stops moving and relaxes. Upon relaxing, the trainer immediately stops swinging the rope and gives the horse a pat.

The key point is that the trainer does not stop swinging the rope in response to the frightened behavior of the horse. The trainer stops only AFTER the horse has relaxed. This is the basic technique used to desensitize a horse from frightening objects or movements.

Fortunately, horses are rather quick when it comes to becoming desensitized to frightening stimuli in the environment such as blowing trash bags and loud noises. A horse that is introduced to "scary" situations or substances while at the same time receiving comfort and encouragement will soon gain confidence and will not react in the fight or flight mode.

After all, those of us who have children do this all the time as new and possibly frightening experiences arise in the lives of our children. We take the time to explore the object or situation. We talk in a calm low voice and allow the child time to get used to the new object or situation.

It is just as important to foresee things or happenings that might be frightening to our horses and to provide them with the opportunity to adjust to the new situation or object before it becomes a learned experience compounded by fear and anxiety.

Desensitization to scary or noisy objects can be as simple as working with your horse by waving a towel or trash bag around it. The idea is not to force the horse to stand still or to punish the horse, but to allow it to move around until it becomes comfortable with the object and the noise; then let the horse see and sniff the offending bag or item.

Several workouts of this nature will enable the horse to perceive objects and sounds in a different, non-threatening way. Eventually, and usually in rather short order, the horse will gain confidence and no longer see scary noise objects as threats.

The importance of daily exercise in relationship to behavior

No one questions the value of the right amount of exercise in influencing a horse's behavior. The very nature of the horse's physique demands a certain level of activity for maximum mental and physical health.

For young horses especially, exercise is critical in the development of bones and the proper growth of the feet. The force placed on a horse's legs during exercise allows the bones to develop normally and become strong. In addition the brain is stimulated by the activity.

Daily exercise helps horse both mentally and physically

Daily exercise helps horse both mentally and physically

This horse is being challenged during this exercise session with side-reins to teach collection.

With exercise comes better endurance, more stamina, resistance to disease and improvement in the functioning of the horse's heart, muscles, tendons, ligaments and the motility of the digestive tract. Exercise helps clear the body of secretions of the lungs and improves the immune system leading to better all-around health.

As people and horses interact during exercise, the opportunity for effective cooperation grows as the horse gains a better attitude and releases pent-up energy in a positive way.

Destructive habits known as stereotypies or stable vices such as weaving, wind sucking, cribbing, stall walking, bucking, kicking, and barn sours can be the result of lack of exercise.

For the horse that spends much of the day in a stall, the time to exercise takes on new meaning during the warm-up time and the exercise routine whether it is riding, lunging, pen workouts or other kinds of exercise.  That minimum 30 minute period to several hours a day spent exercising your horse will pay off with big dividends in physical and mental health, not only for your horse, but also for you.

Consider this

Although it is natural for humans to exhibit predatory behaviors, we can begin to think more like the horse. By focusing on the use of natural herd behavior in our interactions, we can gain the trust of our horse, lessen his fears, and gain a wealth of cooperation as that trust deepens.

About the Author

EquiMed Staff

EquiMed staff writers team up to provide articles that require periodic updates based on evolving methods of equine healthcare. Compendia articles, core healthcare topics and more are written and updated as a group effort. Our review process includes an important veterinarian review, helping to assure the content is consistent with the latest understanding from a medical professional.