Follow His Instincts
With horses, it's all about the attitude.
By Martin Black | May 31, 2009
It is interesting to watch big cats and other predators stroll through herds of prey on the Serengeti Plains in Africa. A zebra may take notice of a lion, but if the lion doesn’t show any aggression, the zebra may continue grazing.
As long as the lion is relaxed and non-threatening, the zebra stays relaxed. But when the zebra gets any hint of suspicious action from the lion, the zebra becomes alert. If there is a sense of danger, the zebras leave for safer ground. If the zebras can’t get away, they turn to fighting.
I find this display of nature very helpful when trying to understand the mindset of our horses.
When our attitude is aggressive, the horse’s is defensive. His mind is more likely to operate rationally when we are compassionate and set boundaries within which the horse can learn to operate.
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Both wild horses and our quiet domesticated horses have a sense of self-preservation and a sense of curiosity. One makes them turn away to defend themselves from what they perceive as danger, sometimes reacting without reasoning. The other will draw them in to investigate with an open mind.
When we can find ways to trigger the curiosity, or at least keep a horse’s mind open to new experiences, he is very trainable. By establishing certain boundaries, we can ensure our safety, direct the horse’s attention and movement, and allow him to gain experiences that will prepare him for his future career.
However, consistent boundaries don’t mean brick walls. We want the horse to feel like he is putting pressure on himself; the pressure doesn’t chase him.
The horse can understand how to deal with this self-inflicted pressure. He doesn’t understand pressure he has no control of, especially when it is inconsistent. If the discomfort of pressure is consistent, he can learn to respect that and yield from it. We need to be careful that the horse doesn’t perceive this pressure as a threat from us. If there is any hint of aggression from us, the horse sees us as a lion. In fact, the horse will sense the lion in us before we see the lion in ourselves.
If the horse’s self-preservation instinct is not engaged, he will reason things out. When the level of intimidation or fear rises, then the mind’s reasoning ability starts shutting down and defensive reactions start to surface. If we can analyze whether our horses perceive us as a threatening lion or just another neighbor passing by, we can better understand the horse’s responses to us.
Sometimes, a horse’s response to us stems from our disregard of his natural instincts.
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It really doesn’t matter what we think we know. The fact is, the horse hasn’t learned to communicate with us in our language. In thousands of years of working together, horses still can’t read, write or speak as we do. Any successes we have with horses come from communicating in their way.
We need to recognize how the horse perceives things, like our aggression, our pressure and what he perceives as self-inflicted pressure. We can then take advantage of the energy he volunteers to achieve our goals in a way that is not threatening to our horse and is rewarding for us.