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I fell in love with my horse on our first date, and I know he loves me back. For the last decade, he and I have worked on understanding each other. This book focuses on what science has learned about horses and horse-human interaction. It is not a book about riding, diet, illness, shoeing or showing. It is more about how horses work than about how to work them, more about what they want to do than what you can make them do.
We all want to understand the things we love. For those who love horses, understanding comes through observation and interaction with a horse, by attending clinics and reading books and browsing web sites, and by listening to the counsel of friends who know horses. We gather information, and try to assemble it into some sensible pattern. We come to believe that we understand.
We don’t understand. Clinics, books, and web sites that focus on horses either get it wrong or get it right but misunderstand why. And so when we seek the counsel of friends who have read these same books, attended these clinics and browsed these web sites, we are no better off. Such a circular swirl of myths about horses produces a bowl of dogma from which we can’t expect to escape.
Good science is comparative. Because horses are hoofed herd animals, they have much in common with cattle and deer. Because they are mammals, they have much in common with raccoons and dogs. They are animals and so have much in common with octopus, birds and fish. Our lineage defines our form, but our behaviors can often be traced far back on the family tree. When we find common behaviors across different twigs of the family tree, we can know that we have found an ancient behavior and can often learn about one species by looking carefully at another. When a sandpiper, baby raccoon, or horse threaten, they all bend down, assume a snowplow position with their heads, and move forward. Surely animals have been threatening each other for eons. New species do not bother to invent new behaviors when the old ones work perfectly well.
It seems as if touch doesn’t merely increase your good feelings, but it also decreases your bad feelings.
For many years, researchers believed that the nerves of our skin could recognize just four kinds of stimulation: touch, heat, pain and itch. But there is growing evidence that cutaneous senses include another one that conveys information not just about touch, but about the pleasant properties of touch.
Animals that are social by nature, such as many birds and mammals, have areas that can’t be reached by their own design and must be addressed either by rubbing against objects or by grooming by others. These areas — largely the head and neck — appear to be endowed with extra nerves that feel good when stimulated.
If you go down to the river, you may see a fisherman. Ask him — they are almost always hims — whether a hook in a fish’s mouth hurts the fish, and you’ll hear what I always hear: “No. Fish don’t have any feelings. They don’t feel pain. A hook doesn’t hurt them.” If you go down to the stable, you may see a rider. Ask her — they are almost always hers — whether a bit in a horse’s mouth hurts the horse, and you’ll hear what I hear: “No. Even a very severe bit, in the right hands, can transmit extremely subtle, nuanced signals that cause no pain to the horse.”
Logic tells me that this can’t be true.
Natural horsemanship favors the use of reward in daily interactions with your horse. Traditional horsemanship is more prone to using aversive influences, such as bits, spurs, and whips, but tries to disguise them as “aids”, “moving away from pressure”, etc. Is one approach better than the other? The answer to this question might hinge on the training techniques used, not the language we use. Your horse would choose to live in a world in which positive reinforcement was the norm. So would you. But would he learn better with positive reinforcement than with the other options? Positive and negative feedback have somewhat different roles. Both improve performance, but positive feedback is important to maintain a desired behavior, while negative feedback is most useful in adjusting current behavior.
Humans strive for attachments and social connections. Those who are socially isolated are less healthy physically and psychologically. When a person is excluded from a group, aggressive behavior increases, self-regulation is impaired, and prosocial behavior decreases. Like humans, horses are social animals. In fact, they are probably more social than humans. They don’t seem to need as much personal space as we do, and their bands and herds stick closer together than ours do. They always choose to eat together and drink together. They were born to be wild, born to run, and born to love each other.
Among the most remarkable animal stories are those involving friendships where we might not expect them. A friendship between man and dog is not surprising — after all, a dog is man’s best friend. Nor is it surprising to find a friendship between two dogs — or two men. We expect intraspecies friendships (friendships within the same species) .
But then we don’t. A friendship between two fish would surprise us, or between two invertebrates, two amphibians, or two reptiles. And we are surprised when we come upon apparent friendships between two very different species, such as cat and bird or duck and owl.
Wild animals that live in groups — herds, flocks, schools — form friendships. They derive benefit from being together. They don’t relish separation from their extended family.
A band is a family group of one adult stallion, one to three mares, and their foals. A herd can consist of multiple bands, and the connections between bands are weaker than within them, so a herd may show “fission-fusion” as it splits off a band or adds a band. In this book, the distinction does not matter, and I typically use “herd” to refer to a group of horses.
Horses are weird. Horses are unique among ungulates (large hoofed mammals such as rhinos, cattle, pigs, giraffes, camels, deer, and hippopotamus) and even most mammals in building and maintaining long-term bonds. Mares, stallions, and geldings all bond this way, choose to live together, and remain together until separated by fate. Horses have a sophisticated parental care system in which moms, dads, siblings, the peer group and others may play a role in raising foals of both sexes. A band of horses is a matriarchy, with one mare at the top and most of her daughters, regardless of age, and any sons that are below the age of 2. In the wild, feral bands of horses may have one or two stallions with the group, who play a role in defending territory, driving off other stallions, and fathering some darling foals. Herds form from bands, and alliances in the herd transcend family. In both herd and band, all cooperate in various responsibilities, such as predator defense.
Respect can be defined as “a feeling of deep admiration or deference for something that is good, valuable or important and that is elicited by their abilities, qualities, or achievements.” I can drive a car, type, and stand on one foot. Does my horse appreciate me for these talents? Does he deeply admire me for my ability to play the violin? Does he defer to me because I was an Eagle Scout or have a Ph.D.? I don’t think so.
Does a horse respect anything? What does your horse deeply admire? What abilities, qualities, or achievements has he noticed in his colleagues?
These are easy questions with hard answers…
A common premise in natural horsemanship is that “horses need leadership.” This notion draws from the imagination, where we wonder what we would do if left on the plains with strangers. With humans, we imagine, someone would choose to become the leader, and would cheerfully make decisions for us. Governments would form, and we would submit.
Trainers seem to believe that horses are looking for leadership, that the way to have a good relation with a horse is to be that leader. “Leader” in this context is undefined, but could mean “boss” or “bully”.
It is fashionable to talk about “partnership” with a horse. Many of those interested in partnership are from the “natural horsemanship” school of thinking, and want two very different things: to be able to control their horse, and force it to do what they want, and to set their horse free. Their ideal is this: when my horse is free to do whatever he pleases, he will do what I please. He’ll do this without any evident coercion or resistance. He will do it without hesitation.
If your horse is truly free to do what he wants, I can’t imagine that he will be doing what you want. Horses everywhere seem to prefer being with other horses, not with people. They would rather graze than trot in circles in a ring. Most would rather walk around a jump instead of jumping over it.
I have argued that a herd of horses is much like a school of fish or flock of birds, leaderless and choosing a course of action via collective decision making. I have argued that “respect” as is normally meant by humans, does not exist in the horse, and that humans often use it as a euphemism for “fear”. I do not dispute the existence of “dominance” in a herd of horses, but I have questions about what it is and whether the concept is useful. Thirty years ago, researchers were far from a consensus on how to define and measure dominance, and little has changed since then. Anything gets harder to talk about when we can’t agree on what it is.
Humans definitely have personalities. But when we ask psychologists or family or friends what “personality” is, we get different answers. Personality seems to be something we can’t quite define, and the skeptics in the room wonder if we have made something up. Reification is the process in which an idea acquires a reality. We imagine personality, so it must exist. It is only when we set out to measure it that we discover we can’t find it. But that doesn’t lead us to rewinding our reality-producing apparatus. We just keep looking. Reification is one of my favorite words. It just might explain why personality is so hard to nail down.
Horses seem to have personalities, too. But here the thinking and the language becomes even more muddled than when talking about humans.
The Natural Horse Last revised: April 12, 2017. Two Przewalski horses.1 Regardless of what we make of natural horsemanship, all of the definitions presuppose that we know what a natural horse is. If we really want to do natural horsemanship, then we need to understand the natural horse: what do they do when we aren’t […]
One of the most common social behaviors is allogrooming (also known as mutual grooming). It is expressed by the lateral parallel body position of two horses that allows for nibbling along the back or withers of each horse. While this behavior can be considered grooming, it is also thought to facilitate pair-bonding and dominance structure between band mates
There is one thing that all of our husbandry can’t change: horses love each other, just as elephants love each other and deer love each other. Horses can’t get enough of each other. They would be close together in a herd every minute of the day, given a choice. I was especially struck by this in driving across Wyoming, where a pasture can often be 100 acres or more. Survey such a pasture, and find who lives there: a half dozen or so horses. And where are they? Jammed together in one place or another, so close that one tail can swat the flies on a friend’s body. Horses never live alone in the wild, and should never be forced to live alone in captivity.
Stallions are from Mars, Mares are from Venus
’The single most important difference between the sexes is the difference in their investment in offspring. The general truth is this: females do all the investing; males do none of it. Although the general rule has many exceptions, it accurately identifies the primary source of conflict between the sexes: in most sexual organisms, most of the energy and time invested in offspring comes from females. From this basic fact it follows that, for males more than females, reproductive success is limited by the number of matings with fertile partners. For females more than males, on the other hand, reproductive success is limited by the time and effort required to garner and transfer energy to offspring and to protect and care for them. Males therefore are usually more eager than females to mate at any time with any partner who may be fertile, while females are usually more careful than males to choose mates who seem likely to provide good genes, protection, parental care, or resources in addition to gametes. Combined with female interest in mate quality, male interest in mate quantity creates a widespread conflict of interest between the sexes. But I guess you knew that.
The herd or band provides the horses in it with many benefits.
Each horse is superbly endowed to detect a predator at a distance. But when two horses are on the alert for predators, their chances at early detection improve even further.
If the herd chooses to flee, then when it is running, a predator in pursuit wastes valuable time trying to select a victim and trying to track it as the horses run away.
If the herd chooses to fight to protect foals, a foal has many defenders, and has a much better chance of survival than if he is defended by only one mare.
We are accustomed to watching dogs drink, and know that they somehow scoop it up with their tongues. We haven’t watched very closely, though, because we learn that dogs don’t scoop at all. They curl their tongues backward, push them into the water, lift them quickly, and a column of water is pulled up by momentum, not scooped up. They then snap their jaws closed on this column of water — effectively biting it — and swallow. Your cat doesn’t drink the same way as your dog, even though neither has a full set of cheeks. And your horse? Not like a dog, not like a cat, but like a human. He sucks the water in. Elephants do the same, but they suck it in with their nose, then blow it down the hatch.
Grass Loves Horses
Horses are grazers. “Graze” comes from Middle English grasen, from Old English grasian, and that from græs, grass, so a grazer is a grass eater. Horses are grazers, as are cows, sheep, bison, buffalo, deer, elk, wildebeest, zebras, and kangaroos.
Special saliva. When a mammal or a plant-eating insect eats dinner, it creates saliva, some of which it leaves on the grazed grass. For over 40 years, scientists have known that grasshopper grazing increased the growth of the grass they ate. In 1980, Dyer applied a component of mouse saliva — epidermal growth factor (EGF) — to sorghum seedlings, and found this significantly increased the speed at which shoots and roots grew, and found that such growth was dose-dependent: more saliva meant more growth. EGF is not only found in grasshopper saliva. It is also found in mammalian saliva (including yours) and in spitballs.
Agonistic behavior is a group of social behaviors that relate to fighting. Agonistic behavior may include warnings (threats and displays), efforts to break off an unpleasant encounter (retreats, placation), fighting, and conciliation. Aggression is a subset of agonistic behavior. The word labels hostile or violent behavior, and may include threats of such behavior, but excludes retreats, placation, and conciliation. Aggression is much more common in captive domestic horses than in feral horse bands.2
Aggressiveness is a temperament in which a horse shows hostile or violent behavior toward a human, horse, or other animal. Aggressive horses are more likely to show threat displays under the right circumstances. In contrast, an assertive horse is confident and forceful. An assertive horse might be the first through the gate at feeding time; an aggressive horse might be more likely to bite another horse while waiting at the gate. A horse may be both assertive and aggressive.
The moving horse is incredible. It evolved for speed and endurance, and thousands of years of selective breeding further improved his speed and stamina. The horse has one of the highest running speeds (70 km/h or 43 mph) of mammals, and is easily the fastest animal to be able to carry a human. The great claims for the speed of the cheetah (over 70 mph) must be considered in light of the short distance it can maintain such speed: the cheetah can’t maintain its top speed for more than a quarter of a mile, and has been brought to bay by two dogs in 2.5 miles. The horse, on the other hand, can maintain a speed of about 15 mph for a distance of 50 miles. Researchers find that the horse’s maximum aerobic power output is 3.5 times higher than the value predicted by general formulas for mammals
It is easy for us to spot play in children and domestic mammals. We’ve heard that there is a place where the deer and the antelope play. Those who have looked closely have found play in birds and even reptiles. But play is harder to spot in amphibians or insects or plants. Horses certainly play, and young horses are especially prone to play.
Benefits of Play
Over 30 hypotheses have been advanced by scientists to account for play, but there is not solid support for any one of these hypotheses. Play likely has multiple benefits.
Many have reported that play is more common in young, healthy, well-fed and securely attached animals, suggesting its occurrence indicates well-being. But it is also more likely in barren or boring environments, suggesting that it serves to reduce boredom — a condition not associated with well-being.
We all need to sleep. Every living thing seems to sleep (or have a state of suspended animation of some sort), including plants, corals, insects, fish, reptiles, birds and mammals. In deep sleep in ants, queens and workers fold their antennae, become non-responsive to contact with other ants, and may show rapid antennal movement (RAM sleep), their equivalent to our REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. Dreaming accompanies REM sleep, and it is reasonable to assume that ants are dreaming during RAM sleep. Electric eels dream, suddenly discharging when asleep. For us, sleep provides biological, physiological, and psychological restoration. We must assume that it does the same for horses, ants, and electric eels.
A horse divides his day into alternating periods of wakefulness and sleep. Sleep is composed of both Slow Wave Sleep (SWS) and Paradoxical Sleep (PS).
Horses roll. They do so in places where others roll. Eventually, the area where they roll may lose its vegetation and become dusty. What we can’t see is what they smell. Before a horse rolls, he sniffs the wallow. During the roll, he rubs the dust into his fur, and his scent into the remaining dust. He acquires the scent of the herd, and the next horses to roll acquire his scent.
A horse with normal withers will usually lie down on one side, rub against the ground, then roll to the other side and repeat. A horse with high withers may need to stand after the first side, and lie down on the other to complete the job.
Yes, you can be Doctor Dolittle. This chapter provides some ideas on how to talk to one of the animals — your horse — and how to both listen and understand what he is saying back to you.
Alex could identify 50 different objects and recognize quantities up to six; that he could distinguish seven colors and five shapes, and understand the concepts of “bigger”, “smaller”, “same”, and “different”… He had a vocabulary of over 100 words, but was exceptional in that he appeared to have understanding of what he said. For example, when Alex was shown an object and was asked about its shape, color, or material, he could label it correctly. He could describe a key as a key no matter what its size or color, and could determine how the key was different from others.
Alex was an African Grey parrot.
You’ve probably noticed this: horses don’t speak our language. (Many of us don’t speak it very well either.) So our job is either to teach the horse to speak our language, learn to speak the horse’s language, or come up with a compromise: giving the horse signals it will understand, and understand what he is signaling back.
The horse’s language is one of emotion, of approach and avoidance. It is more connotative than denotative. Several parts of the horse may combine to express the same emotion, and to make his position unmistakable.
Understanding the evolution of consciousness will not come from looking for intelligent behavior in other animals, but rather from understanding the fundamental mechanisms that support subjective awareness and selective attention, which we now know insects have.
Consciousness is a summary, produced by the non-conscious brain, and tossed up for us to view. Consciousness requires extra brain work to produce. The hard parts of thinking all happen below the level of consciousness, and we must make an effort to tap what is going on. The thinking that our brain does below consciousness, or before we are consciously aware of what it is doing, is the important part. All animals have the general capabilities of that most important part, and whether they are conscious or not doesn’t much matter.
The brains of mammals are very similar, and differ in degree rather than kind.
The human desire to believe that we are the most intelligent species has led to a number of comparisons of brains. Brain size must matter, but our brains are smaller than those of the elephant or whale. Some researchers find pleasure in noting that some parts of our brain are much bigger than the same parts in other animals. For instance, our friend Cowboy Bob reports that “the brain cavity of a horse is filled with a lot more than what we usually think of as the “brain.” Although the space would, in fact, hold a small grapefruit, the cerebral hemisphere — or “thinking” portion of the brain cavity is a lot smaller.”
If horses could talk, though, they might point out that the brain cavity of their skulls is about the size of ours, and that lots of preprocessing happens between the nostrils and the brain, and between the eyes and the brain. If we compare head size of Mr. Horse and Mr. Man, Mr. Horse does just fine.
Pain doesn’t merely affect a few nerves. It affects the entire nervous system. The autonomic nervous system (ANS) is an unconscious control system found in all animals that regulates such things as heart rate, digestion, respiratory rate, and the fight-flight-freeze response. When triggered, the ANS quickly decides if we should fight, flee, or freeze. If fighting appears to be the best solution, the ANS triggers anger and aggressive behavior. If fleeing seems like a much better way to solve the problem, then flight is in order. But if neither will do — perhaps because we are in the jaws of the tiger, we may go limp. This freeze response, it turns out, is often the best way to avoid further injury from a predator.
Your horse’s desire to flee a dangerous situation is no different than yours. He and you differ only in what you judge to be dangerous. So we might be wiser if we were to say “flight or fight” rather than “fight or flight”. But that leaves out freezing, which is our last best hope for survival. If we cannot escape and cannot win a fight to the death, freezing may come to our rescue. Horses are flight animals. Fight animals. Freeze animals. They will do what it takes to stay alive. That makes them just like all other animals, including us.
Early research focused on the following reaction of precocial birds, something that is now called “filial imprinting”. Filial imprinting is useful in fostering a mother-offspring bond, and makes perfect sense. Even if a bird could learn to follow a man in boots or follow a toy train, in nearly every case the big moving thing nearby is mom, and learning to follow her is a key to survival. We can be comfortable believing that such a feat did not originate with birds, but that young dinosaurs of many species might have also followed their moms.
Filial imprinting seems to have been found in every species of bird that has been studied. We are all familiar with pictures of ducklings following a human or a dog that they have imprinted on. Whether filial imprinting occurs in other species is an open question. While there is a huge amount of early learning in mammals, it is not clear that any of this learning should be called “imprinting.” While the general public is comfortable with the word “imprinting” when talking about young mammals such as foals, scientists don’t use the term. Scientists don’t use the term “imprinting” when discussing mammals because mammals don’t imprint the way birds do. I don’t think it is appropriate to talk about imprinting in horses, but I’ll need to account for the positive effects of early exposure, so keep reading.
Once upon a time, someone captured a wild horse and succeeded in riding her or milking her. Eventually, humans figured out how to breed horses. The horses that prospered in the relationship were those who were quickest at habituation — the diminishing of a physiological or emotional response through repeated exposure. Over generations with humans, the horses that survived were successively less skittish, less nervous, more relaxed when confronting new sights and sounds. These horses were the bravest of the band. Today’s horses can handle scary stuff a lot better than yesterday’s. In fact, they seem to be able to endure almost anything. Perhaps, though, our breeding has gone too far. No one who climbed on a feral mustang would claim that it was lazy. Only the dull horses at the barn, those who’ve had the shit kicked out of them again and again, are called lazy.
Much of what we demand of our horses is challenging, running counter to their natural behavior. The challenges of unnatural horsemanship affect all ridden horses, regardless of setting: trail ride, obstacle course, eventing.
Some horses who struggle with the task of avoiding unavoidable discomfort learn to give up and become mindlessly compliant, apathetic, dull and listless. Yank hard on the bit, and they won’t turn and bite you. They’ll just suffer. Kick them hard, and they won’t buck. They’ll just suffer. A horse who believes it has no control over painful stuff may give up trying to avoid the pain. It willingly does whatever nonsense their rider asks of them. It seems to tolerate everything without excitement. This condition is called learned helplessness. We have created a lesson horse. I have met many dull horses who seem to have no life left in them. I do not like those who made him this way. I do not want such a horse. Seeing them breaks my heart.
Learned helplessness was discovered in 1967 when researchers immobilized a dog and exposed it to electric shocks that could neither be avoided nor escaped. Twenty-four hours later, the dog was placed in a situation in which electric shock could be terminated by a simple response. The dog did not make this response; instead, it just sat passively. Dogs in a control group, who had not experienced uncontrollable shock or who experienced shocks which they could control, reacted vigorously to the shock and learned to turn it off.
We should expect that a horse’s experiences of the world are very different than ours. We know that dogs can hear ultrasound — sounds higher than the range of human hearing — and that elephants can hear infrasound — sounds lower than the range of human hearing. We have learned that bees and birds and butterflies see ultraviolet light, and that a male silkworm can detect a female over 6 miles away. We know that birds can fly by the stars, and can sense magnetic fields. And so we have reason to suspect big differences between horse sense and human sense.
Much of our species’ early development was in the trees, in heavy vegetation. Horses developed on the plains, in open habitat. Humans ate fruit, and needed color vision to determine what was ripe. Horses ate grass, and didn’t need red at all. Humans hunted, and needed to be able to focus on selected prey. Horses were adept at running away from predators, but had to spot them first, somewhere on a 360 degree horizon. Our sensory systems evolved to give us what we needed, with few luxuries. So we would expect that the vision, hearing, and smell of humans and horses might greatly differ.
The immense field of view of the horse may underlie your horse’s apparent short attention span. The more a horse can see, the less it focuses. The more it can see, the more distracted it becomes. Blinders or blinkers are very useful for horses with important jobs, like racing or pulling carts and wagons. By narrowing the field of view to just what is in front, we eliminate the distractions. Of course, this heaps more responsibility on us to ensure that there are no dangers coming that the horse can now not see.
The binocular vision directly in front of the horse’s nose benefits him when he is grazing, which is most of the time. When he’s watching the grass, his peripheral vision — which is monocular — is at work watching for danger. He’s perfectly designed for being watchful while dining.
The external ears of a horse or mule — the pinnae (singular: pinna) — are much larger than ours. And unlike ours, they can be turned to focus on the source of a sound. When your horse spooks on the trail and freezes, he will turn his ears toward the source of the alarming sound he just heard. Watch those ears, and you will know where the sound came from, even if you didn’t hear it yourself.
Horses differ in what they then do with the information in what they hear. Some “bombproof” horses may not change their behavior at all. Other more reactive horses may stop in the tracks, raise their heads, freeze their body position, and wait. On receipt of further alarming information, a reactive horse may turn and move in the opposite direction from the sound.
Even if words fail us in talking about chemicals, olfactory receptors don’t let us down. In a mammal’s nose, each olfactory neuron possesses a single type of receptor; each receptor responds to several molecules, and each molecule is recognized by several receptors. Scents are discriminated by various combinations of 10 or more receptors. With 350 types of receptors, the number of ways you can produce combinations of 10 is ridiculous. As I’ll show you later in this chapter, a horse can detect about 1,816,285,375,084,304,096,155,409,990,400 different scents. That is about 1,699,868,436,439,970,000,000,000,000,000 more scents than your dog. And it is more than the number of chemical compounds possible. The perfect nose could detect stuff that doesn’t even exist! My old nose doesn’t do so well, but the nasal cavities of Mr. Horse are filled with possibilities.
Touch is very important to your horse. It is the main way that you communicate with him when you are on his back. Horses bond through touch, and relax when they are touched by a loving partner. And because his vision up close is very poor, touch becomes very important to him when you are up close.
The importance of touch is made clear when we learn that his side, where you might have once kicked him, is more sensitive even than a human fingertip or the calf of your leg, and that he can react to a touch that would be too light for you to feel at all.
If you don’t yet own a horse, should you get one? Many horse owners would tell you yessireee! But there are some considerations…
Our familiarity with dogs provides us with a model for how we see horses and what we expect of them. For many people, the first childhood experience with an animal is with a dog or cat. Familiar animals serve as a baseline of expectations of unfamiliar animals. But horses aren’t dogs.
Dogs are about 25 times as common as horses, and so we are more likely to ask “Are horses like dogs?” than “Are dogs like horses?” Dogs give us a baseline for expectations. Horse are obviously much bigger than a cat or bird, so we think a horse should be like a big dog. If it likes us, it should follow us around. It should obey us, respect us, crave affection from us.
Horses disappoint those with such expectations. And such expectations are rarely fully shed.
In the history of human dispersion, the pattern of extinctions has always been the same: add humans, subtract species. We learned to hunt, but never learned the difference between kill and overkill. Many wish to believe that climate change produced a change of habitat which had fatal effects on the horse population of North and South America, and that this happened to coincide with the arrival of humans. But another view is possible: climate created land bridges, humans arrived, the horses disappeared, and the habitat they once maintained through grazing now changed.
What do horses want? herd, carrots and grass, in that order. Especially in comparison with ourselves, horses have simple desires. None of those desires seems to suit us. Horses don’t want to be ridden. They don’t want to tear around in the round pen. They don’t want to get on the trailer. And they often don’t want to go into the wash stall.
All of our activities with our horse are our idea. They are activities that serve our goals. They approximate what we want. Just because your horse is passive and is willing to cooperate, and doesn’t speak English, you should not assume that he finds your time together pleasing.
Our language easily confuses us. Pat Parelli —a horse trainer who practices natural horsemanship and founded the Parelli Natural Horsemanship program — calls a whip a “carrot stick.” Monty Roberts — a horse trainer who promotes his techniques of natural horsemanship through his Join-Up International organization — sells halters that crush the horse’s delicate nasal bones if the horse refuses to keep a slack lead line. And he sells a bit, daring to suggest that it is comfortable in the horse’s mouth. Riders have become numb to the pain they inflict in their horse with spurs and bits, in part because “everyone does it,” in part because horses don’t use the same language or speak with the same clarity that a human does: try leading your child through the grocery store with a bit, and spur him if he slows. See how that works.
Others imagine that horses simply “move away from pressure”. So if you tap them on the back end, they move forward like robots, on instinct. In fact, horses move into pressure when they are pulling a cart or plow. What horses move away from is pain or the anticipation of pain. A tap on the back end is a threat of a harder tap. The horse has a good memory and a good imagination.
Horses adapt to the cold. In fact, they adapt better to the cold than the heat: Horses try to maintain a body temperature of 99.5°F (37.5°C). If their body temperature drops by more than 10°C or rises more than 5°C, death results. Horses can’t stand the heat, and you won’t find them in the kitchen.
Adapting to the cold — acclimatization — involves raising the basal metabolic rate to increase heat production, and adding a coat to reduce heat loss. As with other large mammals, the horse adapts primarily through changes that reduce heat loss (small mammals adapt primarily through increases in heat production)6. This is accomplished with the development of a winter coat, and as needed, vasoconstriction to shunt blood away from the skin.
When I first met my horse, the humans who knew him warned me that he was “mouthy”. Mouthy apparently means that he uses his mouth to explore the human who is walking with him. I wasn’t sure why this was a problem: he doesn’t have hands, he can’t talk, but why can’t he be physically affectionate or curious with his mouth? After all, he was exploring me by pressing his nose against me, or touching me with his lips. His mouthiness has continued over the past decade, and I know that with me, he uses it to express his trust and affection. Yesterday in the barn, he licked my entire barn coat clean — while I was wearing it.
A therapist might ask some questions of your horse, to determine if he was mentally healthy: “Do you feel like eating all the time? Do you feel fearful, but you can’t figure out why? Do you find it hard to focus?” If your horse answered yes to any of these questions, then he’d be a normal, healthy horse.
There are not many horse bad behaviors, and probably no bad behaviors that can’t be easily cured in a mentally healthy horse. Not all horses are mentally healthy, unfortunately. Common manifestations of mental illness include cribbing, wind sucking, pacing, and stereotypic movement disorders.
Bits, spurs, and saddles are all potential sources of injury, and thus of pain. As pain warns us of pending injury, a horse that feels pain from a bit or spurs or a saddle is in the process of being injured. The pain or injuries from these “aids” won’t be obvious at first — at least to us, but over a period of time the injuries may show themselves.
Bits and spurs are tools that provide more control over a horse, and riders universally favor more control. Wishful thinking helps us believe that something so useful for our needs is not something that is hurting our horse. Riders will tell you that the way they use bits and spurs doesn’t injure their horse, or cause it pain.
You might ask whether a horse would be so willing to allow a rider to mount them if the bit hurt so much. As McGreevy and McLean have noted, “It is by no means certain that horses connect pressure in the mouth with the rider. They have not evolved to expect that another animal can apply pressure to the inside of the buccal cavity via a piece of metal.”
Like most mammals, horses have only two sets of teeth. The baby teeth are deciduous, and fall out to be replaced by a second set. An old horse will wish that these permanent teeth really were permanent.
The age of a horse may be fairly accurately inferred from its teeth when it is young. As the horse advances beyond age 5, it is more difficult to be precise in estimates. Estimating a horse’s age from its teeth is a very imprecise business. Studies have shown that in many cases, there are large discrepancies between the estimated ages provided by expert clinicians and the actual ages, particularly as a horse ages. When they are young, we estimate a horse’s age from how much their front teeth have grown (and the presence of molars); when they are old, we estimate a horse’s age from how much their teeth have worn.
Knowing your horse’s weight is handy in diet analysis, determining dosages of wormers and supplements, and possibly for estimating fluid loss after an extended strenuous workout. Being able to accurately assess your horse’s weight is important in determining dosages: if you underestimate his weight, you’ll underdose; if you overestimate his weight, you’ll overdose (or he will).
If you record his weight, measuring it at the same time of day or the same conditions (eg., just before morning feeding), you’ll have a record you can use to monitor his health and see trends in his weight.
The best way to estimate your horse’s weight is to not estimate at all, but put him on a scale. But if he won’t fit on the bathroom scale, you’ll need to estimate.
If you are ordering new parts for your horse, or just want to talk about them, here is a quick anatomy lesson. The terms in the two illustrations in this section may be hard to remember, but they may better than calling everything a whatchamacallit.
I know you have a tack room, trailer, trunk, and garage full of horse stuff you haven’t been using. Nevertheless, here are recommendations for more ways to spend your money. Unfortunately, I don’t make a dime if you tell them I sent you.
I happen to live on a farm, so it seemed only natural that instead of buying a sailboat to waste money on, that I’d buy a horse. My first horse has taught me that they are just as good as a sailboat, maybe better. You can buy one for less, for instance. You can have a great time on them even if the wind isn’t blowing. You can ride up the side of a mountain, which is hard to do in a sailboat, and you won’t get bored with the scenery in the woods, the way you can when you are surrounded by ocean.
I have tried to bold face all of the big words I had to use in the text, and define them when I first used them. This glossary may help if you encounter a term and the definition is not nearby.