Horse Psychology can be defined as:
”the scientific study of the horse’s mind and its functions. Encompassing the mental characteristics or attitude of the species”
(link no longer available)
This field of study is growing so hopefully, as we come to understand horses better, our care of them, and thus our relationships with them, will improve.
To understand how a horse’s mind works you need to study horses in their natural environment, ie in the wild, not in the stable. This gives you an insight into the nature of the species. The Horse Stall website Horse Stall website says that domesticated horses are protected by their guardians and provided with food and care, therefore they seldom have to think about much “other than play or having their own way”. They say that for these horses their “reasoning comes from boredom, the desire to get out of work, and a search for forbidden food”.
To me this view comes from a rather negative mindset. Sadly horses are sometimes labelled as being ‘stupid’, ‘stubborn’ or ‘lazy’ but I believe that generally it is more a case of us not understanding the world from their point of view.
Horses are herd animals and a prey species therefore their first instinct in times of potential danger is to run away. If they are not able to run for some reason, then they will fight. One trigger for this flight or fight behaviour is rapid movement. Horses also have a structure within the herd and, when this is stable, each horse knows his place within the society, and knows how to behave.
Humans, on the other hand, are predator animals and we tend to make sudden movements. Also we often don’t understand the signals that horses are sending out. Our challenge therefore is to not act like a predator and to learn how to interact with our animals in a way that does not trigger their fear. It would also be helpful to learn and respect the herd structure and to work with that, rather than against it.
Our two species actually have quite a bit in common, since both horses and humans are very sociable creatures and we each operate according to our social rules, the difference being that the rules for horses are first and foremost based on their instinct for survival. To a horse, the way he behaves, certainly in the wild, could mean the difference between life and death.
We also share many emotional states with these animals. They too feel love, fear, sadness, loneliness, loss, anxiety, and happiness. In addition we both respond to others who make us feel confidence, trust and respect, and we both like to feel safe.
On the other hand, horses do not have an ego. They do not tend to hold on to baggage in the same way that we do. They generally do not carry guilt, judgements, prejudices, shame or the need for approval. When interacting with horses, therefore, it is important to understand how they see the world and not to view their behaviour through a human lens, applying labels from this judgement. We can observe how they behave towards each other and work to find a middle ground where horse and human can meet and develop a mutual understanding and a shared communication.
Next week I’ll look at some of the ways horses use body language in their interactions.
(You can read this article in full here)