The tension that we sometimes see in our domestic herds is due to the unnatural conditions in which we keep our horses. There could be perceived competition for precious resources – eg food, water or space – or frequent changes in their surroundings or herd members resulting in them exhibiting stressed behaviours.
In addition, when we see the strength and power of these large animals we often feel that we need to keep control by dominating them, and this causes them to fear us and the punishments that we give. These punishments make no sense to horses. To them, their behaviours are seeking to avoid a fight. They prefer a quiet life because, as a prey animal, fighting within the herd wastes energy and distracts you from looking out for prey.
If we focus on dominating horses, this will come across as aggressive and the horse could feel threatened. This could push him into one of the stages of the fight / flight response:
In any of these stages, we have lost his attention because he is focused solely on diffusing or avoiding the tension that he feels. If we don’t understand his signals, and think that he is deliberately misbehaving, we might resort to punishment which only adds to his fear and distress.
Also if he is tied or being ridden, any attempts to get away will probably be futile adding to his stress and possibly causing him to shut down.
Another problem with using punishment is that the horse will probably not make the connection between what he has done, and the punishment he is given.
A horse refuses a jump and the rider comes off.
If the rider then picks himself up and goes to shout at the horse, who is now calmly grazing nearby, the horse will not understand. To his mind he has moved on and is just looking after himself.
Even if the horse does make the connection, he is learning what is not wanted, not what is wanted.
Fear based relationships are unstable and unpredictable. The horse might comply as long as he is more scared of the human than the environmental trigger. But what happens when something comes along that is more scary than the human?
Viewing things from the perspective of dominance versus submission also means that we are less likely to spot the subtle signs that horses use to maintain herd cohesion and harmony. eg
- looking away
- licking lips
- relaxed ears
When working with a horse (or any animal) it is very important to be consistent and clear, with the signals we use, our boundaries and even our behaviour / mood. Doing this helps the horse to feel safe around us because he comes to see us as predictable and learns that he can trust the relationship. This particularly applies if you are not the only person working with the horse. If he gets different signals from different people, it could be confusing for him.
Our signals also need to be clear, that is, not contradictory. Sometimes horses struggle because we think we’re saying one thing, but our body language / energy is actually saying something very different. For example if we’re trying to teach boundaries to a horse when we’re not clear about holding these for ourselves.
The information in this article was taken from my workshops and video series on giving horses a more natural lifestyle and the benefits that this brings, not only to them but to their owners / carers. To see more, please follow this link:
If you have comments or questions about anything in this article, or if you would like to book a session with me, please don’t hesitate to get in touch:
mobile: 07980 669303
You can also read more about me and my work on my website: www.equenergy.com
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