Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Psychology of the horse and rider: II

In Psychology of the horse and rider: I, I talked up the importance of the mental state of the sport horse in competition. No brilliant revelations in that post -- most people would agree that horses have emotions, opinions, and preferences. I remembered another good example from dressage. Louise Nathhorst and Walk on Top were World Cup winners in 1997, but Walk on Top had his issues. He was known for shying violently at the patterns in a newly groomed arena. Imagine. Louise had to grapple with horsie inattention as soon as they entered the arena. As for myself, when I start to forget my horses have distinct preferences, they'll do something to re-remind me.

The other extreme
At the other end of the spectrum, I occasionally hear people overestimate a horse's mental capacity/reasoning too. Have you heard other riders or trainers make statements like these?

  • "He's acting lame to get out of work."
  • "Look, he stepped on my crop and broke it -- on purpose!"
  • "He spooked in that spot because he saw a horse fall there last year."
I don't know. While horses have personalities, I don't think they have super-complicated agendas or the capacity to scheme. Do you agree?

What do horses want?
Although you can't always predict specific horse behavior, you can usually predict what will motivate their behavior...
  • They are social, and preoccupied with herds and hierarchy.
  • They are body-conscious, focusing on what they feel (touch, pressure) and what others do with their bodies.
  • They love what is familiar and predictable
  • They are order followers -- they listen to the alpha dude, if there is one
Need an example?

I'm told that horses running round a race track behave as if in a "herd." The subtle ways they interact can affect the outcome of the race. Think how subtle their actions and reactions must be to be interpretable during a race! In dressage, jumping, and eventing, horses are alone in the ring or on course with the rider. What relationship do we have with them, and how does it impact our success in competition? Do horses think of us as herd members, or are we just these weird creatures that they try to incorporate imperfectly into their world? Certainly we're speaking different languages -- they're very body-conscious and we're more verbal.

What this means for competition
I truly think that most horses are not natural leaders -- they want nothing so much as to have someone else in charge. Even if they challenge our authority, they are ultimately more calm and confident when they can relinquish control to us. In competition, such as events or horse shows, they don't know for sure what to expect, and they will look to us. We need to show leadership from the time we open their stall door till we leave the ring on a long rein.


  1. Really interesting post. I've been thinking about this subject a lot lately. First, as to whether horses "scheme" etc., I think you're right as to the examples you give. They aren't that manipulative. I also think, however, that horses can quickly learn how to "get their rider's number." For example, horses can learn that if they spook, a timid rider will end the ride or the exercise, and then that becomes a regular evasion to work.

    As to our leadership role, I agree. We need to be confident leaders, but at the same time, I'm finding lately that we can sometimes suffer from not letting the horses think enough for themselves. I'm a bit of an over-protective mom, and the more I learn to let my horse find his own way (in my case, to the jumps, but it might apply in dressage as well), the better off we do. At least if I let him think for himself, more often than not we end up on the same page. But, most of the time, that feels a lot like handing a 16-year-old the keys to my truck.... We're a work in progress!

  2. I'm kind of in the middle about all of this. I've seen the gleam in my horse's eye when he knows he's "gotten my goat," so I'm pretty well convinced they have a sense of humor. And I watched my horse hide around the side of the barn when one of my friends came by. He peeked out, then pulled back, waiting for her to be off guard. Then when she decided it was safe to lean on the fence to talk to me, he charged out to scare the heck out of her. I am totally convinced the whole thing was not my imagination at work.

    Sometimes my riding turns into a compromise as well. Leader I may be, but I have to listen to what my horse is telling me so I can make the decisions that will work for both of us, physically and mentally.

    I have learned to never underestimate my horse's intelligence, but also to always remember that he sees the world from a horse's perspective, not a human's. Forces my brain into a continual adjustment mode.

  3. Sense of humor, yes!!! Harv definitely, and Riley's getting a little guile too. He knows when I'm not looking, he'll nip me, then exaggeratedly move his head away from me like he's minding his own business (waiting for a bus?)

  4. "He's acting lame to get out of work."

    My TB gelding used to do that when I still competed with him, he did it quite often. He'd see us getting the float ready that morning or the night before and when I'd come to get him he'd be lame and acting all pathetic. Fast forward to a couple of hours later and he's galloping up to me for a treat perfectly fine!

  5. I have left you a blog award here: http://nanjodogz.blogspot.com/2009/07/blog-award.html

    Pick up when you get a chance. Have a Happy Fourth of July!

  6. I totally agree about them being comfortable following a leader. My boy is a well known stubborn, opinionated bully. (In part how I ended up with him.) But he is more relaxed when he lets me take the lead. He just tries to re-arrange the pecking-order often.

    I try to stay in the role of "dear leader" at shows to keep him from upsetting the apply cart. He stays calm if my body language shows confidence and I breath deeply and slowly. He's learning that he is safe following the "boss hoss". After a couple of years together, he usually "asks" before he overreacts.

  7. Yes we must be leaders! I think people often misinterpret this to mean dominant bully though. I like to think of a good human leader behaving as a good alpha mare would. The one that is vigilant at night, stern and proper with rules, but still shares her hay at the end of the day.Nice post!

  8. My horse clearly has some decision-making capability. This spring he had a sarcoid tumor on his lower lip. I was treating it with human chemotherapy cream once a day for two weeks, then every other day for two weeks. The vet cautioned me not to get it on my own skin, and gave me rubber gloves to wear when applying it. It was quite caustic, I guess.

    Champagne really resisted it, and even when the barn manager used a chain across his upper gums he refused to stand still for the cream. Finally she got out a twitch, and that worked. I hated to hurt him, but the tumor was growing and had to be treated.

    After three days of using the twitch, we showed Champagne the cream and the twitch. he looked at them both, then lowered his head and stood patiently still for the cream, no twitch, no fuss. He obviously picked the lesser of two evils. I never had to threaten with the twitch again.

    It was fascinating to see him choose. And by the way, the sarcoid has now completely vanished.

  9. The horse in my avatar had agendas, and if he got bored during his workouts he came up with innovative ideas on how to liven things up. He also picked on the barn help; i.e. he would either spit water at them through the stall bars or pieces of crunch. I disbelieved one stall cleaner until I saw water streaks on the floor outside the stall to the opposite wall eight feet away. He would also somehow get another horse to go to the eletric fence to 'see if was on' before going to the gate to unlatch it and let himself out. The odd times he was ridden by other people he would pitch 'em if he took offense to something they did. This is a horse that could buck stiff-legged as high as the top of standard jump posts, and twist around in the process, though he never did these routines with me.

    The intelligent horses can be quite manipulative. Most disbelieve it until they witness it first hand.


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