The horse is above all else a herding animal: memorize this fact and let it guide you in your dealings with these noble creatures of grass and sunlight. Nature has designed these swift-footed beings to live among others of their kind, and this plan is highly successful, contributing to the safety, health, and overall psychological well being of each individual. In fact, this design has proven so successful that horses have been galloping on the planet for over 50 million years.
Think of a herd as a family or a tightly knit, effectively run business community. Each member has a task and by performing it, all of the others in the group reap the physical and emotional profits. For example, each horse in the group is on constant lookout for danger. If any is spotted, it is immediately communicated through visual and/or auditory signals. The safety of the herd, as well as each individual is maintained as a result.
The herding instinct is the reason why horses need companionship. An isolated horse is a sad sight indeed, and it is never in the best interest of the animal to be alone. It can lead to stress related illnesses of the mind and body.
Both herd and individual behaviors can be sex-related. To illustrate, mares may act more affectionate when in season, and stallions are notorious for their prowess at gathering mares. Sex-related behavior is one reason that some people prefer gelded horses bypassing, so to speak, sexually motivated conduct.
Now to generalize, there are two types of horse people: those who love horses and those who love horse related sports or riding. No matter what kind of horse person, however, it is in the best interest of every handler to know his animals individually, their general conduct, their actions, and their reactions. Though this is a time consuming endeavor, its pay off is well worth it. Horses are as individual as people are, and knowing a particular temperament is absolutely necessary for personal safety, as well as for the horse’s health and safety.
To illustrate the point, though it is usually the case that before kicking many horses send a warning, perhaps by backing and lifting a hind leg, adding a quick switch of the tail, some individuals never follow through on a warning, while others will immediately follow up, or send no alarm at all. Similarly, horses who have been handled roughly, say earlier in their lives, may have developed individual behaviors that are hazardous to those around them, though initially these may have been adopted as defense mechanisms. At any rate, it is imperative to know each individual’s quirks and idiosyncrasies.
Likewise, a sick or injured horse will communicate his state through his body language; therefore, it is most important to know common and typical looks, stances, and movements. Doing so can serve as a template against which to compare and contrast other suspicious behaviors or attitudes. Horses rarely misbehave for sport or spite; instead, they act out of discomfort or pain, which is then interpreted as misbehaving. Any behavior atypical of the animal’s routine is suspect and ought to be investigated further. Your horse’s health may depend on your ability to perceive subtle changes.
Your personal safety can depend on the ability to read and to interpret a horse’s body language, which is the announcer of behavior.
Like other animals, a horse communicates his state of mind by using his body, and when in doubt about a particular horse or signal, it is always best to err on the side of caution. Basically, the ears, neck, and tail in particular are the main indicators of the horse’s mood. Generally speaking, pointed ears mean a happy horse, one interested in her surroundings. Ears pinned back, however, signify an angry animal. There are far too many visual cues to a horse’s state of mind to be listed here, so in sum, those interested in pursuing a life with horses ought to thoroughly educate themselves through reading books and through learning from the experts.
Remember that just as you read your horse’s physical state through nonverbal communication, so, too, is he reading yours, and it is therefore necessary to keep this always in mind when working around or with the animal. Your body language or tone of voice may be telling him that you are angry or scared. Horses, for all their size and strength, are most sensitive beings, and they will pick up on the slightest nuances. More than this, they will react to you and your physical and mental state. Handlers who are unaware of or are unconcerned with the messages they are sending their horses have caused endless trouble.
Positive interaction is the key to an enduring relationship built on mutual trust, care, and love, and knowing your horse’s behaviors is the first step in building a foundation on which you can build a lasting, loving, trusting relationship.
Sharon Janus, is the author of The Magic of Horses: Horses as Healers, lives at the foothills of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado with her husband and her horses.