ID MyHorse

Inside the Mind of a Horse Part Three

In Part One and Part Two of this series, I am referencing this article that discusses how horses think. Part one discussed a horse’s propensity for flight, their incredibly well developed senses, and how they learn to become desensitized to non-threatening stimuli. Part Two reminded us that our horses remember everything and they have super-fast response times.

Although the article I am referencing was written by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker, she quotes Dr. Robert M. Miller who is an equine veterinarian and behaviorist. Dr. Miller is the one who authored the nine key aspects of equine intelligence discussed in this blog series.

Horses are easily dominated. In the wild, an older mare usually leads the herd. Dr. Miller quotes an extension specialist in equine management at Rutgers University:

“The older mare has had more experiences, more close encounters, and survived more threats than any other horse in the herd. The requirement of the lead horse is not strength or size; if this were so, then humans could never dominate a horse. Dominance is established not only through aggression but also through attitudes that let the other horses know she expects to be obeyed.”

Carey A. Williams, Ph.D.

I talk about my bay gelding, Finn, quite often. Finn has a mind of his own, as most of our horses do. Recently I hauled him to my vet friend for yearly vaccinations. (Ordering vaccines for two horses is not cost-effective.) I haven’t messed with him all winter, and I mean that literally. I knew he wasn’t going to load easily, as that is one of his favorite forms of resistance. Consequently, I attempted to load him the night before. It did not go well. Eventually he loaded, but not without a “flanker”. I don’t want to have to have a flanker, as he needs to jump in when I say so even if we are alone.

My vaccination appointment was for a few minutes after noon. At 9:30 that morning, I asked him to load. “No thanks”. We headed for the round pen. The first time I gave him an opportunity to stop and come to me, he declined. No problem, keep cantering… Eventually, he decided he’d cooperate while in the round pen. Still not willing to load. The second-to-last time I asked him to load, and he declined, I decided to up the ante. When we returned to the round pen, I pushed him very hard even though he was quite tired by this point. No easy cantering…. move on out!. We returned to the trailer after two hours in the round pen. He loaded! However, he was his usual recalcitrant self when it came to getting back in the trailer after the vet appointment. We have more work to do, and clearly, I need to convince him I am the boss mare.

Horses have their own body language. Dr. Miller suggests that all of us interacting with horses learn what our equine friends are telling us with their bodies. For example, when I am lunging Finn ad nauseum, I am looking for his head to come down and for him to start licking his lips. Until I see at least those two indicators of his flagging resolve, I don’t expect him to comply. 

Controlling a horse’s feet leads to controlling their mind. As I have been on my own journey to become a better horsewoman, I have heard this statement over and over. The premise behind it is that a horse needs his feet to flee; therefore, the entity controlling the feet controls the horse. As I mentioned above, after Finn’s second-to-last refusal, I abandoned all “nice lady” demeanor and really made him hustle even though he was already tired. The boss mare was tired, too… I used to believe ground work was for sissies who weren’t brave enough to ride out whatever the horse would throw at them. Now I thoroughly understand the incredible value of making my horse do as I ask, at liberty, in a round pen. It is a matter of trust, respect and attitude in general.

The last tidbit about equine intelligence provided by Dr. Miller is that horses hit the ground running. Unless you are involved in a breeding operation, this last morsel of wisdom is less applicable to your daily life with horses. However, just as with children, dogs and many (most?) other mammals, the imprinting that occurs within the first few days, weeks and months sets the stage for how a foal (or child) views the world in which he lives.

A peek at my front porch and four of the five dogs…

On a completely different note, my not-so-little Kara who arrived at 8 weeks and 8 pounds is now nearly 17 weeks and 17 pounds! She loves keeping up with the big dogs and she is a ton of fun.

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