We’ve talked about a variety of relevant topics in recent articles; how to tie a horse safely, options for hoof boots, horse shopping, shows and local events.
However; the most significant matter that needs to be understood well before anyone ever handles or sits upon a horse is the fact that equines are prey animals.
As a predatory species, human beings often have a very challenging time comprehending this, let alone putting the necessary effort into developing an in-depth understanding of the needs, thought processes, nature and innate reactions of a prey animal.
People like to anthropomorphize, attributing human traits to non-human species. In the case of other predators (dogs, cats for example) there may be no overt danger to doing so. In the case of a 1,000 pound animal whose instincts in no way mimic those of our own species, we’re putting both the animal and ourselves in danger by failing to regard it with due respect and building at least some reasonable comprehension of how that particular animal views the world.
Some basic concepts that may keep you alive and help keep your horses in one relatively healthy piece for a few minutes longer;
1. Being a prey animal means everything else in the world could be a predator. The garbage can, plastic bag, dog or skateboard at any given moment could prove life-threatening. When one’s life is in danger, the instinct to flee to safety kicks in. Safety means any place that’s far from the life-threatening object. Anything that is in the way (you, kids, cars) will be run over or run into on the way to perceived safety.
2. Learn to understand and read the horse’s body language. Is he swishing his tail because he’s angry or just brushing away flies? You can tell the difference if you pay attention to the degree of tension in the horse’s tail dock and the manner in which he’s moving. Are the horse’s ears pinned back? That’s a warning. It’s a sign of aggression. The horse is feeling threatened in some way and will strike if provoked. Is the horse bearing its teeth? If so, it is prepared to bite. Is the horse pawing the ground? Again, this is a sign of aggression and tension. Unless you have a trick horse that’s been trained to paw on cue, something is causing agitation. Pinned ears do NOT mean the horse wants to play. If the horse is showing her teeth, she is NOT smiling. Horses act like horses and their physical cues have specific meanings. Learn what they mean.
3. If the horse presents you with its hind end, there is a high probability that you will be kicked. In addition to the biting and striking that are performed with the opposite end, kicking is another primary mode of equine defense.
4. Horses do not know how to protect themselves from sharp objects. Trainer Meisja Wagner has advised that,
If you can run around naked in the paddock with your eyes closed and not get hurt, your horses should be safe.
It’s a proven fact that if you cannot run around naked with your eyes closed in the horse’s enclosure, your horse will get hurt.
5. Horses need a leader. It’s in your best interests to be the leader. If you don’t take the job, in your herd of two, the horse will be obligated to take on the role herself. In order to be an effective, trust-worthy and respectable leader, you have to understand how a horse needs to be lead. One of the simplest ways to do this is to spend a little time observing a herd of horses and noting their interaction. You’ll soon spot the alpha of the herd. Note how they direct, reprimand (if necessary) and lend confidence to their group.
6. Be aware of your body language. Horses speak physically. Everything you do physically is saying something to your horse. It’s a very good idea to be aware of exactly what it is you’re communicating to this 1,000 pound prey animal with which you hope to have some sort of relationship.
7. When leaders are in a hurry, it means danger is nearby. If you’re tense or rushed around your horses, you’re telling them to switch into a defensive and reactive frame of mind.
8. Leaders only squeal and make high-pitched noises when they’re under attack and/or in pain. Control the tone and pitch of your verbal emissions.
In summary, become aware of the horse’s nature and learn what it means to be a prey animal as opposed to possessing human (predatory) instincts. Be aware of the horse’s body language and understand what they’re attempting to convey through their actions. Be aware of your own body language so that you can better comprehend what you’re physically communicating to your horse. Be aware of the pitch and volume of the sounds that you choose to emit when you’re with the horses.
Awareness and respect are the most vital elements for safely and successfully interacting with horses.