Real Horses Real Behaviour

With so many books, training methods and documentaries focussing on the "more exciting" elements of equine behaviour, it is easy to think of horses as biting, kicking, dangerous beasts. Yet if you take some time to observe a herd of feral horses, you will find a very different story. It becomes very boring - all they do is eat!

According to seminal studies, such as Joel Berger's "Wild Horses of the Great Basin: Social Competition and Population Size", more than 98% of a stallion's annual time budget is spent in non-aggressive activities. Those aggressive encounters which take place tend to be brief (less than 90 seconds) and between members of different herds, rather than between members of the same herd. There are even fewer aggressive encounters involving females. Most "aggressive" encounters would consist of threats (e.g. ear-pinning) and less than 8% were actually followed through with any contact. If we follow a method in which we try to emulate the "herd leader" in our herd of two, what are we telling our horse if we resort to anything more aggressive than a grouchy face?

So it seems that real horses are sociable, gentle creatures - who very occasionally enforce their opinions. They live in cooperative herds, typically family groups without any aggression-based hierarchy. They choose who to follow, they make decisions regarding food, water, play, rest. They wear no shoes, yet have no problems covering many miles of challenging terrain every day. They wear no rugs but are able to maintain their warmth through food, movement and an effective thermoregulatory system.

So how close can we come to this ideal, yet still do things with our horses? I feel very strongly that, as a trainer, I need to be honest and put my suggestions into practice, rather than preaching from the safety of my computer screen. I keep my horse at a livery yard where he lives out in a herd of geldings day and night, all the year round. I'm pretty lucky in that, not only is full-time turn-out allowed at my yard, there is also enough grass to go round and hay is put out daily in winter - but then I have looked at many livery yards before choosing this one and am happy to sacrifice other facilities, such as a decent school. I don't clip, use rugs only when really necessary and keep Jak barefoot - we started this management regime gradually and he has been thriving on it ever since, significantly reducing his long-term arthritic symptoms. I train with mainly positive reinforcement, keeping any pressure to a minimum (unless of course he's having a scratch!), yet without dropping all boundaries. Shaping and counter-conditioning are key and we have a constant and mutual give-and-take. I ride him in a sidepull (form of bitless bridle,) which took a bit of retraining so that he could learn the new, more subtle cues, but we are there now. We have spent the last few years getting out and about, riding barefoot and bitless in various competitions, sponsored rides and mock hunts.

This might sound pretty unrealistic to you if you know a horse who bullies his companions, tells you who's boss unless you are tough with him and/or could not make it through the winter without a rug and/or stable. I do not advocate for a minute that every horse should be instantly turned out 24 hours a day, without rugs or shoes, trained only with positive reinforcement and ridden in bitless bridles - every horse must be treated as an individual and we need to find the balance between our desires and our horses' needs. But I do believe that the more we can give the horse what he has evolved for 60 million years to need instinctively, the better our chances of obtaining the harmonious relationship with our horses that we all desire, whatever our chosen discipline. I also believe that we can improve their health and minimise injury this way. I have found that when a horse is (supposedly) unable to live out, go barefoot or be trained without coercion there is typically a good reason for it - normally a human-related reason which could be changed if you would like it to be changed.

We had done this series of steps twice before, both times as part of mock hunts - i.e. at top speed after other horses! But when doing them again during a sponsored ride and by himself, Jak found it much scarier. He needed to stop and think about each stage - and why not? We all know that we can do things when our adrenalin is racing that we wouldn't normally do. Building confidence in a horse (and rider) is all about shaping and teaching things gradually. Don't wait until the day of the competition to discover that your horse is scared of some of the fences - find a way to shape and practice (Photographs reproduced with kind permission from the photographer, Anna Jackson.

Jak Jak Jak Jak

I do not believe it is possible to force a horse (or person or dog...) to trust you, to respect you, to want to do things for you or to move beautifully. All we can do is to humble ourselves in front of these incredible animals and allow them to be. We can become people who are worthy or their love, respect and trust by showing love, respect and trust for them.

This sounds obvious and certainly not new - many people have said it before me - but to achieve this state is not easy. It is not sufficient just to learn a step-by-step commercial methodology which treats all horses and trainers similarly. It is not enough to expect the horse to meet minimum requirements before you can trust him - this has to start with you. Learning to put the ego to one side, learning to make mistakes and accepting that the horse will make mistakes are all vital.

This is a steep learning-curve for most of us - but one that is so rewarding. You too can learn to put the horse first and benefit from the relationship that such an approach brings. It is an approach for anyone, regardless of whether you have your horses at home or, as I do, at a livery yard - it takes committment, not money. Can you rise to the challenge of recognising the real horse and allow him his real behaviours? Can you learn to adapt your behaviour rather than constantly expecting him to adapt his? And can you learn to do all this whilst still continuing with your chosen equestrian disciplines? If your answers are yes (hooray - well done you!), then I would recommend that you start by learning some basic ethology and behavioural science from the articles and recommended reading on this site. Start by learning about real horses and their real behaviour.

Copyright Catherine Bell 2006