Horses are highly intelligent animals but they are naturally reactive creatures seeing as they are prey animals. Which I talked about in the second post of this series that you can check out here:
Like all animals, they have instincts that dictate many of their behaviors. When horses are handled by humans, they must be trained and learn how to go against their animal instincts.
Instincts are inherent behaviors animals have which are natural responses to certain situations and triggers. This comes from the left side of the brain which is the more subconscious reactive side. Unlike the right side of the brain which is more logical and active thinking.
Because of using mainly the left side of the brain horses often react before they think. In order to be safe while handling and working around horses, they must be trained to use more of their right side which is the thinking side to become less reactive.
The reason it is important for you to learn about a horse’s instincts as an equestrian or a person around horses is for your safety, for the horse’s safety and so that you can have more understanding, know what to expect in certain situations, and empathy towards horses when working with them.
Horses are driven by 4 major instincts.
- To be perceptive and alert to danger.
- To flee from fear.
- To be social and gregarious.
- To mate
These are not all of the horse’s instincts. But they are some of the main ones that you will be dealing with on a regular basis when working with, riding, and training horses.
Perception To Danger: The Horses Senses
Hearing, vision, smell, and touch are extremely acute in horses. This is so important for them to be able to detect danger. We are often unaware the horse is sensing something because we can’t sense ourselves. The horse may be reacting to these things and we are wondering why the horse is acting this way.
Horses hear things the human ear cannot hear. They can also figure out which direction the sound is coming from.
Humans have good color vision and depth perception, but horses see mostly black and white with some pastel colors and have a good all-around vision but not good depth perception.
One thing you may notice is that horses get nervous on a windy day. This is because everything is blowing and moving and this makes it harder for the horse to see a predator that could be stalking them.
Horses are also very sensitive to touch. You may have heard they can feel a fly land anywhere on their body. Only in our fingertips do we have the sense of touch that a horse has over its whole body.
The horse’s acute senses help them be extremely perceptive to any potential threats. The more alert a horse can be in the wild the more chances the horse would have to get away in time.
Horses Flee From Fear
Horses are naturally nervous animals, they are ready to run at any sign of danger. They don’t like to feel confined or trapped because that blocks their ability to flee. So that being said they are a bit claustrophobic.
It’s also worth noting that some horses are more sensitive than others. All horses have these instincts to some degree. But some are more reactive than others.
The horses that are considered brave and not as spooky just have more of a tolerance and it takes more to set off their fear, and flight or fight instincts.
Think of this. In the wild horses have to flee from predators to survive. So in the wild, horses that are more sensitive and reactive to take off and run tend to be the survivors.
When A Horse Can’t Flee From Fear
If a horse feels threatened and they can’t get away or think it can’t get away, then often it will resort to fighting. This may be biting, charging, stomping, kicking, bucking, broncing, rearing, and throwing themselves over backward.
Often horses display warnings with their body language before they lash out, such as swishing the tail vigorously, pinning their ears, swinging their head, swinging hindquarters toward the threat, biting the air, and grinding their teeth.
It is important to know about these instincts and the warning signs a horse gives when they feel threatened because even though you may be working with trained horses, they will always have their instincts. Horse’s instincts haven’t been trained away. They will stay with horses throughout their lives.
When something is bothering a horse, causing discomfort or fear, such as an ill-fitting saddle, or something moving in the trees, they can become reactive and instincts kick in. It’s not always that the horse is being bad and I don’t think they are being bad. I think they are not thinking and just working on instinct.
Horses As Social Animals
In the last post of this series, I talked about horses as herd animals. You can check it out here: Equine Psychology Mini-Series: Horses As Herd Animals | Part 3
Horses’ instincts are to stick together in a herd. Without a herd, the horse doesn’t have the added protection, as well as ears and eyes looking around for potential dangers.
So another main key to survival is sticking together in a herd. It is a lot harder to kill a horse in a herd than one on its own. In the herd, horses communicate mainly through body language which I will be covering in the next post.
Horses Instinct To Mate
All animals have an instinct to reproduce and horses are no different. Working with horses you will come across this instinct if you are working with stallions and mares. Sometimes but much more rarely geldings too.
Stallions have a very strong urge to mate and in the wrong hands can be very dangerous, if they have that on the mind. That being said some stallions are milder tempered than others and have even been confused to be a gelding.
Young inexperienced equestrians should not handle Stallions. They can be unpredictable and easily take advantage of someone not knowing what they are doing.
A mare goes through reproduction cycles. So if you are working with a mare you will notice that when she is in season, she will be focused on wanting to mate. Sometimes mares can be more moody or friendly during this time and you just need to learn your horse’s particular behavior during her heat cycle.
Geldings are the most level-headed and they have been castrated so for most the urge to mate is totally gone. However, sometimes a testicle was hidden and not removed and these horses still display stallion-like behavior. Some geldings have been fully castrated and they still are interested in the mares. It depends on the horse.
The most important thing to understand about horses is that they are flight animals. People sometimes think the horse is just being stupid or misbehaving when they run off or act up.
Just remember the horses’ instincts are telling them:
- Stick together to survive.
- Keep on watch for any danger.
- Run from any potential danger.
- Fight the danger if you can’t run.
- Time to mate
These aren’t all the horses’ instincts like I said before, but it gives you a good idea of what to expect when working with horses. Next week I will be posting on horse communication. If you want to be emailed when it is available, then sign up for the newsletter below.
Posts In This Series
- Understanding Horse Behavior Before You Work With Horses: Equine Psychology Mini Series | Part 1 Intro
- Horses As Prey Animals: Equine Psychology Mini Series | Part 2
- Horses As Herd Animals: Equine Psychology Mini Series | Part 3
- Horse Instincts: Equine Psychology Mini-Series | Part 4
- Horse Communication 101: Equine Psychology Series Part 5