Horse Psychology Tutorial: Part 2 Survival Instinct

Horse Psychology Tutorial - Part 2 Survival Instinct

Photo – © Dimitar Marinov – Fotolia.com

Survival Instinct
Part 2 of an 8-part series on horse psychology by trainer Gina Gaye Muzinich of the Morgan Horse Ranch

Horses have always been vegetarians and years ago they lived among large flesh-eating animals. In other words, horses were food! They were designed with a built-in fear system to aid in protecting them since they are not abundantly equipped with external protective devices such as horns, antlers, claws, or fangs. Some of their instincts and tools of survival include quick reflexes, living in herds, sensitivity to the slightest movement of air or ground vibrations, keen hearing, acute sense of smell, superior vision, great memory and of course the ability to run fast.

The horse’s strongest natural reaction to frightening situations is to run away (bolt). If horses can’t run because they are restrained, confined, or lame, they’ll try to break loose, kick, bite, or even lash out with their front legs (strike). Any act of fear is called spooking or shying. If a horse spooks while being ridden, he may buck or rear to get rid of his rider so he can then run away. Any horse that does this has not been fully trained (fool-proofed) no matter what age he is or what level of training he’s had.

1. The Runaway Horse

The runaway horse is carrying out the kind of behavior that allowed his ancestors to survive. If something frightens an individual loose horse, he will usually only run a safe distance away. Then he will slow down or even stop to look back. If the thing approaches him, he will run again. If he is chased, he will continue running until he’s exhausted. He may try to fight but usually fighting is a last resort. If you hear a story of how a horse spooked from a deer and ran, carrying his rider all the way home, it wasn’t solely because of the deer. Sure, the deer may have initiated the run but the rider’s ignorance, exhibition of fear and accidental body cues may have caused the horse to continue running. He may have continued to run because perhaps in the past he got away with it, and this time kept running just to get home or someplace where he’d rather be.

What are some examples of the rider’s exhibition of fear and accidental body cues that may cause some horses to bolt or continue running?

Perhaps the rider:

(a) did not gain control immediately or before the horse gained momentum.

(b) tensed up, causing more bounce and imbalance on the horse’s back, which kept him going.

(c) inadvertently squeezed his legs to hold on, thus causing the horse to move onward.

(d) yelled something such as, “WHOA! WHOA! WHOA!” in a loud terrified voice, and subsequently frightened the horse which kept him running.

(e) pulled or jerked the reins, inflicting pain which caused the horse to become frightened of the rider. A dangerous thing about this is that a horse will hold his nose out and his head and neck high because he is trying to relieve the pain from the bit. This position can blind his vision in front of him causing him to stumble or crash into objects.

If other horses run from something, most likely an individual horse will too. He does as others do even if he has no idea what others are running from. This survival act is called “herd obedience”. This is why groups of horses may stampede. When a group of horses and riders meet a hiker on the trail with a scary looking backpack, a horse that is normally not afraid of backpacks may become afraid simply because he is reacting to the other horses that are showing fear. Because of this herd obedience coupled with incomplete training, you should not ride fast past other horses and should stop and wait for other people who, for any reason, have stopped their horses.

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