It is a common and widespread belief that horses, being a flighty prey species, automatically fear predatory species. It seems logical to believe this.
The horse is a prey species. It is a grazing creature that, in the wild, always lives in herds on grasslands. It evolved millions of years ago surrounded by hungry predators mainly of the dog and cat family. This included wolves, lions and saber-toothed tigers.
Unlike many grassland prey species, such as wild cattle, sheep, goats, rhinoceros, and elephants, the horse is equipped with neither horns nor tusks. Its primary defense is flight. The horse’s anatomy and its physiology are designed to sprint from perceived danger.
What precipitates flight is the perception of predation, not the presence of a predator.
I became aware of this for the first time in 1949 when the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus came to Tucson. I was amazed to see a full-grown Bengal Tiger riding on the back of a horse. “How is such a thing possible?” I thought. “Doesn’t the horse, a prey animal, automatically fear a tiger, a predator?”
I had seen wild horses that had never had human contact panic when a man first approached them in a pen. That seemed “normal”. In time I observed that when such horses were approached by children, or most women, they were less inclined to panic. Why?
Similarly, when such horses were approached by a friendly, casual ranch dog, it did not result in blind flight. Weren’t dogs predators?
Predation usually take two forms:
I have been twice on veterinary safaris to East Africa. There one will see lounging prides of lions, a short distance from grazing herds of zebra, a close relative of the horse.
As long as the lions are resting quietly, the zebra, always aware of the lion’s presence, do not flee.
But, if a lion arises and stretches, the zebra focuses on it. If the lion then casually moves away from the zebra, they go back to grazing.
If, however, the lion crouches, becomes motionless and stares at the zebra, they immediately prepare to flee.
I noted, long ago, that when stallions want to propel their range herd of mares and youngsters into flight, they assume a predatory stance. They lower their heads, crouch, and fix their eyes upon their “quarry”. This motivates the herd into flight away from the predatory behavior even though that behavior is being displayed by a fellow prey animal – a horse.
Thus I learned that horses do not fear predators. They fear predatory behavior, the stalk and the charge. So anything unfamiliar to the horse that is stationary is alarming. It might be just a trash can, or a discarded box, or a rock that somebody painted their initials on, or a resting animal that it has never seen before like a pig or a llama – anything! This is why horses may shy at an unidentified stationary object. It isn’t stupidity. It is nature’s wisdom. In its natural environment in the wild, this is how horses manage to survive.
Similarly, anything unfamiliar, unidentified that moves towards the horse, may be identified as predatory behavior, and for the horse, the best way to escape a predator is by flight.
If we respond to such behavior by inflicting pain, as with the whip or spur or violent reining, we establish permanent fear of whatever caused the “spooking”. So if a horse shys at a sheet of paper on the trail, it is thinking “I see an unfamiliar stationary thing. I had better run away from it or it may hurt me”, and then if we hurt the horse, we have confirmed its fear. And, horses don’t forget. Horses with poor memories did not survive over the millions of years.
If an unfamiliar object comes towards the horse, say a kid on a bicycle for the first time, or a hiker with a big backpack, or a golf cart, or a tumbleweed, the horse’s natural reaction is flight. It’s not stupidity. It is nature’s wisdom. It’s the key, for a horse, to survival in the wild.
Horses can be desensitized, with amazing speed to any sensory stimulus, no matter how severe, providing that it causes no pain. Thus horses can become oblivious to the loudest noise, the strongest smell, the sight of anything no matter how vivid, and the touch of plastic sheets or electric clippers, or ropes on its body, and even a tiger riding on its back.
That’s why horses were so vitally useful to mankind for so many millennia in warfare.
Once we accept the concept that horses do not automatically fear predators but they do fear predatory behavior unless they are methodically and properly desensitized to it, we can understand how to best get along with and communicate with horses.
We will discuss such methods of desensitization in a future article.
Since horses have infallible memories it should now be obvious how important the first experience of any kind will be to a horse, regardless of its age. The first experience with people, dogs, cattle, curry combs, electric clippers, wheelbarrows, flags, halters, bridles, saddles, foot trimmings, fly spray, motorcycles, crossing a puddle of water, whatever, will be remembered forever. If that memory results in what we regard as an unsatisfactory response, it can be changed. However that requires skill, experience, patience, persistence, and empathy. Anger, impatience, and violence will worsen the problem.
Now you can see why determined, aggressive rapid movements and a fixed gaze on a completely green horse causes the horse to regard us as a predator, whereas a casual relaxed, soft approach, halting and even retreating if the horses reacts in a frightened manner is the best way to initially introduce a horse to anything new. Retreat is non-predatory.
Later, after the horse accepts the new experience with the indifference, then you can gradually increase the intensity of the experience. As long as it doesn’t cause pain the horse can accept it.
Horse training consists simply, of giving horses a choice between comfort and discomfort. The discomfort can be mental or physical and it can be quite mild. It does not have to be severe. The ultimate goal should be 100% respect and response, but zero fear. It can be done.
What a terrific article and perspective! Thanks Dr. Miller! Wow!
I was once at a horse event where, quite near the stables, trailers of circus lions and bears were parked while one of them was recuperating from surgery at the nearby vet clinic. We were all amazed that the horses paid no notice to these predators. Now I know why!
I have a 3 year old mare who was recently injured. She will be stabled of 3 weeks, in an open stable. Our neighborhood which is surrounded by mountains has several packs of coyote. given all these circumstances is my mare still safe?
Hi Deborah. I apologize on missing this but this is a good question for Dr. Miller directly and he evidently didn't receive the notification of your question. I'm going to email him directly and ask about this for you even thought the time has passed as it could be helpful to someone else in the future. Thanks again! :) -Angelea
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