By the time I graduated veterinary school at thirty years of age I felt very knowledgeable about horses. After all, I had driven draft teams at 15 years of age, judged Quarter Horses as a student in the University of Arizona, spent 10 summers working with horses in three states including starting colts that had never before been handled using non-coercive methods known today as “Natural Horsemanship.” Such methods were completely non-traditional in the Western U.S.A. and I had such success with them that I felt completely competent.
I was to learn, however, that from middle age onward, I was to learn far more about horses, and that I would never stop learning.
Beginning in my thirties, and continuing to this day I was to discover countless things, but four great things stand out:
1. Horses are a precocial species, born with all of their senses fully functional; vision, hearing, the senses of smell and taste, and their tactile sense. Their learning capacity is at its peak during the minutes, hours, and days following birth. Their imprinting period, when they immediately attach to, trust, and want to follow what they see moving around them following birth, unlike puppies (6 to 7 weeks of age), is right after they are born. So, this means, newborn foals can learn, quickly and lastingly and, if we fail to skillfully take advantage of that period, we are losing the most powerful learning time in the foal’s life.
2. Horses do not fear predators (we are, biologically speaking, a predatory species). They fear predatory behavior.
Predation takes two forms: the stalk and the charge.
Hence, horses fear an unrecognized or unfamiliar stationary object, or if it moves towards them.
Conversely, if such an object moves away from them, it is therefore non-predatory and rather than fear, the horse reacts with curiosity. This quality is a major factor in the current revolution in horsemanship sweeping the world.
3. The goal in horsemanship should be 100% respect and zero fear. It is not fully attainable because we are dealing with a prey species dependent upon flight to survive in the wild. But, it should be our objective. Leadership should be our goal, not compliance forced by fear.
This requires education, discipline, patience, and persistence on our part because we are a predatory tool using species and coercion comes naturally to most of us.
4. Horses are a very intelligent species. I loved horses but, like most people, I thought they were stupid.
Intelligence involves many mental qualities, including reasoning ability, speed of learning, memory, response time, and perceptivity. Except for the first named, reasoning, horses are remarkably high in all of the other qualities of intelligence. The horse, therefore, is a very intelligent mammal.
The horse’s brain evolved to survive in a habitat inhabited by hungry prey species. Thus the best way to stay alive when a potential predator is sensed is by:a. Staying with the herdb. Following the leader (usually an older, experienced mare.c. Running fast away from the threatening stimulusd. Running genetic pre-determined Flight Distance which, in prey species, is slightly farther than its primary predator can run. Thus, the horse sprints just far enough to escape the short-winded but speedy large feline species. If the flight is too far, they may run into another predator.
These four understandings greatly helped me to understand equine behavior and how to best communicate with them.
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