Horses For Dummies
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You need to comprehend the world that the horse lives in to be able to understand and properly care for the horse. Think about it: The world of horses is not composed of fast-food joints, unbalanced checkbooks, and vacations to far away countries. Instead, horses live in a world made up of hay and grass, buzzing insects, and assorted horsy politics.

Looking at the world through a horse’s eyes can open up all sorts of avenues for communication between you and the horse. A good horse trainer or handler is a good horse communicator. When you finally connect with your horse, you’ll find that suddenly, this huge, four-legged alien is very special.

Equine instincts

Horses have a way of thinking about and viewing things that is uniquely their own. The evolution of horses as prey animals gives them a special viewpoint that helps them survive.

The components of this perspective (such as viewing the world as a series of threats, finding safety in numbers, and looking to an authority figure for guidance) make up the essence of the horse’s being. The human who understands and sympathizes with these sometimes unhuman-like ways of looking at the world is the person who becomes most adept at conversations with the horse.

Prey, not predator

The first thing you need to know about horses to really get into their heads is that horses are prey animals, not predators. (The one interesting exception to this fact is in Iceland, where Icelandic Horses have been seen catching and eating fish from the ocean.) In the wild, horses are at the top of most large predators’ dinner menus. Dogs and cats, on the other hand, evolved to be hunters. Consequently, the horse looks at the world differently than the domesticated dog and cat.

Nowadays, horses live in domestic situations where their biggest worries are horsefly bites, but try telling that to a horse. Long before humans ever considered building barns, haylofts, paddocks, and arenas, bolting from a potential threat is what literally saved the horse’s hide. This instinct to flee first and ask questions later is at the core of every equine personality.

You don’t need to spend much time around horses to witness the equine instinct to flee: In a nutshell, horses scare easily. They often spook at what humans view as the most benign of things: a plastic bag blowing in the wind, a low-flying plane passing overhead, or a car backfiring nearby. To humans, these distractions are minor, but to the ever-watchful horse, they are potentially life-threatening hazards.

The ease with which horses spook may seem ridiculous, but the instinct to flee from trouble is at the center of a horse’s psyche. Although most domestic horses don’t have predators chasing them, they nevertheless have a powerful instinct to be on guard. Their brains are telling them that horse-eating monsters are out there, so they need to be on the lookout. If a real predator can’t be found, then, by golly, the horse will conjure up a hunter to run from.

Let’s stay together

Closely associated with the get-the-heck-out-of-Dodge-now instinct is the herd instinct, which is represented by the horse’s burning desire always to be with other horses. This need stems from the fact that in the wild, large numbers mean safety. It works like this: Pretend for a moment that you’re a horse, and a huge, terrifying saber-toothed tiger has selected horsemeat for his next meal. When a big cat starts chasing your herd looking for prey to take down, the chances of you being the horse that gets nailed are less when a whole herd of other horses surrounds you.

In addition to decreasing your odds of being the unlucky item on the big cat’s menu, being in a herd also means that you can find out about impending danger much sooner than you would if you were alone. After all, a herd of eyes is better than one measly pair.

Yet the horse’s love for other horses is not completely mercenary, however. You only need to watch a group of horses out in a field to discover that they genuinely enjoy each other’s company. Although each horse is an individual with his own distinct personality, horses nonetheless thrive on companionship and bond strongly with their herdmates. They groom each other with their teeth, take turns tail swishing flies from each other’s faces, and even play horsy games together, such as tag and I-dare-you-to-try-and-bite-me.

Follow the leader

Horses are social creatures, and they even have their own societal rules. In any given herd of horses, some horses are dominant and others are submissive. Horses follow a precise pecking order, with one big kahuna at the top of the heap who lords over all the other horses. The individual personalities of various herd members, along with factors such as age and physical ability, determine which horses take on different roles within the herd. All in all, horse society doesn’t operate that much differently than human society.

Human beings, on the other hand, have benefited greatly from the horse’s intrinsic need for leadership. The horse’s penchant for dutifully submitting to authority is what ultimately enabled humankind to domesticate the horse thousands of years ago. After a human earns a horse’s respect (the same way a leader horse must earn the respect of his fellow horses), the horse views the human as an authority figure to be respected and followed in much the same way as he views the leader horse.

When a human fails to gain a horse’s respect early on in their relationship, the horse automatically takes charge. From the horse’s perspective, every herd — even one made up of only two members — must have a leader. Although first impressions are important to horses, overrun humans can make up lost ground by becoming more assertive and telling the horse (in so many words), “I’m the one in charge now.”

In the same way that horses test the leader horses in a herd, they also periodically test their human companions to make sure that the humans still are worthy of leadership. Horses that misbehave often do so to challenge the authority of whoever is handling them, and they’re incredibly astute at determining the qualifications of those giving them orders. For a horse to feel secure, he must have strong leadership. If you don’t measure up in this department, or if the horse has a history of dealing with humans that don’t measure up as leaders, the horse will take the leadership position from you — and we promise you won’t like the results!

For example, in horse/human relationships where the horse has taken charge, you often see horses leading humans around the stable instead of vice versa. Leader horses that are being ridden make the decisions about where and when to go, despite their riders’ pleas.

Equine followers feel safest when they have a strong leader making decisions for them and helping them determine what is and isn’t dangerous. Human leadership accounts for why many horses find comfort in their associations with human beings. If we humans do things right, they see us as leaders. And if we say things are okay, then they must be okay.

The role of leader places a great responsibility on human shoulders, of course. We must convince the horse that we are confident and knowledgeable and worthy of their invaluable equine trust.

Equine senses

From the horse’s perspective, you need to know — or literally see — how the horse takes in the world. Humans evolved to be hunters and gatherers, chasing down prey and finding appropriate plants to eat. Horses, on the other hand, are built to avoid hunters and eat nearly everything that grows around them. Given these fundamental distinctions, the horse’s senses are bound to have nuances that are somewhat different from those of a human.

Horse's sense of sight

Sight is the most important equine sense. For a prey animal like the horse, in the wild, good eyesight means the difference between life and death. Literally seeing trouble coming is the best way the horse has to make it to safety before a predator gets too close.

Because horses have long, narrow heads with eyes on either side, they have the ability to take in more of the view than do humans. When their heads are facing forward, horses have a nearly 180-degree field of vision in each eye (as shown in the following figure). They can see in front of and almost all the way around their bodies, although they do have some blind spots.

horse range of sight A horse can see this much when facing straight ahead.

One of a horse’s blind spots is directly behind, so you should never approach a horse from the back unless the horse already knows you’re there. If you’re already next to the horse and move toward his blind spot, keep one hand on him at all times so he is aware of your presence.

No one knows for sure how far horses can see, mainly because horses have trouble pronouncing the letters on eye tests. Scientists who have done experiments in this field have made some educated guesses that horses can see pretty darn far, in the realm of at least hundreds of yards away. Horses can distinguish patterns, which means they’re able to take in fine details. They also perceive depth well.

Horses also have much better night vision than humans. Many a rider has been out on a dark, moonless trail, dumbfounded by his or her horses’ ability to see where the pair is going despite the incredibly dim light.

Scientists know far less about horses’ color vision than they do about other areas of equine sight, but they’re certain that horses see many of the same colors that we see, with two exceptions: red and green. In fact, they believe that horses have the same color vision as humans who suffer from red-green color blindness. So red and green don't look the same to a horse as they do to a person with full color vision. That said, horses are still able to pick out the greenest grass in a field!

Horse's sense of hearing

A species that survives by getting a head start on marauding predators needs a pretty good sense of hearing. The fact that horses have survived all the way to modern times is testimony to their incredible hearing, which is considerably better than a human’s.

If you look at the shape of the horse’s ear, you can see that it’s built sort of like a funnel. With this design, the ear can capture sound in its outer part and channel it down into the ear canal. The broad outer part of the horse’s ear very adequately takes in the slightest sound in the horse’s environment.

The horse’s ear also has an amazing ability to swivel. Just watch a horse’s ears sometime while the horse is busy eating or just hanging out. You’ll see one ear turn forward, while the other swings to the back. Sometimes both ears go forward at the same time, while at other times, both are poised to the rear. The purpose of all this twisting is simple — to take in as much information as possible at one time.

Using their extremely mobile ears, horses constantly monitor the world around them. Just imagine trying to pay complete attention to different sounds coming in to either ear at the same time. Impossible for a human, yet the horse does this on a steady basis. A horse can take in the sounds of a car driving by, children playing, a bird chirping, and a human approaching, all at once, from different places in the environment. The horse then processes that information and makes split-second decisions about whether to react — all the while picking out the best blades of pasture grass or meandering down a rocky trail. The process really is mind-blowing.

Loud, unfamiliar noises can send a relaxed horse into a tizzy. On the other hand, a placid, reassuring sound can ease a horse’s worries. It’s amazing to see how a frightened horse can be comforted by a soft, gentle voice from a calm and confident human. Keep this fact in mind when handling your horse in a particularly noisy or frightening environment.

Horse's sense of smell

Like most nonhuman animals, horses have an acute sense of smell that they regularly employ to provide them with information on what is going on around them. Horses use their sense of smell in a number of different and important ways.

People talk about smelling danger, but when it comes to the horse, this metaphor is literally the case. Nature equipped the equine with a strong olfactory sense that can tell the animal whether a predator is near. All it takes is a strong upwind breeze to bring a dangerous scent to the attention of a wild herd. After getting a whiff of the predator, the herd literally high-tails — their tails stick way up in the air as they flee — it out of there in a flash.

Horses also use smell as part of their complicated social structure. Horses typically greet each other nose to nose, each taking in the odor of the other. Horses also come to recognize each other by scent and by sight. Mares and foals quickly memorize each other’s scents and use this information to help locate each other in a crowd of horses.

Most horses also greet humans in the same way. When you introduce yourself to a horse for the first time, notice how the horse reaches out his muzzle to sniff you. Given this olfactory penchant, the most polite way to approach a horse is with the back of your hand extended so the horse may take in your personal scent. Letting a horse breathe in your scent tells the animal that you are a fellow herdmate (not a predator), and usually makes the horse more agreeable to being handled.

The equine sense of smell also comes in handy when it’s time to eat. Although horses also use their eyes and muzzles to ferret out the tastiest morsels in a pasture, sense of smell plays a part as well. One plant may look just like another to you, but a horse can get a sense of whether foliage tastes good by first getting a whiff of it.

Horse's sense of touch

The equine sense of touch is an important (although often overlooked) element to the horse. Although many people think that horses have tough hides, they really don’t. Their skin obviously is tougher than human epidermis, but it still is rich with nerve endings. If it weren’t, how else could a horse possibly feel a tiny little fly landing on his body? Trust us, he can!

If you sit on a pasture fence and watch a herd of horses for a few hours, you’ll see plenty of evidence of how horses use touch to communicate with each other. Mothers reassure their babies with a brush of the muzzle; comrades scratch each other’s itches with their teeth. Whenever a message needs to be sent from one horse to another, visual cues and touch — or the threat of it — nearly always are used.

Humans also use touch to convey messages to the horse. A gentle rubdown, a pat on the shoulder, a vigorous massage in just the right place — these all are ways of saying, “I’m your friend,” to a horse. Sometimes, if you’re lucky, you get a similar tactile message in return.

About This Article

This article is from the book:

About the book authors:

Connie Isbell is a former editor and writer atAudobon magazine, as well as the editor of numerous pet books. Audrey Pavia is the author of many books on pets and animals, including the bestselling Horses For Dummies and The Rabbit: An Owner's Guide to a Happy Healthy Pet. She has been a frequent contributor to numerous pet publications, editor-in -chief of Horse Illustrated, and senior editor of The AKC Gazette.

Audrey Pavia is the former editor of Horse Illustrated magazine and an award-winning writer of numerous articles on equine subjects. The author of seven books about horses, she has also contributed to Thoroughbred Times, Horse & Rider, and many other animal magazines.

Janice Posnikoff, DVM, is a highly respected equine veterinarian with over 20 years experience. She is a graduate of the Western College of Veterinarian Medicine, University of Saskatchewan, Canada.

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