Horse-Human Relationships - Improving Training By Assessing Your Horse

By Mary Ann Simonds

No two horses are alike, and yet we often try to use the same training techniques on horses with various learning styles. Although good horse educators do adapt their training techniques to fit the horse, far too many either decide the horse is "no good", or help the horse develop behavioral or physical problems. Most behavioral problems stem from misunderstandings between horse and rider. Many problems can be prevented if a little assessment of the horse is conducted prior to training.


The first step is to assess your horse's temperament or horsenality. Although, most horses share the belief that fleeing a potentially harmful situation is far better than sticking around to see what happens, there are those whose curiosity overcomes their desire to be afraid. Whether this is functional or dysfunctional behavior compared to the true nature of the horse is irrelevant to our domestic training situation. The fact is that horses, like people, do have different temperaments and may respond in various manners to the same stimulus. A horse with a big ego backed by confidence is usually a good communicator and retains its composure under stress, but a horse with a big ego with little or no confidence may be quiet and fearful, and this otherwise confident horse flees or becomes nervous under stress.

Mares seem to retain more "wild horse" genes than geldings and hence, may be forgiven for their erratic displays of control, communication, screaming, alarm, and generally trying to outsmart the humans. Geldings on the other hand, sometimes do not even know they are horses and if they do, they do not know how to act like a horse. Since horses are a matriarchal society, mares are the primary teachers and leaders, and this role does not seem to leave them if they are in a captive and domestic situation. If your horse does not know how to act like a horse, it will be difficult for him to comfortably adjust to life without help if he is living with other horses. If a good horse "mom" is not around, then this task falls upon the human to teach his horse how to become a functional and well-mannered horse. Understanding general horse behavior, as well as your horse's individual temperament, is essential to building a better working relationship. In evaluating your horse's temperament, you can assess his level of sensitivity, awareness, intelligence, confidence, and cooperation. This will give you insight into how your horse perceives his world and allow you to better develop teaching tools to help your horse learn.


The next thing to assess is your horse's level of sensitivity. Many horses are very sensitive, but lack attention or awareness. A sensitive horse often over-reacts to all kinds of stimulus from sounds, smells, sight, taste and touch, as well as diet and other changes. He will often have tense muscles if he internalizes his stress reaction. Since horses hear, smell and taste much better than we do to begin with, we must become more aware of these sensitivities and try and help our horses become de-sensitized. It is easy to test for sensitivity with most horses. Loud noise will usually startle them and sudden changes or movement will usually make them jump. Sudden spooking at objects can also be a sign of poor vision in one eye or both. Very few horses have perfect vision all of their lives and often one eye will see things differently than the other eye. If your horse is only sensitive to vision and not to sounds, smells, touch or taste, then he is likely not an over-sensitive horse, but one with poor vision.

An easy way to help your horse overcome his sensitive reaction is to override his sensitivity with another pleasing stimulus such as food. When a horse is eating carrots or some of his favorite food, he becomes very focused on taste and enjoyment and is not able to respond very well to other stimulus. If your horse is sensitive to noises, start by introducing a variety of moderate noises while he is eating. You can also stroke over the withers and engage a relaxation response. Introduce only one stimulus at a time. As your horse gets accustomed or habituated to the stimulus you can introduce more.


Sensitivity should not be confused with awareness. An aware horse pays attention and is focused not only on you, but on what is going around on you. He is able to process sensory input, while at the same time staying "tuned-in" to you. Horses with higher awareness have a sense of who and what they are and usually do not have the attention-deficit-disorder (ADD) so often found in many animals today. To test for awareness, ask your horse (on the ground) to pay attention to you without looking away at other stimulus. Determine if another horse can come up from behind without your horse turning to see her. Is your horse aware of what is going on around without having to turn his attention away from you? Watch his ears to see if they can go in both directions. Does one ear go back and one stay focused on you? Does your horse have the ability to "multiple process"? Can he focus on more than one task or stimulus at a time and without becoming distracted? Is your horse able to anticipate accurately what is about to happen or is he always surprised? Does your horse whinny or turn his attention away the moment he becomes aware of something he wants? People usually develop very deep bonds with horses they are sharing awareness with; hence many special relationships are formed with "aware" horses.


Evaluating intelligence in a horse can be difficult, unless we have a baseline with which to compare what an intelligent horse acts like. Assuming nature has produced through evolution an intelligent species able to adapt and sustain itself, we can use modern wild horses as a baseline for intelligence. Although there is a variety of intelligence in wild horses, most horse leaders are very bright and most wild horses are smarter than most domestic horses. If a horse is highly intelligent and wants to please the human, the horse often will internalize stress and show little or no reaction on the outside, even though the stimulus may bother him. At the other end of the spectrum is the smart horse who has figured out that he is smarter than people. If this horse is mistreated, he will often turn into an aggressive and difficult horse. Intelligent horses are not always the best candidates for domestic endeavors, since many of them become board or feel what they are being asked to do is not important to their way of thinking. Many of our domestic horses are "special learners" by wild horse standards. Domestication itself has encouraged retardation in many species; why should the horse be an exception? Having a horse with a learning disability may be just what is needed for the "hunter" to "pack" around a 3 ft. course over and over again without becoming board.

To test for intelligence there are simple exercises you can conduct with your horse involving your horse's ability to engage deductive reasoning. Horses often have good memory, but difficulty figuring out new ways of doing something once they have learned one way. For example, if you always lead or allow your horse to go through a specific gate to get to the pasture or to food, and then you move the location of the gate, an average horse will spend some time worrying how to find the new opening. A smart horse will watch or quickly figure it out by searching, and a less than average horse may become very disturbed and fret back and forth wondering why it can't get out. You can do this exercise with food or horse friends to provide a motivation for your horse to get through the opening.

Hiding food under buckets and various objects requiring your horse to engage his senses and memory also will test his intelligence. A smart horse will quickly learn the game and go around searching all objects for food. An average horse will learn that if the food is usually placed under a specific bucket, then that is where it expects to find food and will not usually look beyond that bucket. A less than average horse may smell the food, but be unable to determine where it is located. A variable in all of these exercises is the motivation. Some horses are very smart, but are not motivated by food or friends to play these games.

Another test goes back to the "my space, your space" game in which using body language or a squirt bottle or gun you define your space and do not let your horse enter your space without your permission. An average horse catches on to the idea in three to four times, if it is not already used to walking over people. A smart horse usually grasps the idea in one or two times, particularly if it is a sensitive horse. A slightly retarded horse will act offended and clearly not understand what you are asking. It may take several sessions before a horse with a learning disability understands the concept of my space your space. This is why so many domestic horses get injured when turned out with other horses; even after getting kicked by other horses they do not understand the idea of spacing. Although spacing is the foundation for horse social skills as well as language, many domestic horses have spacial awareness problems because they were never taught this by their mothers or other herd mates.


Assessing your horse's level of confidence is important, because most behavioral problems originate from a lack of confidence or understanding. Most horses are "chicken" when it comes to scary things. Actually, less intelligent horses often are calmer around scary things, because they have not learned to be afraid or their reaction time is slow. In the wild, these horses may have been dead for not reacting. However, many retarded horses are very easy going as youngsters, then as they become 5 or 6 year olds, they become more afraid. This is because as immature horses they are still in the curious and fun stage of life where everything is still an adventure in learning. As they mature, much as retarded people, what was once fun now becomes stressful, particularly if they have any pain associated with the endeavor. Regardless of your horse's intelligence, you can help him become more confident by conducting the "safe-space" training. In this exercise you have firmly established yourself as a worthy leader and your horse willingly follows behind your shoulder, stopping behind you when you halt. Standing next to your horse's shoulder with your hand stroking the withers, ask another person to approach you with something scary. This can be sound or visual. You must judge at what point your horse becomes worried and have the person with the scary sound or object back off. The idea of the game is to be able to walk all around your horse with the scary object while he "holds his safe space" with you, and while you relax and stroke the withers.

In effect, you are overriding the brain. The front brain perceives a threat, while you stroke the withers communicating to the back brain stem to relax the body. If the relaxation response is greater than the threat, the horse becomes more and more confident. When something scary goes away, the horse may not understand who made it go away, but it is imprinted with the belief that either you or he or both of you together made the scary thing go away. The horse will usually signal that he is pleased with himself and understands, by dropping his head, yawning, stretching his neck, licking his lips or chewing. At this point you want to praise and reward the horse for his bravery. Horses do have "egos" and to build a confident horse you must help the horse develop a healthy ego.


The perfect horse may have all of the right levels of intelligence, sensitivity, awareness and confidence, but be very uncooperative. This may be fine for a wild horse, but not for a domestic horse. Most horses that are uncooperative become this way because of pain. Even after the pain disappears, the horses retain judgment and sometimes resentment towards humans and learn to cooperate as little as possible. It is not difficult to test your horse's level of cooperation, but you should always check for pain before passing judgment. A horse has the right to communicate to you when something is wrong by resisting. It is your job as the human caretaker to determine where the horse is hurting and help correct the problem. Many horses that refuse to go forward are telling you the saddle hurts or you are sitting crooked. The bucking horse is often telling you his back, sacrum, stifle or hocks hurt. Horses that suddenly run off for no apparent reason often get a sciatic nerve pinch and the pain scares them causing them to run away from the pain.

Horses that are good one day and uncooperative the next may have nutritional imbalances. Carefully checking diet and making sure the horse has the right amount of nutrients can make a big difference. Giving your horse free choice vitamins and minerals, allowing him to determine what he needs, often surprises people who thought they gave their horses everything they needed. Calcium/Phosphorus or B vitamins imbalances are a common cause of misbehavior in horses.

If you can rule out all physical reason for lack of cooperation, then you can use the "moving space" exercise to help establish leadership as well as using natural remedies such as flower essence remedies to help encourage a more cooperative attitude. Leadership skills, whether for horse or human, take time and energy to develop, but the results are worth the commitment.

In general, the better you get to know your horse as an individual being, the more your relationship will grow together. By determining your horse's learning style and temperament, you can select the appropriate training techniques that will best help your horse learn. Horses, like we humans, are mammals, and we are not so different. They are a social species desiring to feel the bonds of herd friendship and support and seem to enjoy interacting with us for companionship and exercise. They require motivation in order to learn and look to the social leader for guidance. Horses usually openly express their feelings to us, and thus it becomes our responsibility to listen and respond as leaders and friends. In doing so, both of us can benefit from a joyful, fun and fulfilling relationship.

Enlightened Horsemanship

Mary Ann Simonds

17101 NE 40th Ave.

Vancouver, WA 98686


About the author:

Mary Ann Simonds, MA is a behavioral ecologist, holistic health educator, and exemplary horsewoman. Her equine-related experiences and accomplishments are vast, and range from video author to advisor on wild horse management. She has been riding and learning from horses for over 35 years. Mary Ann is currently the president of the IAATH (International Alliance for Animal Therapy and Healing) and lives at Wisdom Stone Farm in Vancouver, WA with her husband, son and family of animals.