Your Horse's Instincts: Reaction vs. Response
By Stan Walchuk, Jr.
I have just brought home a Brittany Pointer pup and at ten weeks old, I am surprised at how deeply programmed is his instinct to point and to search things out with his nose. I also just finished reading the wonderful book Seabiscuit, and was similarly surprised to learn how deeply seated is the instinct in racehorses to run and also to have “fiery” behaviour.
So I began to think about horses, their natural instincts and past experiences, and wondered what role instincts play with trail horses. This is not a subject of absolutes but I believe it is worth considering. Of course, horses do not point or retrieve like my puppy, or fly south for the winter like the Canada Goose, but they have some very definite and pronounced instincts.
The most basic instincts of the horse are related to its survival as a prey animal. First and most obvious is the fear instinct, commonly referred to the fight-or-flight instinct. Second is the herd instinct, the inborn desire to be inside the nucleus of the group, and the instinctive understanding of herd hierarchy, dominance, and how to fit in. Third is the horse’s acute awareness and sensitivity to their surroundings, including other horses and people.
The fight-or-flight response arising from the fear instinct is “reactive,” an immediate action in response to a stimulus in the horse’s environment where every fraction of a second counts for survival. This is good for horses but bad for humans because, as the trainer or rider, we want the horse to think before it acts. We want a “response” to our pressures and cues, and when confronted with a situation on the trail we want the horse to act responsively, not react impulsively. The difference between responding and reacting is huge.
I agree with trainers who recommend that the rider must make sure that the horse is not experiencing pain or discomfort when the horse reacts negatively or violently to bitting, saddling, riding, or handling. For example, if I am on the trail and a twig gets between the saddle pad and the horse, I expect my horse to react by showing discomfort, not by bucking, dashing off, spooking, or trying to bite someone.
Teach your horse to make controlled responses rather than react instinctively by desensitizing him to touch all over his body and to a wide variety of objects. Photo courtesy of Stan Walchuk, Jr.
Most of the bad habits we deal with, such as being hard to catch, bucking, spooking, pulling, kicking, or barn sourness, are impulsive reactions rooted in the horse’s survival instinct. Recognizing this contrary behaviour as reactive helps us to understand that the horse doesn’t always think he is doing something wrong, rather, he is simply reacting based on instinct. This understanding makes the difficulty we’re dealing with less personal, helps us to hold our temper and become more patient, and tells us that we need to get the horse’s mind beyond the point where it reacts, to the point where it responds. Building a controlled, responsive mind is the essence of training. Keeping instincts in mind, let’s look at some of the steps along the way…
First, remove the fear. Again and again I see horses placed in trail situations when no time has been spent nor training given to remove their fear. People often get hurt because they did not take the time to build trust with the horse, or to familiarize the horse with surroundings, activities, and training methods. Your horse should always be comfortable with your presence before you train or ride (excluding careful halter breaking and early round pen or lunge line work in which your goal is to build that trust). This may mean confining the horse to a corral with repeated contact, giving treats (being careful never to lose respect), and whatever else it takes to get the horse comfortable being around you. This can be difficult if the horse does not like people, and if that’s the case, you need to ask yourself if this is the right horse for the trail.
Second, remove the fear of contact. If the horse bucks, kicks, pulls, spooks, or reacts negatively in any number of situations, go back to the beginning and start desensitizing him. Do not even think of riding or training beyond the round pen and lunge line until the horse is completely desensitized to touch anywhere on the body. Always begin in the least sensitive areas, like the shoulder, and work gently along the back and upper legs, eventually moving to the upper neck, ears, belly, groin, ropes between the legs, etc. If the horse reacts negatively to this type of basic touch, then desensitizing should be the focus of your training before moving on to more advanced training such as indirect pressures, lead changes, etc. All of our trail horses are expected to eventually (sooner rather than later) accept having a noisy poly tarp rubbed over their entire body. Remember, the idea is to be able to control instinctive negative reactions and change them to controlled responses.
Feet are of paramount importance in the fight or flight response. When you control the horse’s feet you control the horse’s movement, which moves you up the hierarchy of dominance in the eye of the horse. We never attempt to ride, pack, or do any advanced training until the horse moves freely upon command. This is easy enough to do in the round pen or on the lunge, and then in close quarters, with leading, stops, and starts. Controlling the horse’s forward, backward, and sideways movement adds to your position of dominance. Keep in mind that it is instinctive for horses to impose, bully, and fight for position on a daily basis. If you do not have position above the horse, your ability to earn controlled responses is about the same as a yearling trying to tell the dominant mare what to do.
I am convinced that some bad habits can be instinctive and may not be exclusively learned behaviour. We once purchased a friendly mare for breeding purposes and she came with the worst pulling habit I’ve ever seen. She had a nice colt and I was careful never to tie her or let the foal know she had any desire to pull. The colt was weaned and the mare sold. Three years later, when the colt, now a gelding, was well trained and had become a reliable young riding horse, he decided one day out of the blue to go into a pulling frenzy. The desire to pull seemed to just click and stay with this horse.
Some breeds or types of horses, such as Thoroughbred racehorses, are by nature more likely to instinctively react to environmental stimuli.
Instinctive, reactive behaviours can be more prevalent in one horse than another, or with one breed compared to another. There is a marked difference, for example, between cold blooded and hot blooded breeds when it comes to instinctive reactions such as spooking, running, or bucking.
As I get older I have less time and desire to deal with poor behaviour, and I’ve become less willing to blame poor behaviour on past circumstances. I am not as willing to accept explanations such as that someone was harsh around his ears and now you cannot touch them; or that someone didn’t tie him properly and he got loose and now he pulls, so he can’t be tied to anything. My opinion on reactions like bucking, pulling, spooking, or general stubbornness is that you should always give the horse the benefit of the doubt and try to correct the issue. But, there comes a point when you need to decide if this behaviour, which is at least partly innate, is something that you want to live with, especially if the behaviour puts your safety at risk.
Horseback riding is considered more dangerous than riding a motorcycle, automobile racing, skiing, football, and rugby. In fact, it has been named one of the three major sporting activities in the northern hemisphere most likely to result in long term disability. One study reported an estimated 102,000 horse related injuries in the USA annually from 2001 to 2003; of these, 11,500 were traumatic brain injuries.
If you want to be a safe trail rider and enjoy your time with horses, understand that your horse’s behaviour may be more deeply rooted than you realize. Although you can certainly improve behaviour with training, do not be afraid or ashamed to know when it’s time to get a more forgiving horse that is not so deeply entrenched in reactive behaviour, no matter where the behaviour came from.
It is in a horse’s nature to flee from predators. Instinctively, horses consider humans to be predators, so being your friend is not a desire that comes naturally for your horse. When we begin our relationship by jumping on a horse, all of those extremely keen senses which have allowed the horse to survive for millennia in a world full of predators are focused on us. And horses can read us like a book. When you lack confidence, the horse knows it. If he takes advantage of you and acts beyond your attempts at control, this, too, is instinctive for him. I wonder how many of those thousands of injuries previously mentioned might have been avoided if riders did not challenge themselves with horses whose minds have not yet been taken to a point of controlled responses.
Train yourself, know your “horse” limit, and stay within it. Happy Trails!