Flight or fight – these are the choices all animals, including us, must make when faced with danger. Human instinct has become overshadowed by logic and we more often think our way out of dangerous circumstances with greater success than if we acted by impulse alone. Horses do not have that luxury yet for thousands of years humans have brought these creatures of flight into an equine unfriendly environment and expected them to behave completely out of character. These thousands of years of domestication have yet to erase their drive to flee when faced with danger and fight only when running is not an option.
So how do we, humans, build a successful relationship with our four-legged half-ton partners so that both sides of the equation remain safe and confident in any surroundings? The short answer is that we must understand how horses function both physically and mentally.
Anatomically horses are designed for grazing, mating, giving birth and wandering far and wide in as big a herd as the stallion can gather for there is safety in numbers. Mentally they are able to deal with predators, challenging stallions, searching for food and water and watching each other’s backs. Their main day-to-day goal is to eat and not be eaten. In order to accomplish these basic goals their sense of smell and hearing is keen and their eye sight much different than our own.
The placement of their eyes on the sides of their head allows horses to see and register movement on either side without turning their head. Because the eyes do not focus forward depth perception is lacking – this is why that half inch deep puddle creates so much consternation for your horse – you think she’s being silly but she simply cannot tell if it is indeed that shallow or if it is hundreds of feet deep. All she sees is a dark contrast on the landscape that she may not even realize is water – it could be a hole just waiting to gobble her up.
The inner structure of the equine eye is equally designed for quick flight. They see things bigger and moving faster than we register such. That plastic bag floating on the breeze might serve to remind you to bring your re-usable bags to the grocery story but in your horse’s eyes can look more like a parachute ready to land on and bury your snorting friend.
Equines also have a very diminished corpus callosum. In animals whose eyes face forward this is an axon (like a fiber optic cable) rich tissue that connects the two hemispheres of the brain so the right side knows what the left side is doing. The lack of this tissue allows for each side to register and react to what is happening independently of the other. This explains why after working for hours on that left shoulder-in the right shoulder-in is not any easier than before you began the other – the ability to transfer that sort of information from one side to the other is physically lacking.
So now that you know that horses are designed to see danger from both sides coming at them fast and furious just how do you create an animal that does not react as nature intended?
Exposing horses to all things foreign must start from birth. Allowing babies to experience all sorts of obstacles and human accessories without restraint and in small doses gets those leggy sweet-faced critters off to a good start. If mom is around and capable of dealing well with whatever you wish to expose baby to all the better. Beach balls, barrels, puddles, tarps and whatever other harmless equipment you have lying around can be tossed into the paddock for baby to explore on her own. Once that is well tolerated you can then start moving them around and bouncing, dragging and rolling them around so that baby finds this distraction interesting but not terrifying. Keep at these exercises until you can touch the foal with all the same obstacles – little or no reactivity should be your goal.
Keep expanding exposure to human items and circumstances with a positive approach and baby will grow up into a confident four-legged partner that looks to you when faced with the unusual. If you always understand that unusual for horses is different than unusual for humans and every new experience will (generally) be handled well by most horses.
The above exercises can also be utilized for re-training older horses that have not been exposed to enough of the human world to allow them comfort in such. Older horses may have developed fears where curiosity would have served them better when younger but a slow and steady exposure to the strange items of human existence will build a more confident horse regardless. Keep in mind however that more confidence does not necessarily mean total confidence so you must allow that individual reactivity will, of course, be different from horse to horse, but with patience and time most horses will come around to dealing with the human world very well.