Horse behaviour


Horses are intelligent animals that are very capable of learning. But all horses are wild inside and have a natural flight instinct, something you should always be conscious of when training with them.

"As with all animal training, you need to find the animal's motivation if you want to teach it anything. You also need patience," says Jenny Yngvesson, a researcher and teacher of aetiology, animal protection and animal welfare at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU).

"I regard horses as wild horses. Whether it's a harness racing horse or a Shetland pony, all horses are wild on the inside. For this reason, anyone who deals with horses must be aware that they are herd animals, have a flight instinct and need to eat grass practically all the time. This are the things that motivate horses," says Jenny. She explains that all animals with a flight instinct are afraid of things, and this fear negatively affects their learning ability.

"If you want to teach a horse something new, it mustn't be afraid as that's a bad starting point. Also, anyone who wants to train animals needs knowledge of the animal's learning process. You need to understand the difference between positive and negative reinforcement."

While some horses clearly show their fear, others are harder to read.

"Some rear their head, show the whites of their eyes, flare their nostrils and snort to warn the other horses in the herd. Others are more discreet, until they have a sudden explosive reaction. The maximum sign of fear is panic and bolting."


"Horses aren't stupid"

Fear of thing and situations can be trained away. One important thing to understand is something a horse is not afraid of in its home surroundings might frighten it at a competition or at the stables.

"A horse may need to repeatedly be taught the same thing in different places. This isn't because horses are stupid; it's something that has helped them survive for millions of years. They've adapted to life as horses. So don't lose patience."

Unlike cows, for instance, which have horns, horses have no natural defence weapons so tend to run away if they feel threatened.

"They might kick, but fleeing is their best defence. Again, they're not stupid. They run first and think later because this has been their most successful survival tactic for millions of years," explains Jenny.


Turn negative into positive

A frightened horse can be calmed down, and Jenny has some useful tips to share in this respect.

"You can turn a negative reaction into a positive one. This is called counter-conditioning and means that the horse learns to associate something frightening with something positive, thereby inducing a positive reaction to the thing that originally frightened it. For instance, you might get out the horse lick along with the horse clippers. Say your horse is afraid of umbrellas. Have one person hold the horse and another person hold the umbrella. When an umbrella is opened, a horse often initially reacts by rearing its head. If this happens, the person holding the umbrella can back slightly. Lead the horse slowly towards the umbrella while the person holding the umbrella continues moving backwards. Finally, have the horse nuzzle the umbrella. When it does, give it a treat to eat. This turns a negative reaction into a positive one. If a horse refuses one of its favourite treats, this means it is very frightened, so make sure to back away before the flight reaction kicks in," says Jenny, and suggests learning to take a horse's pulse.

"This helps you gauge how frightened it actually is. The easiest place to take a horse's pulse is under its chin near the throat, or inside its front leg near the knee."

Stop before triggering the flight instinct

Is your horse afraid of being transported? It's not alone.

"It's natural for horses to be afraid of travelling, although not all of them make a fuss about it. If your horse is afraid of the horse transporter, don't start training it on the morning you need to leave. Start maybe a month in advance by bringing the horse close to the transporter. Next, take it right up to the transporter. Then go a little way in and slowly and steadily take it further inside.

It can also help to have an older horse that is used to travelling present during the training.

"You can train the fear out of an anxious horse if you are willing to spend time on it. Don't be discouraged or lose patience. And make sure you never push the horse far enough to trigger its flight instinct. Stop before that happens.


Take control of yourself

Is it true that horses pick up on the rider's mood and emotional state? Jenny explains:

"There isn't much research on this subject, but some studies suggest that if your pulse increases, the horse's pulse may also increase. Like many animals, we can become tense. We can sense when an animal is tense, and they can sense it in us." Horses can probably also read certain human facial expressions.

It's useful to take a deep breath and exhale slowly.

"This makes you relax, which will help make the horse calmer. You need to take control of yourself and signal that it's time to calm down. Because we are in such close contact with the horse when riding, it is very sensitive to our signals. The slightest tension can be felt through the reigns and in our thighs. Although we can't control our impulsive reactions, if something frightens you it's vital to quickly regain control of yourself."


Are you in a bad mood? Skip the riding session

Some studies also suggest that horses become harder to manage if someone has a negative attitude towards them.

"Study participants who didn't like horses had more difficulty controlling the horse. So if you feel angry, irritated and impatient, you probably won't be able to anything advanced with the horse on that day. Things will be difficult and could even get dangerous. So it might be best to just brush your horse and ride it another day. Personally, I think if we're having problems, rather than blaming the horse we should first examine our own behaviour."


Meet Jenny Yngvesson

Jenny's basic training is in aetiology/zoology and biology. Since the 1990s, she has continued to study animal behaviour at Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences. She has mainly conducted research on farm animals such as cows, pigs and hens, and has loved horses since childhood. Her interest in animals in general and horses in particular lead her to start doing equestrian research. Her first study was of horse injuries, and aimed to ascertain what behavioural characteristics make certain horses prone to injuring themselves on fences, hooks, buckets, gratings etc. Today she is leading a project that compares Swedish riding schools with a free-range setup to schools with boxes and stalls. The project is scheduled for completion in summer of 2018. Jenny's regular job is as a researcher and lecturer in aetiology, animal protection and animal welfare at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences.

In her free time, she enjoys training her young North Swedish horse in horse driving and riding.


Tips from Jenny 

  • Choose a horse according to your ability and preferences to avoid having unrealistic expectations of your horse. Horses are good at learning but are also large, powerful animals with a fight or flight instinct. This causes many accidents in equestrian sports.


  • I think a riding school is an excellent way to start riding. I have been to many riding schools, and they generally have a good environment for horses. They live in steady groups, graze in flocks, associate with the same horses in the paddock and stable and spend time with the same individuals. The horses have a steady temperament and are tended to by well-trained people who know what workload and diet they should have.


  • Practise with a docile pony and an experienced trainer and absorb as much knowledge as you can. Choose the right size pony. Don't buy a pony for your child immediately unless you have personal experience of horses, unless you have an expert network of contacts.


  • Spend time around as many horses as possible. Talk to other horse enthusiasts. Ask questions about riding, driving and horse handling. Think about your experiences in different situations and try to analyse the reasons. Learn from your mistakes through regular practice – always using a helmet and the right equipment.


  • Read everything you can find, and read it critically. You can find plenty of information on the internet and in books. Compare what other people say, watch YouTube videos and ask people to film you when you're riding, driving or generally handling the horse.


  • Train your horse to stand at a given command. It's as useful as saying 'sit' to your dog.


  • You can also train your horse to lower its head at a specific command. This is useful in many situations.


Habituation and counter-conditioning

Something you need to know about is habituation, which means training a horse to stop reacting negatively to something that it previously found frightening. For example, horses that were afraid of cows can be trained to stop having this reaction by bringing the horse into a field next to a field with cows, since the horse gradually learns that nothing bad will happen. Although habituation can be used for training horses, it is important not to push the horse too much or progress too quickly.

A quicker method for getting horses used to something they find frightening is counter-conditioning. This means training the horse to associate something frightening with something pleasurable. For instance, if a horse is afraid of horse clippers, you can give it a treat when it accepts being close to the clippers. Gradually increase your requirements. Start by giving it a treat when the clippers are in operation. Next, give it a treat while pretending to use the clippers with the motor switched off, and so forth



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