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Horse Nature vs Human Nature


Horses are prey animals. No, that does not mean they prey on other animals! In the wild, horses are hunted by other animals. To protect themselves, they form herds. Herd instinct shows up even in domesticated horses, which is why it is important to understand herd dynamics. Despite popular belief, the lead horse in a wild herd is the dominant mare, not the stallion. Basically, all the stallion does is get the mares pregnant and fight off other stallions who might try to steal his mares. The dominant mare is the one who decides what direction to travel, when to travel, when to rest, where to graze, etc.

Mares also raise the young foals and discipline them. If a foal especially misbehaves, the mare will drive him/her away from the herd as punishment until the foal shows signs of submission. So what? you might ask... remember that horses, when they are alone, are easy targets for a predator. In case you were curious, the mare uses body language to drive the foal out. Likewise, the foal uses body language to show submission: licking and chewing and lowering his/her head as if to say, "Look I'm a herbivore, I won't hurt you."

Horses are fight or flight animals. When they feel threatened, their first choice is to run away. If cornered, however, their only choice left is to fight using bites, kicks, etc.


Humans are predators. We hunt and eat meat. Humans are also "prey animals", however, so that most of us become frightened if alone or isolated from all human contact. We are social creatures, and find safety in numbers.

While we use body language to some extent, our primary form of communication is through verbal language. We also tend to be extremely self-centered and always want to be in control. Our initial reaction to physical challenge is to use our hands, which are enhanced by opposable thumbs.

What this means

Horses recognize us as predators immediately when they look at us and see that we have two eyes on the front of our head, a trait common to predators (cats, owls, bears, etc).

While it is important that our horse views us as the leader in the partnership, we must gain the horse's respect, not force it. We want the horse to trust us, not fear us! The horse must view us as the dominant mare - the one who decides what direction to travel, when to travel, when to rest, when to eat, and the one who disciplines misbehavior. The horse must not view us as a predator - the one who eats him if he does not run away or fight back. Acting as the dominant mare is a position of responsibility. Her first interest is the well-being of the horses in the herd. When riding, we need to remember to consider the horse.

Our hands will only complicate most riding problems!

by Heidi Hesterman
former Certified CHA Instructor
Minor in Equestrian Studies, Houghton College, NY

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