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Finding out what makes your horse tick Part 2

This is the second part of the article Ben wrote on ‘Finding out what makes your horse tick‘…


Knowing your horse’s hierarchy of needs

Finding out what makes your horse tick, is also about continually developing your understanding of your horse’s unique hierarchy of needs. Every horse, like every human being, has a unique set of needs and values that are fingerprint specific to each individual horse.

The majority of horses’ needs and values can be categorised into 4 primary needs.

  1. The need for self-preservation; all fear motivated behaviours can be classified as the need for self-preservation
  2. The need to be comfortable; any behaviours where horses seek comfort and avoid discomfort
  3. Play; any behaviours that are motivated by the need and desire for horses to play
  4. Food; any behaviours that are motivated by horses’ need for food

Knowing your horse’s unique hierarchy of needs, requires you to observe your horse’s natural tendencies, patterns and behaviours. All horses inherently have a hierarchy of needs, which will cause them to display behaviours that correlate with meeting those needs. If you could categorise every behaviour your horse displays over a period of a month into one of the four primary needs, you would get a very clear picture of your horse’s unique hierarchy of needs.


Behaviour Motivated by Self-Preservation

Self-preservation and the need to be safe, is paramount for horses, as they are prey animals. From an evolutionary perspective, a horse’s brain and body is hardwired for flight. Horses are strong, athletic animals that can reach speeds in excess of 65 kilometres per hour. This has given them an evolutionary advantage, as a prey animal, allowing them to outwit and out manoeuvre predators for millions of years. This also makes them potentially very dangerous when they react out of fear, as they can easily overpower a human being.

When horses respond out of fear and self-preservation they utilise a very primitive part of their brain, which is responsible for fight or flight. The purpose of this part of the brain is purely self-preservation and self-protection, which explains why horses don’t learn very well when in self-preservation mode. Their only concern when they feel threatened is survival.  

Horses can display a vast array of behaviours as result of feeling like they are in danger. Some of the most typical behaviours that people will experience are bucking, shying, bolting, striking, rearing, kicking, biting or pulling back.  

The most definitive aspect of any behaviour motivated by self-preservation is the speed in which it happens. When horses are scared they almost always react with lightning speed, giving you little or no time to see it coming or counteract it.

The goal of horsemanship is to build a relationship and a foundation of communication with your horse, so that in crisis situations it looks to you for safety and reassurance instead of relying on its instinct. In my experience of working with many different horses over the years, I have found that horses will not continue to display dangerous behaviour unless they have a legitimate reason for doing so. The reality is it’s our job as horse owners to continually develop our horsemanship, so that we can read our horse better and use communication to dissolve dangerous behaviour before it happens. Part of understanding what makes your horse tick is knowing what they struggle with and what they fear. This information allows you to structure the training process in such a way that your horse becomes more capable of being braver and calmer in stressful situations. 


Behaviour motivated by comfort

Comfort is another important need that drives horse behaviour. Horses will typically start to seek comfort when they feel safe and the circumstances are no longer threatening. If a horse has a fly biting it, it will swish its tail and stomp its feet to avoid the discomfort of being bitten. Horses will also be seen in the herd mutually grooming each other as a comfort seeking activity. Comfort also manifests as the horses’ need to rest, relax and scratch when they are itchy. Some horses are more motivated by comfort then others, but every horse at some level will avoid discomfort and seek comfort.

Using the psychology of comfort and discomfort in the training process plays a very significant role in shaping horse behaviour. Timing the release of pressure and giving your horse a rest when they do well, causes them to put more effort into what they are doing and helps them engage in the learning process during training.

One of the most important aspects of using comfort in the training process is to build rapport and trust. Grooming and rubbing your horse emulates what mares do with newborn foals to help remove the placenta. A mare will use its tongue to lick off the residual fluid from the placenta, which creates a very important connection and bond between the mare and foal. Once a foal matures into a fully-grown horse, it will continue to use licking and mutual grooming as a way to show affection, connect and establish relationships with other horses in its herd.


Behaviour motivated by play

Play is another important driving force of behaviour that many horses engage in. Play is an essential component of a horse’s mental, emotional and physical development. Horses that aren’t allowed to play and interact with other horses will often develop dysfunctional behavioural patterns.

Some common dysfunctional behavioural patterns that are a by-product of suppressed/repressed play drive are:

  • Aggressive unprovoked biting behaviour
  • Excessive, extreme and inappropriate displays of exuberance in inconvenient situations
  • Rebellious defiant behaviour in response to simple requests from the horse owner
  • Shying without a reason
  • Bucking, rearing, bolting, kicking out
  • Making a game out of trying to annoy their owner

Horses that have a high play drive tend to be very busy and always want to make a game out of things. This intense need to play all the time can be very exhausting for horse owners particularly if they do not have the same high play drive as their horse. Horses that have a high play drive tend to be fast learners but also get bored very easily. Once they have figured something out it is no longer interesting.

The key to working with horses that have a high play drive is to turn all of the training objectives into a game or a problem to solve. Horses with a high play drive love to solve problems and puzzles so if you can provide that for them they will love you for it. If you’re not willing to provide this for them then you need to find something or someone that can. Sometimes giving them a ball or other play objects in the paddock will help but ideally having another horse with a high play drive would be ideal.

This play behaviour is more prominent in young colts and geldings then it is in fillies and mares although there are always exceptions to the rule.


Behaviour Motivated by food

Horses will usually graze on and off for up to 18 hours a day, which makes it a very significant part of their daily routine. A horse’s diet has a very big impact on its behaviour as well as physical wellbeing. I have personally witnessed the effects of overfeeding and underfeeding horses and the significant impact it can have on their behaviour. I believe that horses should have a diet as close to what they would naturally eat in the wild providing that they are getting adequate nutrition and quantity of food.

An important part of working with horses is noticing how the food they eat affects their behaviour patterns. There are many aspects of diet that will influence how a horse feels and therefore how they respond to training. For instance, if a horse is subject to excessive amounts of rich green grass their sugar intake will skyrocket and they will have much more energy. This energy will tend to amplify the positive and negative aspects of a horse’s behaviour. If horses are getting too much sugar in their diet, their behaviour will generally become more volatile and hard to manage, because of the effect that sugar has on their emotional state. Every horse will respond differently to changes in diet, so it’s important to notice your horse’s unique response to food intake and adjust it according to the amount of work it is getting and its ability to maintain condition. It’s also important to remember that the amount of food that your horse gets, is adjusted to the amount of work they are getting, particularly if you are feeding them grain or any processed food like pellets.   

Food can be a very good motivator for horses that don’t like putting out any physical effort during the training process. Giving a horse a small treat, when they try harder or when they put more effort into training tasks, can really boost their enthusiasm and shift their attitude towards training. This approach will work better with horses that are very food motivated and it should not be used as a substitute for a proper training foundation. Using food should be avoided if your horse starts becoming too demanding or aggressive towards you during training. Make sure there are strict boundaries in place when using food and if your horse no longer responds without food then discontinue using it as part of training.

To learn more about your horse’s needs and behaviour, come to one of our clinics, join our regular group lessons (at our place) or book a private horsemanship lesson (at yours or our place).

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