Horse Psychology, as it relates to taming and training wild horses
Creatures of Movement

Horses are, first and foremost, creatures of MOVEMENT. They live through movement. In the wild, their very survival depends on movement. They also LEARN through movement.
Knowing the extent to which a horse's brain is connected to its feet, we can use this in our training programs.

"The good news is that horses have a relatively large brain for an animal their size. The bad news is that they use most of it just to keep their feet in the right place." - The Nature of Horses, p.147, Stephen Budiansky

Horses and Leadership

Horses are herd animals. Herds have a leader. Horses are hard-wired both to want a leader and to constantly test that leader. Horses feel safest and most secure when they have a leader, but they also demand that their leader be worthy. Periodically, they will test and re-test their leader, to make sure the leader is still worthy of entrusting with their lives and safety. If at any time the leader fails the test, the horse will take over. The horse does not really WANT to be the leader, but it wants "the best one for the job" to be in charge. If YOU are not the best one for the job, the horse will decide that S/HE needs to step in to the job.

Learning horsemanship, particularly leadership, can be a powerful and sometimes difficult inner journey for the human. This is especially true for many women, who have been socialized to be non-assertive "helpmates" and "peace-makers." We have to learn how to "Cowgirl Up" to be assertive without being aggressive, to set firm but fair limits and enforce them without being mean, to tap into sources of internal energy that the horse can feel and trust, to stop having the word "sucker" printed invisibly on your forehead. It's an interesting journey, well worth the effort!

Movement and Leadership
How do horses attain leadership? Through movement! They "ask" another horse to move.
The leader is the one who can move the others' feet.
When the other horse complies, it has accepted the leadership (a less romantic way of seeing it is "dominance") of the other horse. Natural horsemanship training makes use of this natural equine hard-wiring. Through asking for movement, then directing that movement through different turns and gaits, the horse realizes that you are in charge, and it accepts your leadership.
Horses are social animals

Everything about the Horse Mind is designed to live in a society with others. Just as Solitary Confinement is one of the worst punishments for humans, a horse forced to live alone is a sad creature indeed. When separated from other horses, a horse will look to any sentient being for comfort and companionship.

We can use this to our advantage when gentling a wild horse - if we are the only other living thing around, the horse will be more willing to turn to us for friendship than if there are other horses available.

"Solitary confinement" should never last long, however. If gentling takes more than a few days, or if you must "quarantine" your new horse for two weeks after getting it (a good idea!), allow it to at least have visual contact with other horses (as in - horses in a field down the lane, within easy view).

Horses are masters of Body Language

As social animals, horses have a clear, effective, and complex system of communication with one another. Our job, as would-be leaders of our horses, is to learn to communicate effectively in that language: Body Language. Wild horses especially can read us clearly. But can we do the same? Do we know what we are telling the horse? Can we read the horse's responses? It takes time and attention but we can learn, and we must learn if we are to be truly successful with our mustangs.

A lot can be learned by watching horses interact with each other.

Horses are, simply, EFFECTIVE with one another! They also don't waste calories, so they always work with the least energy expenditure necessary to get the desired result. If gentle works, they'll be gentle. But when gentle doesn't work, they turn up the heat. As soon as the desired response has been obtained, they immediately stop the pressure. NO HARD FEELINGS! Within two minutes of an altercation, horses are back to being best friends.

Our job as horse handlers is to learn to become as effective in our communications with our horses as they are with each other.

Always quit on something Positive!

While our goal is always the very softest of handling, the gentlest of cues, it is important in the early stages to always "give the horse the right answer."

The horse learns and remembers mainly the last thing that happens in an encounter or exercise or training sequence, so if you allow it to do something that you have not asked for, or if you allow it to avoid doing something you have asked, you have taught it to do just that. Stick with a lesson or request - gently and with compassion - but with persistence and resolve, until both you and your horse get "the right answer."

If you find you have asked for something the horse is simply not ready to give, then at least hold out until you get something positive. If you are asking, for instance, to load into a trailer, and you discover that you are "in over your head" and the horse is not ready to learn this - keep in mind that the horse will remember the last thing that happens. So always quit on a positive. Maybe the horse won't load all the way, but maybe you can get it to just sustain a look into the trailer. Praise and quit right there! That may be enough. Or if you can get the horse to place one foot into the trailer, or take a step toward the trailer, maybe that's a good place to quit for the day. But always quit on something positive - never on a failure or a refusal.

I have learned the hard way never to start something with a horse unless I have time to follow through in case things don't go exactly as planned. Never quit on a failure, a refusal, or a negative behavior!

No Hard Feelings

The message is a profound one, if we can fully understand it.

Horses do not hold grudges. Their relationships are not damaged when they are corrected or told to do something by another horse, even if they only obey after putting up a fight. They'll be buddies again in two minutes. Likewise, when they test you to see if you're still in charge, it's not PERSONAL. It's just part of being a horse. As soon as you let them know that, yes, you are still in charge, they will accept it willingly - it's just part of their job to check to make sure. After all, a worthy leader in the wild can make the difference between survival and death - they MUST be sure their leader is worthy!

No hard feelings on the horse's part - don't get into hard feelings yourself, either! After something has happened, just let it go - don't brood that "the horse doesn't love me any more." The horse has let it go - you must learn to do the same.

Spend some time watching a group of horses - at feeding time is an excellent opportunity. You will likely see a few skirmishes over who gets what place on the feed line. The skirmishes may impress you as angry or mean or violent. The horses may kick, bite, and rush each other. It may appear that they really don't like one another. But come back a few minutes later, and the same horses will be sweetly grooming one another or lying together in the sun. No Hard Feelings!

Horses are simply EFFECTIVE with one another. They do what needs to be done, and move on. If we can fully absorb that, we will be much more effective with our horses. No need for anger or temper tantrums (on our part), no fears that our horse won't love us any more if we make him do what we ask, no grudges.

No hard feelings.

External Links

Information thanks to Nancy Kerson, author of

Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 License.