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Horse Behavior and Psychology (Part II) —
by Emily Johnson

The Language of the Horse

Eyes wide with anxiety, their pupils eclipsed by white, and the frothy, trembling neck of the horse revealed his inner trepidation. His hooves pawed and danced – left, then right, then left again. The horse desperately tried to move anywhere but forward, deriving security on the proven ground. For the horse feels certain that advancing forward into the unknown depths (of the puddle) could result in his demise.

The dark grey horse is the dominant horse in this scenario. Wanting to protect his hay, he offers an initial warning (stage 1 pressure) to the lighter colored grey, telling him to keep away. This is an example of inhibiting movement.
The dark grey horse is the dominant horse in this scenario. Wanting to protect his hay, he offers an initial warning (stage 1 pressure) to the lighter colored grey, telling him to keep away. This is an example of inhibiting movement.

As a predatory species, humans do not have to be on constant vigilance with regard to our continuance, whereas the horse must consider their mortality in all they do, such as crossing the puddle illustrated in the story above. We must not perceive the horses’ persistent acuity and initial dubiousness as foolish or stubborn behavior, as it is the foundation of their survival. Rather, these innate characteristics should be considered the mark of a finely tuned intuition and intelligence.

Last week’s column talked about horse psychology and behavior. It introduced the horse as a prey animal and discussed how their instinct of self-preservation affects their interaction with you.

Equipped with this awareness of the horse, we are able to fully appreciate the extent to which our perceptions of the world differ from his (and we’ll use the masculine pronoun for simplicity’s sake—I own and appreciate both mares and geldings, so believe me when I say I’m not biased!).

When the light grey horse failed to heed the seriousness of the dominant gelding's request and instead snuck in for a bite of hay, the dominant horse increases his message by charging with ears flat back and mouth open (stage 2 pressure). This is an example of causing movement when the horse would prefer not to move.
When the light grey horse failed to heed the seriousness of the dominant gelding's request and instead snuck in for a bite of hay, the dominant horse increases his message by charging with ears flat back and mouth open (stage 2 pressure). This is an example of causing movement when the horse would prefer not to move.

To help you further understand this difference, this week we will delve into the use and meaning of the horses’ language of leadership, its implications in the social hierarchy and what that means for you.

When observing horses in the natural herd setting, it does not take long to recognize that a dominance hierarchy is present—in other words, there is a clear boss. The specific order of dominance within the herd is determined by certain behaviors. Ultimately, the herd hierarchy reveals a dominant leader and, further down the chain of the command, other members of the herd exhibit a decreasing order of authority.

You will notice that certain horses get to eat or drink first, while the remaining members of the herd wait their turn. You will see some horses exerting low energy, traveling where and when they want, while other individuals are chased about, their location at the continual mercy of more dominant herd members. It becomes evident that not only does a chain of command exist throughout the herd, but also that each horse both understands the significance of their specific position in the herd, as well as that position’s implications to those horses above and those herd members below.

Once the dominant grey has moved the other horse a sufficient distance away, he retreats backs to his hay, offering the other horse a release of pressure for consenting to the movement.
Once the dominant grey has moved the other horse a sufficient distance away, he retreats backs to his hay, offering the other horse a release of pressure for consenting to the movement.

Horses not only conceptualize leadership, they also have an intense and innate desire for an assertive and reliable leader. It is through proper leadership in their herd that they experience security.

In order to reap pleasure, safety, partnership and success in your horsemanship endeavors, it is imperative that your horse regards you as the dominant herd leader, thus mimicking the natural hierarchy of the herd.

As in nature, the more dominant you are perceived, the more your horse will respect you and be willing to honor your leadership.

The hierarchy in a group of horses is determined through their language of leadership, which is based upon control of movement. In short, the name of the game is, “Who moves whose feet.”

By responding adequately to the dominant horse's requests, the subordinate grey horse evades the infliction of stage 3 pressure (such as actual biting or kicking). In order to avoid further discomfort he honors the dominant horse's leadership and waits his turn to eat.
By responding adequately to the dominant horse's requests, the subordinate grey horse evades the infliction of stage 3 pressure (such as actual biting or kicking). In order to avoid further discomfort he honors the dominant horse's leadership and waits his turn to eat.

As a prey animal that utilizes flight as the primary defense, the horse knows that their propensity to survive is directly linked to their ability to move (this is one of the reasons horses appear claustrophobic in places that limit their movement, such as stalls, trailers, and other confining landscapes).

Thankfully, influencing your horse’s movement in order to obtain a dominant position in your horses’ mind does not require harshness, cruelty or the infliction of pain. Rather, controlling movement can be done in two ways:

  1. Causing movement when the horse would prefer not to move, or,
  2. Inhibiting movement when the horse would rather be in motion.

This communication is done through the appropriate application of pressure and the timely release of pressure.

A similar conversation ensues between the same grey horse and another mare in the herd. The dominant paint mare asks the grey to yield his space utilizing stage 1 pressure.
A similar conversation ensues between the same grey horse and another mare in the herd. The dominant paint mare asks the grey to yield his space utilizing stage 1 pressure.

Let’s look at how this plays out between horses:

A dominant horse may limit the approach of another horse (inhibiting movement when the horse would rather be in motion) by applying progressive stages of pressure. For instance, the dominant horse may pin its ears as the first warning (stage 1 pressure).

If not heeded by the subordinate horse, the dominant herd member may then turn its hindquarters or snap its teeth toward the other horse, as a second warning (stage 2 pressure).

If the other horse still does not yield from the first two requests, the dominant horse will likely kick or bite (stage 3 pressure) the other horse until he moves away. Once the subordinate herd member has traveled a satisfactory distance, the dominant horse will release the pressure, ignoring the subordinate horse, thereby signaling to the other horse he is acceptable.

While he initially consents, the grey gelding soon returns for a snatch of hay. This time the dominant mare employs stage 2 pressure. She is prepared to bite (stage 3 pressure) if deemed necessary to get the subordinate horse to fully yield his space out of acknowledgement of her leadership.
While he initially consents, the grey gelding soon returns for a snatch of hay. This time the dominant mare employs stage 2 pressure. She is prepared to bite (stage 3 pressure) if deemed necessary to get the subordinate horse to fully yield his space out of acknowledgement of her leadership.

Let’s now consider an example of this language between horse and human:

Say my horse is crowding my space on the ground, so therefore I desire for him to back up and move out of my space (causing movement when the horse would prefer not to move). I will accomplish this by utilizing progressive stages of pressure. I might start by wiggling my finger at him (stage 1 pressure), and then shake my wrist causing some life to travel down the leadrope (stage 2 pressure).

If my horse has not responded to my request for him to yield, I will then rapidly lift and drop my arm, sending a snap down the leadrope (stage 3 pressure). This will cause my horse to feel discomfort when the pressure hits under his nose, motivating him to move his feet. As soon as the horse takes a step backwards, I then release all pressure and allow the horse to find comfort.

The grey has gotten the message and respectfully walks around the other mare...
The grey has gotten the message and respectfully walks around the other mare...

It is of great significance that I require the horse to yield his space to me, whereas if I take steps backwards I have yielded my space to him. Remember, the game of leadership is, “Who moves whose feet.” If the horse’s infringement of my space causes my feet to move, rather than his, the horse deduces that he is the dominant member of our little herd of two, which can have dangerous and devastating consequences.

It is important to understand that the horse’s reward comes in the form of a release of pressure. This differs from humans and other predators, such as dogs, who feel rewarded through praise, attention, or treats. While a horse can enjoy a kind verbal tone, generous strokes, or tasty treats, they find the greatest reward when a pressure that is causing discomfort is released, resulting in a greater comfort.

...and instead, establishes his authority over a horse that a subordinate in the hierarchy to himself, by chasing her away from her feed.
...and instead, establishes his authority over a horse that a subordinate in the hierarchy to himself, by chasing her away from her feed.

In both examples, observe that the desired result was obtained through a clear use of progressive (or increasing) pressure, followed by an immediate release of pressure when the horse consented to the request. It is through the application of appropriate use of pressure and timely release of pressure that we can direct our horse’s movement, establishing ourselves as the dominant herd leader.

I leave you with one final thought in preparation for next week’s discussion. I have addressed many facets of the horse’s language and instinct, which relate to and suggest the horse’s hierarchy of needs. The horse’s top needs are for safety and comfort. All other needs, such as for play, food and reproduction, can be addressed only after the requirements for safety and comfort have been met.

Wanting the horse to move backwards, this student assumes a focused, assertive stance and begins wiggling her finger at the mare as a form of stage 1 pressure. As the horse has not moved sufficiently back, she then offers a stage 2 pressure, shaking her wrist, sending energy down the rope.
Wanting the horse to move backwards, this student assumes a focused, assertive stance and begins wiggling her finger at the mare as a form of stage 1 pressure. As the horse has not moved sufficiently back, she then offers a stage 2 pressure, shaking her wrist, sending energy down the rope.

Once the issue of safety has been established, a horse then seeks to be comfortable (this means being away from things that feel like pressure to the horse). Pressure can manifest itself in many forms--the physical threats of a dominant horse, the presence of a perceived predator, a limiting or confining space, a piece of blowing plastic, a puddle, or a loud noise, to list a few.

Since questions of safety can evoke the horse’s flight response, he will not tolerate discomfort for long before fleeing.

On the other hand, the horse finds security from being a part of a herd, specifically, a herd in which a leader is clearly defined.

It is your job to become the leader of your horse.

Because the horse was resistant to yielding her space, stage 3 pressure is used sending a snap down the rope, causing the horse momentary discomfort.
Because the horse was resistant to yielding her space, stage 3 pressure is used sending a snap down the rope, causing the horse momentary discomfort.

In the coming weeks I will instruct you through various groundwork exercises whereby you can practice moving your horse’s feet in order to become recognized as his leader.

Until then, as you are with your horse, or if you have the opportunity to observe a group of horses, begin watching for the language that you now know exists.

  • Try to recognize who the dominant horses are (the ones who control movement) and who the subordinate members are (the ones whose movement gets controlled).
     
  • The mare is now stepping backwards. Therefore, the student has stood up, smiled and rocked her balance back onto her hind leg, offering the horse both a physical as well as energetic release as the reward for the backward movement.
    The mare is now stepping backwards. Therefore, the student has stood up, smiled and rocked her balance back onto her hind leg, offering the horse both a physical as well as energetic release as the reward for the backward movement.
  • Attempt to see the progressive stages of pressure the horse communicates with and how they are utilized to get the desired result.
     
  • Begin considering what qualities or characteristics you notice in the herd leader, as well as in the subordinate horses. This will help you tune up your leadership.
     

Our aim with horses is to convey to them, through the means of pressure and release, that things they once considered as pressure, such as ourselves as predators, saddles, plastic, trailers, etc., are no longer threats to their safety or comfort. Through the practice and mastery of their language, we can assume the role of a recognized herd leader, satiating their need for safety and comfort. Out of which, we summon forth confidence in the horse, enabling his curiosity and create a relationship where he is able to place his trust in us. The result is then the inspiring union of horse and human existing out of a place of partnership.

This article was featured on MyHorse.com