Instincts and Mentality: Understanding the Nature of the Horse

Source:  Photo by Francesco Ungaro on Unsplash

Though horses are greatly various in type, personality, and temperament, they are all consistent in their instincts and senses. By putting together what has been learned about horses from scientists and professional trainers with your own observations, you will begin to understand how and why horses act and react in certain ways to people as well as to other horses. As science catches up with the experience and imagination of the horse, there is much you can learn about his nature, so you can move toward a better, safer, and more productive partnership.

Instincts and Mentality


The human relationship to the horse in domesticity is relatively new. To understand the horse, you must appreciate the natural instincts and behaviors that have led him through 75 million years of evolution. The horse is first and foremost a herd animal. When trying to understand his behaviors, actions, and reactions in almost all situations, you must consider his herd instinct and dynamics, and realize that these are centered around one dominant horse. By understanding and observing horses alone and together, you will come to a safer and more profound relationship with the horse.


Herd Instinct
The structure of a herd is hierarchical, meaning that there’s a pecking order of subordinate horses, leading up to one alpha stallion and one lead mare, who together give the herd a sense of order, harmony, and safety. In the wild, this order is not static; rather, a horse’s status might change within the herd. This can happen as they age, and young males challenge the alpha stallion for the harem, choose to leave the herd, or are driven out. Rogue stallions trying to start their own harem will steal mares and fillies, disrupting temporarily the order of a herd.


Even in small groups of domestic horses, you can observe this kind of behavior at work and learn from it. Variations in your domestic herd will be somewhat artificial, since you will choose which horses to put in a group. This, and the probable absence of stallions on your farm, will create a hierarchy that is more static but nevertheless dynamically the same as in a wild herd.


A horse’s gentle nature and inclination to submit to a dominant force makes it possible for her to exist not only in a pecking ordered society, but also in domestication. The bonds of
friendship, loyalty, and safety that are innately instilled in a pecking order society are all transferable to you in a domestic situation. These bonds made the horse capable of domesti-cation in the first place and makes it possible to train them.
As his caretaker, trainer, or rider, your horse looks to you as his alpha horse, and so he must have trust and confidence in you. You can encourage this by making him feel secure. You must assume the role of lead horse for a safe and productive relationship. Your horse might continue to test you throughout your relationship, just as he might an alpha horse. And like an alpha horse, you must be deliberate, assertive, and undoubting in your actions. For example, in the simplest exercises of leading, grooming, or mounting your horse, you must insist that he is obedient, pays attention, and follows your rules. He should not be permitted to push you around, use you as a rubbing post, or walk away without a command or signal.


Flight Instinct


A horse’s great gift in the wild is and has always been his speed. The corresponding instinct is to flee when he feels threatened. In domesticity, this remains a powerful, and often primary, response that can be trouble for both of you on the ground and under saddle. A runaway horse can be unpredictable and dangerous to both you and himself.

But as your horse gets used to his surroundings and daily routine, he should become more discerning about what is actually dangerous to him and what is not.
Through patience, and consistent handling, your relationship with your horse will deepen and a bond of trust and confidence will form between the two of you.
This flight instinct should be reduced to a harmless spook or startle once in a while, or be completely eradicated.

However, it is important to remember that what seems safe to you might not seem safe to your horse. Many of the things you ask of him, such as trailering or standing for a bath, are situations he would never face in nature where his natural instincts of self-preservation have evolved over millions of years. Horses do these things because we ask them to. So before asking your horse to do anything, make sure it is indeed safe. With every positive experience, your horse will learn to trust and defer to your good judgment. If his flight instinct is triggered, he will often have no regard for your safety or even for his own.



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