There is something special and attractive about a horse's magnificence and grace, his beautiful eyes and even his smell - at least, for those of us who are "horse crazy." We are often so taken by his beauty and presence that we overlook his herd animal mentality. Instead, we interpret his actions through humanizing eyes that explain away their actions in sometimes less than accurate ways.
You have probably seen it so many times - the horse being pushy and the handler either letting the behavior go or honestly not being aware of the problem.
The horse might paw. He might perk up his ears and give us a loving look for more treats. Or he might nod his head up and down. Maybe he pulls away while being led. Sometimes, he might nibble on our hat or hair.
At the very least, it can become irritating. At the worst, it's unsafe for both horse and owner. The most serious consequence is when the behavior escalates and problems develop. Then suddenly, what was cute becomes dangerous and people and horses get hurt.
If the horse owner isn't aware of what the horse is truly communicating, then the risk increases for both human and horse.
Understanding The Language of Horses
The number one rule for all things "horse" is safety. In all circumstances, the horse's sheer size is reason enough for us to set guidelines for our interactions with horses, and to follow them to the letter. Any time we bend the rules, or let the little things slip by, not only do we become inconsistent in our interactions with our horses (and therefore "lying" to them), but we also increase the physical risks to ourselves and to those around our horses.
The biggest problem is when someone misinterprets the horse's intentions and ascribe "herd-naughty" behavior as being something cute. The mistake isn't in the interpretation itself; it is that the person is indicating to the horse that the behavior is acceptable. Although they might be unaware of the language of horses, by not responding to the behavior, the person is assuming a subservient role.
Knowing when a horse communicates dominating behavior is the first step toward becoming a responsible horse owner. Once we know what the horse is saying, we begin to learn how to respond and eventually prevent the conditions that allow for such thoughts to go through our horses' minds.
What To Do
Your response does not need to be harsh or punishing. You can approach these situations from an educational perspective. Every situation is an opportunity to train your horse. Try to identify what works without causing the horse to lose confidence in you.
Stay calm, be confident and consistent in your responses. You must demonstrate your leadership skills in order to gain the respect of the horse. Once the horse knows that he can respect (and therefore trust) his humans, he will happily assume a following role.
In the end, it is our responsibility to make sure the horse understands what is expected of him. If we either willfully ignore or really and truly don't know how to teach acceptable behavior for horse-human interactions, we can be setting up conditions that can some day escalate into seriously dangerous situations.
Next post: suggestions on what to do about specific behaviors.
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