This is a great article for the non-horsey people in your life!
While everyone knows about horses, you'd be surprised at how relatively uninformed most people are. Myths abound and everybody has an opinion. To help clarify any misunderstandings, here are a few essential tidbits you need to know about horses, especially if you are considering taking riding lessons or purchasing a horse for the first time.
1. They are big.
People usually notice the relatively large size of the horse first thing. Rightly so, because even a small horse can weight 800 pounds and it only gets bigger and heavier from there! Even small ponies give us a run for our money when it comes to strength and power.
In comparison, we are small.
Which leads us to the most important understanding when it comes to the intermingling of horses and humans: we can get hurt. It might not even be on purpose. Whenever we are in the wrong place at the wrong time, we will be the ones who incur the most damage.
So one of the first things we need to do is to learn how to be safe working with, around and on horses. We must stay safe AND the horses must stay safe.
2. They eat. ALL. THE. TIME.
This is an interesting concept.
One of the key predictors to overall horse health is to provide them access to forage (meaning hay or grass) as much as possible. Many of us now have high quality hay that actually over delivers-in terms of nutrition and energy. Some horses self-regulate and eat small portions, many times throughout the day.
For horses have a tendency to over-eat (which then can cause unhealthy weight gain), we now have "slow hay feeders" that regulate the amount of hay a horse can eat at a time. In this manner, even "easy keepers" can have access to hay for long periods of time.
3. They have their own personalities.
This is where horses and humans are similar.
Every horse has a unique personality. Some are overachievers. Some are lazy and would rather not. Some are playful and cheeky. It takes a while to identify these traits, but if you listen carefully enough, you will get to know each and every one.
4. They can learn things as easily as you can.
Just because horses are generally quiet, and would prefer to be out grazing doesn't mean that they don't learn. They are so quick to pick up on everything!
5. They recognize people.
Some horses are extremely clear about who qualifies as their "peeps."
I have known several horses over the years that act completely standoffish until they know who you are. It's like they're warning all their friends of "stranger danger!"
If you don't believe me, check out what happens when their favorite treat lady just walks into the barn. They sure know who they can hit up for treats! Or who feeds them. And who turns them out or in. Or who does their feet. Or the veterinarian they should avoid!
6. They have a very long memory.
They remember the good experiences. They remember their horsey friends of long ago, even if it has been years since they last saw each other. They also remember the bad experiences. It is true that they remember rough handling and any serious riding mistakes.
But here's the good news: horses don't hold grudges. Literally, the second you can improve or change, or their environment changes, they move on and adapt. They will remember it all, but you can be sure that they are ready and waiting for better days ahead.
7. They are very athletic.
ALL horses are athletic. Not all of them choose to show it, though!
Of course, some are more suited to certain disciplines than others, and some need more practice and conditioning as others. However, they can all move quickly when needed (like when there's something to be afraid of)!
8. They are herd animals.
Horses are naturally social. They live in a herd situation and they are the embodiment of the concept of "safety in numbers." How this relates to us as humans is that when we choose to interact with horses, we should understand that they see us as herd mates too. So we'd better brush up on our communication skills - equine style!
9. They have a strong social structure.
Which brings us to herd dynamics.
Every herd has a social hierarchy. There is the leader (or what has been termed as the "alpha" horse). Then there's the second-in-command (the beta) and the third, fourth and so on, right to the last horse on the social ladder. Each horse gives way to the horses above him in the herd. So if he's eating at the round bale and a higher-level herd mate wants to eat right from the spot he's in, he has to give way. He must walk away and give up his feeding spot.
This is a super important concept for us humans to understand because every time we're with our horse, we are effectively interacting as a two-horse herd. Except that we're people, and we're relatively little. If the horse feels that he is the herd leader between the two of us, we'd better be ready to give way to his every whim and desire.
You can see how that could cause problems over time. It becomes our responsibility to learn to communicate our herd position (alpha) clearly in a way that keeps us safe. The alternative is that they may literally walk over you (if they aren't taught to recognize your space).
10. They don't see the same way we do.
If you look carefully into the eye of a horse, you'll see that the pupil is a horizontal slit. It can open wide in darker light and takes on a larger oval shape. There have been many studies done about how horses see, and how they interpret what they see.
What is remarkable about the horse's sight is that he can see from his nose to his tail on the one side. And he can instantly switch eyes and see that much on the other side. He can also see directly in front of him with binocular vision. However, he has a blind spot in front of his nose and behind his tail. Our sight is exactly the opposite. We can see straight ahead with binocular vision (so we have no blind spot) but our peripheral vision isn't nearly as sharp.
You can imagine that having better peripheral vision is very helpful to a prey animal. Horses can see all around them at will - which means they can instantly run away if feeling threatened in any way.
If we have a good understanding of spooking, we can be safer when on horseback or even on the ground.
11. They are experts at reading body language (apparently even human facial expressions).
So aside from picking up on all your behavioral clues, the horse can tell your mood right from the moment you are visible to him. One of the most valuable skills we learn as equestrians is to keep a steady demeanor, especially in scary situations. The quieter and calmer we can be, whether on the ground or in saddle, the more confident the horse will be in general.
I'm sure there could be a thousand things we could add to this list. If you have something to add, please share it in the comments below.
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Read more about horses here:
Living (Horse) Life In The Basics: Can you distinguish the difference between good and bad movement?
Top Ten Reasons To Ride A Horse: There must be as many reasons to ride horses are there are people who ride.
Do You Want to Own A Horse? Answer 'yes' to these questions and you are on your way!
Riding is Simple, But Not Easy! Let’s face it – all we want is for the horse to do what we want, when we want, where we want, with suppleness and strength!
On Enjoying the Path: I can hear you now – you’re groaning… the path?? How can “the path” be fulfilling?