With all the articles and clinics and "professionals" giving their two cents on equine behavior these days, I figured I might as well throw my two cents in and see where it got me. Equine behavior is a very broad subject; it can include anything from cribbing and other annoying vices, to the language of Equus as made famous by Monty Roberts. Being an inquisitive and active horsewoman, I have decided to look into the various aspects of equine behavior.

Specifically drawn to my attention lately has been the issue of spookiness. Every person knows a horse who is just a little spooky; you know, that horse that will take your head off with a tree branch at the sight of a plastic bag 60m down the trail? Or perhaps it's that horse who thinks that dandelions are simply the most terrifying plant to ever exist, and it must be avoided at all costs, no matter how drastic. Everyone knows a story or two about a time when some otherwise easy going horse frankly had a freakout.


So what causes this behavior? What causes our trusted steeds to lose their entire mentality in a swift second, and do anything possible in a pathetic effort to get out of the situation they are in? To understand equine behavior, we must look at where the behavior is most natural - in the wild. For example, a herd of mustangs are grazing happily on some delicious spring grass, when suddenly something catches the eye of the lead stallion. Don Juan's instincts to protect his herd kick in, and within an instant, the whole herd is on the move at Mach 1. What caused this reaction, that caused the whole herd to take off, rather than just Mister Don Juan alone? Firstly, horses are prey animals, and this means that they have a very large range of vision - more than 350 degrees, in fact. This means that horses can see a lot of things, all at the same time. Also note that due to the fact that they are prey animals, their eyes are on the sides of their head, opposed to humans (who are predators, technically, and have their eyes closer together to focus on prey). This causes horses to have two types of vision: monocular, and binocular. Monocular, or one sight picture, is how humans and predator animals see. It allows the two eyes to work together to focus on a prey, but it cuts the sight range in half. Binocular, or two sight pictures, is how many prey animals see things. Horses have considerably less accurate vision than humans, as most of the time they see in binocular vision due to the blind spot created directly in front and behind of them. Any disturbances in the sight picture may not be clear, causing a horse's prey animal instincts to kick in, rather than the logical thinking side.


So, you are asking yourself: "Why did the entire herd take off?" which brings me to my next point. Horses are herd animals. They have an established hierarchy, with a definite leader. If the leader takes off, the followers are, well, going to follow. Think about this in terms of your relationship with your horse. Think about the last time your horse took off on you; did he stop when you asked him to, or were you both so freaked out that you ended up on your head and he ended up in the neighbour's corn field huffing and puffing? If you answered yes to the first question, congratulations! You are most likely an effective leader for your two-animal herd. If you answered yes to the second question, listen up. Think about if Don Juan had just stayed put, even if said scary object approached the herd. The probability of the follower horses leaving the protection of the herd, despite the obvious approaching danger, is very slim. They trust that their leaders know what's going on, and if the lead horse books it to Timbuktu, you bet your sweet iron snaffle that they will follow. If your horse is the follower in your two-animal herd, the probability of him taking off and leaving you in the dust is much less likely than if he was the one expecting you to do the following. Given a mutually trusting relationship, your horse is much more likely to look to you and say, "is that dandelion really scary?" rather than, "that dandelion is scary! I'm out of here, because I don't think you'll protect me from it, so I won't protect you!".


The importance of having a mutually trusting relationship with your horse is the essential element in quick recovery from spooks, and essentially, causing your horse to think rather than act. Next time your horse tries to run you over because Sally's fly mask tumbled across the pasture in the same manner that a mountain lion would stalk your horse (because, you know, fly masks are terrifying), see if your horse calms down immediately after you reassure him that rabid fly masks are only going to attack the neighbours howling dog, or if he says forget this and leaves a nice Old Mac imprint on your face. Try to remember the natural instincts of horses, and be the lead mare/stallion in your herd of two (or more!). Proving to your horse that you can be trusted to get him out of any stupid situation he gets into is the only way to have an effective relationship with your horse. But you know, that's just my two cents.

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Comment by 4XChestnut on June 26, 2010 at 8:15pm
Some horses are simply spookier than others. The horse of my avatar pic was the spookiest horse I've ever had to deal with. His brain was wired that way. He overcame that natural spook factor to a truly incredible degree in the time I had him - to the point that no one else believed me when I told them he was a spooky horse. But he did trust me, and he always told me when something was scary, so I could tell him it was okay and not going to eat him. There were times when he told me something was scary, but not what that thing was - that made things difficult at times. Eventually in the company of other horses he was pretty near bombproof even with a less familiar rider (not me).

Eventually I found out he had a chipped bone in his hock which caused him some pain. The days that were more painful he was spookier - I think because his subconcious knew that he needed every fraction of a second advantage to escape the lurking wolves, and that the painful hock made him more vulnerable. While frustrating to ride, it was a useful indicator of his comfort level on any given day. On painful days he would gallop back to the herd when I let him back out after riding. On okay days he'd saunter up the hill, stop and whinny, then meander off in search of the herd.

His breed? QH.
Comment by Ashley on June 25, 2010 at 1:54pm
I agree with your thoughts here. I think that the Arabians and hotheaded breeds like TBs compare very well to cattle dogs; they are simply doing what instinct tells them to do. I think that many horses with Spanish ancestry (the Mustang, etc) may also be somewhat similar, though I have noticed that Spanish horses tend to be a little more sturdy, and a little less spooky. I wonder what causes this, because as far as I know, the general purpose has been the same (use in battle, requiring much endurance and ability to survive in crazy situations). Perhaps the original environment is a factor. I'm not sure if we will ever know why exactly, but I like our theory ;)
Comment by Jackie Cochran on June 25, 2010 at 1:47pm
The big, tall, heavy drafter were not used as knight's horses for war or tourneys. They used a horse more built like the old Welsh Cob (Section D-horse sized) or like the Friesian. Just think, a knight in full armor was in youth expected to be able to VAULT up on his war horse, don't you think that it would be a lot easier to vault up on a 15+ hand high horse than a 17 to 18 hand horse? These guys were much shorter than guys are now.
I do not know the spookiness ratio of Morgans, who were used extensively in the American wars (Civil and Indian.) Appaloosas were Indian war ponies. I bet there were battles in the Indian wars in which cavalry men mounted on horses of Morgan, ASB & TB blood battled Indians mounted on Appaloosas and Mustangs.
It may be like herding dogs are not happy unless they are herding you no matter how many generations they've been house pets, our hot horses are just doing the job they were originally bred to do, warn of ambush or approaching danger before it comes into sight.
Mia, the Arab mare I ride reliably spooks EVERY time something is changed just outside of the arena (she finally quit spooking about changes inside the arena, whew), but one day a tarp corner got loose outside the arena and flapped wildly in the wind--no spook, she did not even think it important enough to look at, she knew I had noticed it. It was in no way lurking silently, how could I avoid noticing? But the quiet stuff, ah, humans just are too deaf and blind to see possibilities of hidden danger.
Comment by Ashley on June 25, 2010 at 1:14pm
Jackie, I never thought of it that way, but that does provide a very good explanation for the so-called hotheadedness of the Arab and even the Thoroughbred, or other such breeds. I have had a few stock breeds (Appaloosas) who have Arab and Thoroughbred lines (one went back to the Darley Arabian), and I'm sure that the stubborn/spooky behavior has been bred in. I have never had the chance to work with any heavy horses that were bred for war, but do you think they are also sort of hotheaded or spooky? I wonder if there is indeed a trend here, because of the common ancestry that was bred to be very aware of the surroundings, and ready for war. You have brought up a very good point here.
Comment by Jackie Cochran on June 25, 2010 at 1:07pm
Hi Ashley, yes, you've had Arabs!!!
I am having odd thoughts about Arab spookiness. I am wondering if the "spookiness" was bred in by the Bedouin because the mares were WAR mares. This may also tie in to TB spookiness, since the Turkoman, Barb and Arab bloodstock they used were direct descendents of horses used for WAR.
In the desert, on a journey, wouldn't it be useful to have an early warning system of danger that the rider cannot see? Do the Arabs settle down after getting to LOOK at a spook because they are content that their rider has paid notice to the possible danger?
Lots and lots of types of horses have been used for war. The Bedouin would use their mares for sudden raids (often at night) and chance encounters with an enemy tribe. The rest of the time the Bedouins rode camels. These Bedouin Arab war mares were not considered pleasure animals.
Maybe we just have to convince our Arabs that we have already noted the possible danger and that we know how to deal with it.
Comment by Ashley on June 25, 2010 at 11:36am
Also considering this article from The Horse:(Posted on BarnMice)
Comment by Ashley on June 25, 2010 at 11:17am
I would have to agree with your method, Jackie. Especially having worked with and owned several Arabs over the years. Just letting the horse have a look at whatever is freaking them out is enough to calm them down. They trust that if it's something scary that you're going to stomp it to the ground, considering the fact that you're the one telling them it's okay to look at it. But, if you avoid it, I bet they're still thinking that it's terrifying, because Mom won't stop to look at it either! ;)
Comment by Jackie Cochran on June 25, 2010 at 9:09am
My two cents worth--I have found (with a spooky Arab mare) that when she notices something weird if we stop and I let her look at it for a count of ten, or until she looks away bored, that she spooks a lot less. If I do not let her LOOK at the scary thing then every time we pass it I have a shy, after LOOKING at it she does not shy when we pass it. This has worked better that anything else I've tried in the past 40 years for working with a spooky horse. And after doing this for several months she is much less spooky even if she hasn't gotten to LOOK at the scary thing.

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