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Thinking Like a Horse:
How Understanding Basic Horse Psychology Simplifies Training
Equine Canada Level Certified Coach and Judge
American Quarter Horse Association Professional Horseman
Every horse inherits traits, that, when understood by the trainer, make training safer and more effective.
“Anthropomorphization” is the term for attributing human qualities to our horses. Anthropomorphization
can spell trouble for horse owners, handlers and trainers. Effective trainers understand how horses
perceive their world, what motivates them, and how they learn.
The following general horse psychology principles are gleaned from training hundreds of horses over
many years and are well accepted and verified by professional horsemen and equine researchers.
Horses are Social/Herd Animals.
A horse finds comfort and safety within a herd. The alpha horse, or leader, is the one who makes the
decisions (time to go for water, shelter, or to rest) and the subordinates trust and follow. The alpha animal
is often an older horse that is more dominant and has earned respect within the herd/group.
As effective trainers, we must be the alpha horse and, therefore, must be the decision maker. We call the
shots as to the exact path we are going to travel, where and how long we are going to stand still and the
pace at which we’ll move. This takes a lot of energy and planning on our part. Whether we’re aware of it
or not, from the moment we walk our horses out of the stall, we are telling them what to do, or we’ve
transferred the alpha status to them. Have a lesson plan for every step from the barn aisle, to leading to
the paddock, to mounting, and to riding figures in the schooling ring.
Alpha horses confirm their dominance by moving their subordinates into retreat with a threatening
gesture. No one has permission to step into their personal space uninvited. After retreating, the
subordinate will open and close his mouth in a chewing motion. It is one of the ways he acknowledges
the alpha, and we see it frequently in training. Body language is the major way horses communicate and
we must do the same. As a regular exercise, throughout the training process, ask your horse to step away
(either backwards or to the side) and yield to pressure applied to any part of his body. Handlers who step
back when longeing, or in the barn aisle, are unaware that they are sending the horse the signal that he is
Be aware that we are always training. Inconsistency, being cuddly and permissive on one occasion and
slapping and jerking the horse around when he pushes too far, is confusing to him and simply unfair.
Horses are Prey Animals, not Predators
Prey animals need to be more perceptive than predators in order to survive. When they perceive
frightening stimuli, they flee and don’t stop to ask questions. This fright/flight response is the source of
the instant reaction time we experience as riders trying to stay on board during a spook. As alpha, we can
train horses to trust us in the presence of something spooky, and thus override the flight response.
Through repetition, we can desensitize them to a spooky object, overriding the fright response.
Riders are often quick to lose patience with the horse that spooks at imaginary ghosts. The fact is, the
horse perceives far more than we are aware of. Programmed to be on the lookout for danger, horses are
quicker to detect stimuli than humans. They have a wide field of vision because their eyes are situated on
the sides of their heads, as opposed to humans with binocular vision. Horses have a limited view of
things directly in front, but compensate by turning their heads slightly to see this area. Their wide field of
vision allows them to see most of what lurks to the side and behind them.
In addition, horses can hear a wider frequency of sounds than humans and, with ears that swivel around
like radar, they can localize the source of the sound.
If a horse is trapped and cannot find a way to flee from what’s frightening him, he will fight. Picture a
horse pulling back when tied, or having his leg tangled in a fence. In training, we must always provide a
way out, or an open door. When we ask the horse to bend with our inside rein, our outside rein needs to
give. Freedom is a reward. In the words of the well known trainer, Ray Hunt, “make the wrong thing
difficult and the right thing easy.” The trainer should avoid creating fright. Emotions and adrenaline do
not foster learning. The horse can only think of fleeing the situation and his movements become quick
and unnatural, rather than soft and calm.
The only possible benefits of creating fright would be when a horse has exhibited truly aggressive
behaviour, such as kicking or biting; the trainer must then assert his dominant status, followed by an
instant reward when the horse responds positively. It is important for horsemen to be in control of their
emotions, as well as the timing and intensity of their cues.
Horses Learn Differently than Humans.
Horses’ brains are structured differently than humans’ and this might explain some of the frustration
people encounter when they try to use human logic in training.
The horse has a far smaller ratio of brain size to body size than the human. Much of the human’s
comparatively large brain is dedicated to the thought processing cerebrum. This area controls memory,
communication, and association. The horse’s brain, however, is largely cerebellum, the part that is
responsible for gross muscle co-ordination, balance, and body functions, and thought to be involved in
learning patterns of movement (1).
We can’t count on our horses to interpret and reason through a skill that we are teaching them. Horses
learn by repetition and drill, and come to associate cues with movements.
In the human, there is a mass of neural fibres that connect and communicate between the two hemispheres
of the brain. There are relatively few of these connective fibres in the equine brain, which would suggest
there’s also less transfer of information from
one side to the other (2). This could explain
why a horse suddenly spooks at an object
that he’s passed by multiple times going in
one direction when asked to travel by it
going the other way. Or this could explain
why, when a horse has mastered the turn on
the haunches to the right, the turn to the left
seems to be a completely new skill to him.
Schooling must be done equally on both
sides of the body with little time saving when schooling the second side.
For further study in this interesting area, I recommend books and/or articles written by the following
authors: Dr. Robert Miller, Dr. Temple Grandin and John Lyons. Many horse magazines publish their
The next time you’re tempted to anthropomorphize:
“My horse is having a bad day;”
“My horse is just stubborn;”
“Our personalities clash;”
Horses and humans are wired differently.
Try thinking like a horse!
1. Hamilton S. Untangling the intricate switchboard system that is the horse’s brain. In: The Thinking
Horse. Guelph, Ontario: Equine Research Centre, University of Guelph, 1995.
2. Bell RW. Are you getting through to your horse? Practical Horseman 1998; January.
3. Houpt K. Domestic Animal Behavior for Veterinarians and Animal Scientists. Ames, IA: Iowa State
University Press, 1991.
Lindsay Grice trains horses and coaches riders in
Orangeville, Ontario, for both english and western
disciplines. She is an Equine Canada certified coach
and judge, as well as a columnist for several equine
Lindsay’s popular horsemanship clinics take her
throughout Canada and into the United States,
creating thinking horsemen of her students by
teaching the “hows” and “whys” of riding. For more
training articles and tips, visit her website,
www.lgrice.com , or contact Lindsay Grice Practical
Training for Horses and Riders, (519) 938-8815,
Permission is granted to use and reproduce this
article in its entirety provided credit is given as
Lindsay Grice, Practical Training for Horses
and Riders, Orangeville, Ontario, Canada
Material may not be changed without the
Dr. Bob Wright, Ontario Ministry of Agriculture,
Food and Rural Affairs, Wellington Place,
R. R. # 1, Fergus, Ontario N1M 2W3,
(519) 846-3412, Fax (519) 846-8101,
Lindsay Grice is a member of the American Quarter Horse Association's Professional Horseman Association and an Equine Canada Certified Level 2 Coach. She teaches horsemanship clinics in the United States and Canada and writes articles for several equine publications. She has made appearances on television and radio, speaking about horse related issues.
Lindsay has often been Ontario's top ranked Jr. Hunter Under Saddle rider, and in recent years has ridden several horses to AQHA's national high point year end status.
Lindsay has a reputation for successfully training clients horses for new events - including Western Riding, Horsemanship, Equitation and classes over fences. She strives to create thinking horseman of her students by clearly communicating the how's and why's of riding.