The majestic horse is an animal of many myths that began simply because they are misunderstood by humans. The reality is that they are highly sensitive and extremely intelligent animals. The false assumption that they are stupid has caused a lot of suffering to the animal as well as the humans who seek to care for them. Simply put, a horse can’t speak human and humans tend to believe that all creatures think and react the way we do.
Horse behaviors make sense once you have a better understanding of their physical and mental makeup. For instance, a horse can’t see the tip of his nose. If you offer a treat, you are presenting it blindly to his nose. He sniffs something good, but if your hand isn’t held flat with the treat in a position to be picked up by those large lips and teeth, your fingers may suffer an unintended bite.
The structure and location of the eyes allows a horse to see far more accurately at a distance than close-up. Nearby objects are distorted and enlarged like the crazy image in a fun house mirror. This is because the animal is by nature a prey species and their eyes are structured to observe potential danger at a safe distance and flee when the image grows in size as it approaches the danger zone. Unlike humans, a horse’s eyes are set one on each side of the head. They don’t work together except for a very limited forward view – the eye on the left doesn’t see what the eye on the right sees and the images are processed separately in their brains. Also, horses can’t see what is directly behind them, so if you startle an unfamiliar horse from behind you are likely to receive a defensive kick.
When training a horse, you need to understand how much the placement of a horse’s eyes will affect communication between the two of you. Think of the horse as two animals that must be trained to do the same behavior. For instance, if you are teaching a horse to accept the saddle and rider you ought to first train him to saddle and mount on the left (near) side and then repeat the training on the right (far) side. You cannot train from the left only and expect the horse to react the same if you need to mount from the other side. The brain will not allow the animal to respond the same. It isn’t because they are unintelligent, they simply process information differently than people.
Truth is that horses identify close-up objects like you and their herd mates by smell and sound, not sight. When you are first introduced to a horse approach him from the front. You may offer a treat and gently stroke his head or muzzle while speaking quietly and gently. After a short while you can run your hands down his neck and back. Switch sides and repeat the gentle stroking allowing the horse to observe you from the opposing eye. The key is to remember that a horse is imprinting on your voice and your unique smell and will thereafter recognize you as a friend without being alarmed.
Horses are unique and perfect creatures unto themselves. A positive relationship with a horse comes about by understanding his natural behavior and building a bond based on trust.
Nancie Liles is Community Outreach Director and Animal Care Specialist with Shuler and Forest Lawn Funeral Homes. She was a founder of Asheville Humane Society and MARE – Mountain Area Rescue of Equine.