No matter how much experience they have, it’s pretty important for every equine-assisted professional to take a step back from anything and everything he or she has ever learned about horses, and re-evaluate the completeness of their knowledge. Ideally, each horse professional will develop a never-ending “learner’s mind” toward horses, a mindset that always questions the traditional ways while exploring and examining new ones.
He or she will learn to understand horses from a psychological perspective, but that’s where things get tricky. There are many horse people who may know what to do when interacting with horses, but don’t understand why the horse does what he/she does. Or, if they do understand, they only understand and interpret the horse from a limited point of view – theirs. For example: The horse won’t get in the trailer, so the human concludes the horse is “stubborn” or “spooky.”
Memo: Horses that won’t go in trailers are actually very smart! What metal cave on wheels, with no room to run away from predators, IS safe? None! But because we humans aren’t getting what we want, when we want, we label the horse as the problem (rather than the way in which we are asking, or any number of other factors!).
From the basics of individual horse physiology and psychology, Equine Assisted Therapy and Learning Horse Professionals need a thorough understanding of herd dynamics. Horses are a social species, and how they interact, and what they need in a herd environment is very specific and ever-changing. Spending a substantial amount of time watching herd dynamics and how horses interact with each other, how they use their bodies to move each other is one way to glean huge amounts of information about horse dynamics. What influences them? What do they choose as motivation—do they move each other over food, do they exert influence to take over a choice shady spot? By witnessing these nuances, a horse professional can start to understand what matters to horses—both collectively and individually.
Concerning other equids, such as mules and donkeys, it would be nice for Horse Professionals to basically understand their unique traits from a psychological viewpoint. How do mules and donkeys interact with horses? How do they differ from horses in response to stimulus? How do their “default” settings track as a species?
Concerning specific breeds of horses, it is important to be aware of breed tendencies without also making clichéd assumptions. Many people stereotype horses by breed—Arabians, Thoroughbreds, Paso Finos—and have significant biases and expectations. The breed may tend toward being very extroverted, or it may have a long flight line (the distance they will run before stopping to reassess the danger). But there are individual exceptions to these tendencies. And one should never rule out how breed perceptions are sometimes the result of breed-specific training methods that can corrupt the basic psychology of the horse.Horses are a social species. Click To Tweet
Equine psychology and body language then lead to the next level of important knowledge: horse handling skills from the ground. People who understand horse psychology and body language know that ground skills are not about pushing/pulling the horse. They are more about influencing the horse, from catching and haltering, to safely extricating one horse from the herd, to leading them in from the field, to being comfortable and safe handling the horse from the ground in every situation. We can execute all of these basic functions more effectively when we have a better foundation of understanding horse psychology and body language.
One of the first things I encourage folks interested in learning about Equine Therapy and Natural Horsemanship to do is to stop using words around horses. We humans tend to rely more on words, less on our body language. By inviting people to reverse the two, we invite them to become more aware of both their body language and the horse’s.
To learn more about horses, horse psychology, equine therapy and learning, and/or Natural Horsemanship, volunteer! Attend and/or audit local Horsemanship Clinics. You can learn lots just by watching!
Shannon Knapp is Executive Director of Heart of Horse Sense, a nonprofit supporting Equine Therapy and Learning for Veterans and At-Risk Youth in WNC, and President of Horse Sense of the Carolinas, Inc., an Equine Assisted Psychotherapy and Learning program. Both organizations are based in Marshall, NC. For more information, visit HeartOfHorseSense.org or HorseSenseOtc.com.