Understanding the mind of the horse

December 4, 2017
Jennifer Gaumnitz, Senior Content Specialist
Jennifer Gaumnitz, Senior Content Specialist

Jennifer Gaumnitz is a senior content specialist with dvm360.com. She has worked for the organization in its various incarnations for more than 34 years (thus, the "senior"), for several years serving as managing editor of Veterinary Medicine magazine. She has a bachelors degree in Journalism and Mass Communication with an emphasis in Science Writing and a minor in Zoology from Iowa State University.

What makes horses do what they do? Dr. Robert Miller breaks down this ambitious topic into 10 main points. And, interestingly, all are related to the first-the equine flight instinct.

Dr. Robert Miller knows horses. He wrote the book on imprint training in foals. Yet he says, "I am still learning to respect the intelligence of the horse." (Shutterstock.com)How can a human being ever entirely comprehend how a horse thinks? How it perceives its environment? In one of his popular Fetch dvm360 sessions in Kansas City, the renowned Robert M. Miller, DVM, brought all of his years of veterinary and horsemanship experience to bear to present a concise, pithy summary of how your equine patients think.

Dr. Miller explains that when working with any animal species, including horses, you have to understand the behavioral characteristics that are in the species' DNA, established through natural selection. Domestication might affect the characteristics, through artificial selection, but veterinarians should still attempt to understand the innate characteristics to better read their patients and anticipate their movements.

If you remember all 10 points from Dr. Miller's lecture, you're ahead of the game. But what you really need to remember is that all equine behaviors are related to the first-the flight instinct.

1. “Flight is life.”

Dr. Miller points out that each species' primary survival behavior is related to its anatomy. For horses, the primary survival behavior is flight. As a grazing prey species, the horse has no visible weapons, such as horns. It escapes predators by running away. Humans, on the other hand, are a predator species, not a flight species. Therefore, we humans have to train ourselves to understand how a horse views and thinks about things it encounters in its environment. According to Dr. Miller, we have a tendency to attribute a horse's “flightiness” to stupidity.

Dr. Miller says that when he was young, although he loved horses, he thought they were not very bright. He says, “I now realize that the horse in its natural environment, the grassy plains, is a highly intelligent animal. As we go through this list, you will see that the horse rates extremely high on some scales, and in several places, it rates higher than any other domestic animal. I am still learning to respect the intelligence of the horse.”

2. “My senses tell me when to run.”

The horse is the most perceptive of all domestic animals. Why is that? Dr. Miller explains, “If you're going to stay alive in the wild, you better know when to run!” The horse's visual, olfactory, auditory and tactile senses are exceptionally sensitive, which is necessary in a flight creature.

In fact, truly great horsemanship takes advantage of the horse's tactile perceptivity. The horse can feel the rider's slightest changes in position or shift in weight, even a slight turning of the head, all the way through a saddle and saddle blanket. The horse also has monocular vision, with its eyes set to the side. Because of that, the horse can turn its nose about an inch and it has 360-degree vision.

“It can see all around itself, see what's creeping up on it,” Dr. Miller says. However, this also means the horse's depth perception is not like species with binocular vision. This explains why a horse might be afraid of stepping up into a trailer or crossing a stream, until it gains confidence and learns it can trust the rider.

3. “Lightning-quick responses let me live another day.”

The horse has the fastest response time of any domestic animal, which of course is necessary for effective flight. Dr. Miller says, “The significance of that for those of us who work with horses is, I don't care how young or athletic you are, if the horse wants to kick you and you're in an exposed position, you're going to get hurt. We just can't move that fast.” For a more in-depth discussion on safely working with horses, see the article about another of Dr. Miller's equine lectures: Get defensive when working with equine veterinary patients.

4. “I learn quickly what is not a threat.”

Horses are the most easily desensitized of all domestic animals. They can be habituated to frightening but harmless nonpainful stimuli with exceptional speed, if the stimulus is correctly presented. Dr. Miller says, “Horses can be habituated to the loudest noise, the wildest visual stimulus, the most aggressive tactile stimulus, providing it causes no physical pain and the proper technique is used.”

Why are horses so easily desensitized? Dr. Miller explains, “Because if you're a flight animal and an unfamiliar stimulus-a thing you've never seen before or sound you've never heard before-precipitates flight, if that stimulus was harmless and you didn't quickly desensitize to it, you'd never stop running. There'd be no time to eat, drink, rest or reproduce.”

5. “Did I mention I learn quickly?”

According to Dr. Miller, the horse is the fastest learner of all domestic animals. He says horses learn more quickly than dogs, cattle, swine and sheep. The slow learners among ancient equids simply didn't survive to reproduce. Dr. Miller says, “We have to respect how fast horses learn. They learn the wrong thing just as quickly as the right thing.” And that brings us to the next point.

6. “I remember everything … the good and the bad.”

Horses have the best recall of all domestic animals, Dr. Miller says: “They have an infallible memory, whether it's a positive experience or a negative experience. Horses never forget. You may overcome the reaction to that memory, but you don't erase it.” Why is that? Again, during the 5 to 6 million years horses spent in the wild, those with poor memory simply did not survive.

7. “Are you my leader?”

All animals that live in groups have a dominance hierarchy, meaning there are leaders, followers and everything in between. Dr. Miller says horses are the most easily dominated of all domestic animals. That is, they accept leadership of other horses or even humans if appropriate methods are used. A horse's place in the hierarchy is somewhat determined by the innate personality of the horse.

One side note: Since horses are herd animals, a horse that is pastured alone is a sad situation, Dr. Miller says. The companion doesn't have to be another horse; it can be a goat. Horses will readily adopt a surrogate or substitute for a horse.

8. “Do you read me?”

As with other species, the horse has a unique body language. Sometimes veterinarians and horsemen understand it and sometimes they don't. Dr. Miller says, “I spent a third of my life and didn't understand the basic body language, because nobody ever told me and I didn't recognize it. It takes teaching to learn the body language of the horse.”

The horse is most vulnerable when its head is down when it is grazing or drinking. Therefore, when a horse smacks its lips, it is simulating eating and drinking to signify submission and trust. The lower the head and the stronger the mouth movements, the more submissive the horse is being. Dr. Miller says he has learned that “with horses, head up means, ‘I want to run away. I'm thinking flight. I want out of here.'”

During Dr. Miller's years working with horses, he learned to avoid predatory body language when around them. That is, he learned to take a nonpredatory position, a relaxed posture with his weight on one leg (because weight on two legs is predatory), and he does not stare at a horse (because eyes forward is predatory). When he first approaches a patient, he stands and scratches the horse at the withers, casually talking to the owner, and waits for “the letdown,” when the horse lowers its head and exhales.

9. “Control my feet, control my mind.”

Because the horse is a flight creature, its survival depends on its legs and its ability to flee. Therefore, leadership of the horse is established by controlling its movement. That concept can be used in practice. If you control the feet, you control the mind and the behavior of the horse. “When you are on a call and they bring the horse out, while talking to the owner, first move the horse around in a quiet little circle,” Dr. Miller says. “The horse will be thinking, ‘This person is controlling where my feet are positioned.' And submission is the response to that.”

Dr. Miller has occasionally taken this control of the legs to a higher level, using one-leg hobbling on extremely needle-shy horses to gain their submission in order to be able to administer vaccinations. Dr. Miller says that the psychology underlying this action-controlling the legs to create submissiveness-is the important thing to understand, not so much the method.

10. “I was born this way!”

The horse is a precoccial species; soon after birth, the foal is on its feet and can keep up with its mother and run with the herd. This is in contrast to altricial species, such as dogs and cats, where newborns are blind, deaf, helpless and completely dependent on the care of the mother. The newborn foal has fully functional senses. Dr. Miller says that during the immediate postpartum period, in those first minutes, hours and days, the foal's learning and imprinting capacity is the greatest it will be in its lifetime. Otherwise it wouldn't survive.

In summary, we may never be able to fully understand the mind of a horse-after all, Dr. Miller admits that he's still learning! But if you recall nothing else, remember that a horse's primary survival behavior is flight and all other equine behaviors are related to that flight instinct. Knowing this and remembering how it affects the way a horse senses, reacts, interacts and moves through its life will help keep you and your veterinary team safe while working with these 1,000-lb, hard-hoofed patients.