Humans and horses are two very different species when it comes to behavior and communication. When dealing with horses, we have to remember that they are herd animals that are accustomed to also being animals of prey; therefore they flourish best in groups.
Their primitive instincts remain dominant, even in today’s domesticated environment, because even though humans have been using horses as work animals and pets for around 600 years, equine species have existed for over 75 million years. Additionally, humans are classified as predators. Therefore, it is up to us to figure out how to effectively communicate with our horses.
The Agricultural Extension Service Institute of Agriculture documented at length horse behaviors and how humans can learn to communicate with them. Three vital reasons for positive human/equine communication that the institute focused on include:
- It helps to diagnose medical issues.
- It aids in assessing the emotional temperament and state of the horse.
- It increases safety with your horse.
“Reading” a Horse is Not the Same as Communicating with It
While it may seem that we need to be able to “read” horse behavior, it is our communication with our horses – not just “reading” the horse, but rather understanding their behavior and their means of communication – that encourages the unique bonding required to increase a horse’s welfare.
For example, you can be aware of the warning signs that horses exhibit when they are nervous or feel threatened, such as the laid back ears, lowered head, and you may even sense when a horse is positioning into a kicking position even before it happens. However, if you do not know how to effectively calm that horse when it becomes upset, then the work you need to do with the horse becomes much more difficult.
Horses Understand Non-Verbal Communication with Humans
Science Daily covered a Featured Research article in August 2014 that concluded horses pay attention to the signals of their horse companions, such as the facial expressions, as well as the direction of the ears and eyes. The researchers pointed out that we, as humans, need to remember that this is one way that horses communicate, and while we cannot move our ears like horses can, the way that we hold our heads and avert our eyes may be giving our horses signals that we do not want them to recognize. So, we need to learn how horses “read” into body language to better understand them.
Some horse “behaviorists” will say that you should work to diminish your horse’s exhibition of fear. However, if you do this, how will you know when your horse may react to a situation and start acting out without providing you with initial signs of feeling fearful? It is truly best to spend time with your horse and letting them “get to know” their fears instead. For instance, if a shirt of a certain color makes your horse nervous, introduce one to your horse in a “safety zone”, and you, right there with them, where they can face their fear and learn to realize that a yellow shirt is nothing to fear.
Your level of ability to communicate with your horse is certainly vital for his welfare, as the better communication you and your horse have, the safer and more secure your horse will feel. Better communication can reduce your horse’s level of stress and fear, increase your horse’s feelings of security, and help your horse to trust you more as time goes on. With excellent communication, you and your horse can eliminate potential safety issues for both of you, as well.