That Horse is Not Just a Big Dog
To those of you who really love and know horses, that title seems awfully silly, but for those of you with little or no actual horse experience, it got your attention, didn't it?
I have met people who love horses from a distance, and from a distance, they can seem like just another domesticated pet -- like their dog or even their cat.
But there's a huge difference that affects everything: dogs and cats are natural predators. They remind you of this once in a while when, for example, your cat or dog brings you an unexpected and probably dead "present."
Horses, on the other hand, are prey animals. They are big and beautiful and fast and smart, and so with little knowledge of them, this may come as a surprise.
Understanding the prey animal mindset give us a lot of insight into how to meet their needs so that we can create safe and mutually beneficial relationships with them. For example, horses are hard-wired to be constantly aware of their environment in order to recognize and react to potential threats in a timely manner (quickly enough for the entire herd to avoid losing a member as dinner to a predator). Of course WE know that our domesticated horses are generally safe from large predators, but that doesn't change the horse's instinctual way of being in the world.
For horses, reacting quickly to something that startles them or makes them nervous is a survival mechanism that is not a conscious decision. This is known as the flight response.
It's important to understand that a horse that moves, jumps, or runs away from a potential threat is not being intentionally dangerous, disrespecting us, or trying to gain the upper hand, even though, to us, it may be an undesirable, frightening, or frustrating behavior. He is reflexively doing what had kept his species alive in the wild for eons. There are ways to work with and through the flight response in horses with confidence and calmness. Learning about this and other typical prey animal behaviors is step one in understanding the horse, their needs and desires, and the dynamics of their relationships with other horses and humans.