As I’m working on my children’s novel with a medieval setting, I needed to learn something about horse/human interaction, because horses were used so extensively in medieval society. I don’t have a lot of personal experience with horses, so I called on expert Susannah Cord, who graciously responded to my cry for help. Here’s some of what she had to say:
How do horses communicate with humans?
Horses communicate most obviously through body language. It can include the way they hold their head, their body, the expression of their ears and eyes, or how they move in your presence. They may also communicate by offering a body part for scratching, pinning their ears if a saddle hurts, swishing their tail if tense or trying very hard to do what you ask, or even holding a part of their body away from you if it hurts them.
I have also found that horses are adept at transmitting mental images and even emotions that just kind of pop into your head and heart as you work with them. Either you are open to this and respond as best you can, or you are not and miss out on the whole thing! It all comes down to our perception and our own needs, what we allow ourselves to hear and experience.
In my book The Knighting of Sir Kaye, Kaye’s horse Kadar is extremely intuitive and very protective towards Kaye. Does this have a basis in reality?
Yes. Horses have to be extremely intuitive and protective. We may not think of them this way, but horses in the wild are prey animals, and in order to protect themselves, they are constantly scanning their surroundings even when they appear very relaxed and peaceful. They need to be able to make fast decisions — like deciding whether some nearby wolves are just passing through or if they’re on the hunt. Their lives and the lives of their family and friends depend upon them trusting their slightest impulses.
This intuitiveness carries through into their interactions with humans. Horses are expert body language readers and are exceedingly sensitive to a person’s emotional and energetic state, which they tend to reflect back to the person. Another example of intuitiveness I’ve seen is when I work with a horse, and they tell me when something is about to happen before I ever know it. I’ve also had horses react to outside influences causing me to begin to fall off only to have them swivel and catch me just in time, then stop and stand dead still while I clamber back into a sitting position. If they consider that you are part of their circle — if they care for you — they will look out for you.
To me, this protectiveness they can extend to humans really demonstrates how wonderful and flexible horses are. To a horse, we humans have all the marks and smells of a predator, and on top of all that, we want to get on their backs. This is something only a predator with killing in mind would want, and yet horses allow us to do this. They even include us in their circles and allow us to become their friends and leaders.
Why would a human be a horse’s leader?
In a herd of horses, one is always the leader. He stands guard, alert and attentive, and the other horses look to that horse for clues as to what they should be doing. And so, outside of the herd, the first question a horse asks you is “Are you the leader or am I the leader?” He needs to know this down to his very bones, because his instincts tell him his life depends upon it. If he is the leader, then he needs to look out for himself 100% of the time. He has to make his own decisions as to how to stay alive, never mind what you are doing. But if he trusts that you are the leader, he can relax and take his cues from you.
One of you has to be in charge and if you understand that in the presence of a large animal your physical well-being depends upon it being you, you will learn how to be in charge. The horse will thank you for it if you do it right, because horses in a herd live in a hierarchy; their social structure and psychology adheres to a dictate of hierarchy.
It can be such a relief for the horse if he can just let you make the decisions and create a safe space for him in your presence because a horse also knows that preserving energy is smart, in case he has to outrun a pack of wolves or a puma. Most horses are completely fine with someone else being in charge — as long as they can trust that you are a good leader. Horses have a very strong sense of fairness. They understand and accept discipline, but they also know when someone is being unfair and abusive.
So I try to be a fair, benevolent, and affectionate leader for my horses. I have to understand that the horse did not ask to be here, to work for me, so I have to make it a worthwhile, enriching experience for him so he will start to look for me, to ask for me. I have to show up day after day to work and just be with the horse, because even if I bought the horse’s body, I still have to work to earn his heart.
A horse’s heart is worth winning! They are so much smarter, kinder, funnier, and more generous than people give them credit for. They are incredibly patient and forgiving (to a point) and are highly intelligent, feeling creatures with a latitude of heart unknown in our own species, but to be their friend you must first be their leader. They cannot be your pet, like a dog or cat. Many people today come to horses all misty-eyed, remembering reading My Friend Flicka and thinking it will be like having a really big dog. Reality Check! Horses are not like dogs!
Here’s why: dogs, cats, and humans are all predatory species. This means we share psychological traits that we are not even aware of that make it relatively easy to keep them as pets. We possess by nature an innate understanding of each other. Whether we like it or not, a human can be vegan and a pacifist and always be kind to animals, but a prey animal will still instinctively recognize that human as a predator.
Horses, as prey animals, have a need for safety, trust and leadership that is far more profound than that of a cat or dog. Can we be ‘friends’ with horses? Absolutely, once leadership is in place. Then, as your relationship develops, you may begin to share that responsibility to such a degree that every moment becomes a real conversation, a dance where you are the ‘leading man,’ and you both almost forget who is in charge because you are so simpatico. However, there must always be a leader and you are it, because the horse needs that to feel safe.
And then the stories can become true for you – Flicka, Black Stallion, Black Beauty, and so on. But first you have to pay your dues and earn a horse’s trust and respect. You have to show up and make it worthwhile for them to pay attention to you.
Horses are the ultimate ego and narcissism buster!
About Susannah Cord
Susannah Cord was raised in Denmark, Kenya and Zimbabwe. Susannah is a lifelong horsewoman, writer and now wildlife photographer-in-training currently living in the USA. She was a longtime contributor to online global publication, Horses For LIFE Magazine, where her long running column, Riding By Torchlight, was a favorite with readers. Susannah is also the author of illustrated children’s book, Fenella, A Fable of a Fairy Afraid to Fly and the blog The Torchlight Chronicles where she writes about life, horses and everything in between. Her new book, the story of the horseback safari with Offbeat Safaris in Kenya that changed her life, will be out in 2014.
As a devoted dressage rider and trainer, Susannah on occasion rides for the Foundation for Classical Horsemanship.
Great article, couldn’t agree more with this point of view – we can learn a lot about horses just by realising how different they are from us, and other predator species.
This article explores the same principle: http://www.happy-horse-training.com/horse-behavior.html
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