Equine Nature & Nurture
Shaping the Experience
Normal behavior is an instinct and is driven by healthy needs that are motivated
by individual nature, personal needs, relationships, social dynamics,
pressure, and instincts.
Abnormal behavior is learned, nurtured and unhealthy. It is motivated by
needs not being met or satisfied.
For one, normal behavior is natural and for horses it is driven by healthy needs that are motivated by individual nature, personal needs, instincts, relationships, and social dynamics.
Abnormal behavior is learned, nurtured and unhealthy. It is motivated by needs not being met or satisfied.
The only way we can have a clear and accurate understanding of normal and abnormal behavior is when we study wild horses and/or untainted domesticated horses.
I will share my experience with both in hopes of clearing up many of the myths and misconceptions of horse dynamics, behavior, instincts, and styles of communication.
Let’s begin with understanding the nature, instincts, and behaviors of wild horses. This will help us create a baseline of information that is both accurate and normal for the equine species.
I have studied, tamed, and rehabilitated thousands of horses, starting with the feral Chincoteague ponies to the American Mustangs and this is what I have come to know as true.
Working with wild horses taught me the truth about the nature, psychology, and instincts of horses. For one, I learned that 98% of our domesticated horses are messed up, and so damaged that they don’t know how to be a horse anymore.
The easiest way I can explain this is through a compare contrast scenario, comparing wild horse behavior to domesticated horse behavior.
Wild horse behavior is influenced, shaped, by individual nature, instincts, relationships, social dynamics, and personal needs.
Whereas domesticated horse behavior is influenced, shaped, by emotional, social, and physical needs not being satisfied. When needs aren’t satisfied, they turn into displacement behaviors or coping mechanisms.
Displacement behaviors occur when animals are prevented from performing a single behavior for which they are highly motivated such as eating. Displacement activities often involve actions which bring comfort to the animal such as eating, socializing, responding to stimuli in a healthy, self-regulated manner.
An example would be when a horse cannot see or be with its friends. They begin calling out, pacing or worse panicking, racing up and down the fence line. This happens because their emotional and social needs are not being met (doesn’t feel safe) which in turn causes the horse to act out (displacement) and develop coping mechanisms such as pacing, or cribbing.
Behaviorists argue that behavior is learned in interaction with our environment, and that all behaviors are learned through experience. Without getting into the many types of behaviors horses (and people) can learn, let’s stick with my study and argument that horses are motivated by instincts, needs and nature and when these are not met or satisfied, they create coping behaviors to meet those needs.
Now when it comes to trauma, horses like people, develop coping mechanisms to manage their emotions or painful situations. A horses coping mechanisms can turn into unwanted or negative behaviors such as buddy/barn sour; snatching the bit or reins; bucking; bolting; spooking; refusing; rushing; checking out/shutting down/freezing/auto pilot; defensiveness; abnormal fears, phobias and eating habits; aggression; undesirable stall behaviors; cribbing, etc.
Let’s look at what I’ve learned studying and working with wild horses and untainted baby horses.
Wild horses, and untainted young horses, are easy to train, and develop, and that’s because they are open sponges, meaning they are trusting and confident.
Both are totally balanced when it comes to their emotions and reactions. Meaning, they do not overreact and for the following reasons:
They are present and do not live in the past. This means they don’t have trauma, PTSD or triggers that cause them to overreact. Overreacting will get a horse and the herd noticed by predators. Being quiet is essential to survival, including being vocal. You seldom hear a band of mares however you will hear stallions.
They do not learn “bad” behaviors or behaviors that do not coincide with their natural instincts for survival. Everything they do supports their emotional, physical, and social health, well-being, and survival.
They naturally, innately, respond to stimuli via their parasympathetic nervous system first which means they are always in a state of endorphin release which creates relaxation, calm and clarity. This is critical to their ability to be safe and make split second decisions.
When they sense a change in their environment, the first thing they do is freeze and get quiet so they can tune in and heighten their sensory awareness – they do not go into fight or flight. This is because they are hardwired to conserve energy. This is their instinct for survival.
With wild horses, the entire herd is connected via the nervous system so when one is alerted, they all are but because they trust the lead mare, they wait for the lead mare to respond first. The lead mare has this rank because she has the most experience at finding food, water, safety, and parenting.
Wild horse herds are emotionally and socially healthy and rely on each other for emotional, physical, and social safety. This means they work together to survive and raise their families. While there is hierarchy, partnership is most important. The band of mares in a herd works together to raise the young, keep social order, defend from threatening stallions and predators.
You might be asking why so many young horses, and wild horses, come with vices, are traumatized or are difficult to train, and work with?
In my experience, it’s because somewhere along the way they encountered a really bad experience being handled, trained or they learned their behaviors from their natural mother or environment.
In any case, everything we do with them influences them and can create bad experiences that lead to unwanted and unhealthy behaviors. And, as I mentioned earlier, in my experience working with thousands of horses, 98% of our horses are unhealthy.