Behaviour and WelfareBack




Thinking Horses

Mojave Dan said the humans have the opinions and the horses have the facts (Cregier 1994).  Getting these facts from the horses can be a difficult matter and understanding horses and their behaviour gives rise to better applied training,  housing,  reproduction and domestication.  Most training problems can come about from lack of knowledge of the horses’ natural behaviour.  All problem ranging from vices like napping and rearing to stereotypes such as crib biting can be caused by lack of understanding.

Knowing how and why a horse thinks would decrease stress in the horse.  For a domesticated horse to be left on his own  would cause it to panic.  A stabled horse will kick as a defence from a harsh handler.  It is necessary to understand the horse's natural behaviour when in a stable and to understand that its hearing and sight are impaired by three walls of stable. 

Why do horses do what we ask of them?  What goes through a horse's mind when we think they are making a decision?  We ask so much of horses,  whether it be a circus trick or a highly advanced dressage move.  Will a wild horse allow the presence of a human that uses the horse's body language?

What thought process happens the first time conditioning used?  Do we believe horses can think because we are disheartened to think they do not listen to our problems and they do not understand the frustrations of today's horse industry.  If horses can think what languages do they think in?  They do not think in French or English so do they think in neigh's and whinnies?  Do animals think in the language in which they communicate?

All these questions have puzzled horse and all animal behaviourists for many years and even now the answer is not fully known.  This is a study to see if a horse running free in an indoor school will come to a human and follow a human without restraint.  This is going against the horse's instincts and it is believed that for an animal to voluntarily go against its instincts requires conscious thought.

The author of the book Equus Caballus,  Jan May, believes that horses have no capacity whatsoever for considered thought or reasoning.  They simply react to their surroundings and their brain just reacts on the law of stimulus response.  The horse "Cannot,  or will not have the ability for considered thought", (Equus Caballus - Jan May).  Jan May also believes that the horse has much feeling but little understanding.  The horse is guided by instinct with little rational thought as he has no capacity for considered thought.

 It is very difficult deciding whether horses can think as there are so many variables for thought.  Is the horse capable of rational thought?  Can the horse make decisions?  Does the horse have conscious thought?  What is conscious thought?  So many questions on what can be regarded as basic psychological language.  When talking about psychology you are playing with the definition of words and semantics.  A list of definitions is given in the glossary.

 It is believed that a for a horse to go against its instinct then it must be having to think for it to do so.  The horse’s basic instincts are to survive and reproduce.  They are social animals and live in herds,  and they are designed genetically to flee from danger.  "Horses like humans are sociable animals , spend as much time with the horse yourself as you can spare.",  (Your Horse,  Jan. 1995).

Richard Maxwell has a rather different view to that of Jan May.  He believes we use the horses vast memory to teach it what we want it to do.  This is also called conditioning and does not necessarily need conscious thought.   A young horse has a very impressionable mind and so conditioning works well.  In the methods practised by Richard Maxwell and others, they use the horses' language that they understand more that say English or German (which they do not understand either!).

 "The horse has to make his own decisions and learns by his mistakes.  He needs to discover things for himself.",  (Richard Maxwell 1995 personal communication).  The process of join up used by Richard Maxwell and Monty Roberts uses the horse’s need for companionship.  The horse learns and understands not being terrorised, and understands kindness.  He understands the best option is being close to the handler.  Humans are the horse’s natural predator so coming to the handler is going against their instincts and therefore must require thought.  The handler and trainer ask the horse questions that need an answer and that requires thought.

"Behaviour and training go far beyond the physiological `reward and punishment' approach.  Behaviour is defined as a `dynamic form of mediation between the animal and its environment'.  This definition acknowledges that animals make a conscious modification of their learning efforts.  Much of training is based upon this mediation process",  (Cregier 1994).  In this article the author states that the horse has to make a `conscious' change in its behaviour.

The establishment of a hierarchy in a horse community is very important and if not established can lead to aggression between horses.  Two horses that have never met before will try to establish who is the more dominant.  This can happen in stables when a horse is led too close to another and sometimes could be quite dangerous.  This a natural behavioural action and it should be understood why.  "The behaviour problems of horses are frequently related to management practices.",  (Houpt 1981). 

It is important to know the horse's psychology in understanding why it reacts the way it does and why.  All too often we tell a horse off for `spooking',  when he is simply reacting to something that in his eyes he finds frightening.  Often when his reaction is met with the punishment he then associates the thing he was afraid of with the punishment,  also reinforcing his fear.  It is this lack of understanding of how the horse’s mind works that leads to problem horses.  "Due to the equines' keen sensory perception,  developed to protect him from predators,  his ability to quickly identify sudden movements,  possessing the agility to respond to such movements,  his sensitive hearing and his extremely sensitive tactical perception,  the human handlers at times hindered by what might seem overreactions to nothing.",  (Peverly and Lusk 1992).

"The body's stress responses begins in the brain as the decision making process evaluates a particular stimulus and classifies it as threatening or benign.",  (Your Horse,  Aug. 1987).  Whether this reaction is conscious or not needs to be evaluated in further studies.  "For most stressors a behavioural response is adequate enough to remove the threat.",  (Your Horse,  Aug. 1987).  "For instance,  activating the sympathetic nervous system triggers the horse's dramatic physiological reaction known as fight or flight response.",  (Your Horse,  Aug. 1987).  This is a reaction known as stimulus response but whether this requires conscious thought or not again needs further research.

"The bigger the brain,  the greater the brain power - this seem to be a general rule among comparable members of the animal kingdom.",  (Rensc 1957).  In this article it did not define `brain power' and if so does this include instincts or intelligence.  There are two yardsticks by which intelligence can be measured,  one is speed of learning and the other reasoning or in human terms,  problem solving.  Learning depends on a number of different things.  One is the age of the animal;  the younger the horse the greater the impact;  another is what the experience is associated with punishment or reward.  "Our reaction whether good or bad must be administered within a second for the horse's brain to connect it with the action he has just done."  (Your Horse, May 1991). 

A study carried out by Catherine Salthouse (Dissertation Warwickshire College 1995),  looked at the learning abilities of  horses.  The horse can learn against instincts and the learning process relies on memory.  The learning ability can be measured through a change in behaviour.  Mader and Price (1980),  found a negative correlation between age and rate of learning.

 "Finally the levelling personality is able to evaluate the problem and ascertain the solution without affixing blame unnecessarily.  As the label indicates he levels with you explaining what he thinks and feels and why.  his response to the stubborn would be to read the animal's body language and change his handling style accordingly.",  (Equus,  May 1992).  "It is my belief that a trainer of mediocre ability,  but who is prepared to listen to what his horse has to say,  and go with him is more likely to succeed than a talented but dogmatic trainer who wont take no for an answer.",  (Dressage Review,  Nov.-Dec. 1988).  This kind of trainer who knows how the horse’s mind works has a better chance of getting the horse to do what he wants. 

"Of all common domestic animals only the horse is descended from a wild ancestor which depends on flight as a primary survival behaviour.",  Journal of Equine Vet. Sci.  1995).


"In view of the very poor showing made by this animal,  the stableman's belief in his `smartness' is of some interest!",  (Hamilton 1911).  It is not known exactly what is going on in the horses mind.  There is a difference between behaviour and psychology,  and there is a difference in how the horse will act out in the wild and in the stable.  It is the author's opinion that horses can consciously think but not in the way humans do,  however this has not been proven or disproved.

It is the general consensus that knowing the horses' mind will help in overcoming the problems that arise when dealing with horses.  "Understanding a problem is halfway to solving it.",  (The less-than-perfect horse, 1987).


Aggression - A physical act or threat of action by an individual that causes pain or injury or reduces freedom in another individual.

Conditioning -  A method of learning where a response is associated with a stimulus that would not normally produce that response.  This result may be achieved through punishment and reward.

Considered -   To have thought or deliberated in order to decide.

Domestication -  The act of taming.

Dominance - An individual animal is said to be dominant over another when it has priority of access to a resource such as food or to a mate.  A dominant individual is usually superior in fighting ability to a subordinate,  but this may not have been tested.

Emotions -  A strong fear such as fear,  love or sorrow.

Flight reaction - A characteristic escape reaction that is particular to a particular enemy and surroundings,  occurring when the intruder approaches within a given distance.

Hierarchy - The ordering based upon some graded ability or characteristic,  of individuals or groups in a social system.  The term in most frequently used where the ability assessed is that of winning fights or displacing other individuals.

Learning - A change in the brain that results in behaviour being modified as a consequence of information acquired from outside the brain.  The modification must last for longer than a few seconds otherwise the effect could simply be a reflex.

Instinct -  The unlearned responses or tendencies of people and animals.

Rational -   Using sense, reason or logic;  to be able to think or reason;  behaving according to reason or logic rather than emotions.

Reasoning - The process of thinking or drawing correct conclusions.

Stereotypy - A repeated,  relatively invariant sequence of movements that has no obvious meaning.

Stress - An environmental effect on an individual that over taxes its control systems and reduces its fitness or appears likely to do so.  Fitness reduction involves increased mortality and  failure to grow or reproduce.

Subconscious -  Outside the immediate field of consciousness.


Behaviour Problems in horses - Susan McBane

(David and Charles 1987).

Equus Caballus - Jan May

(J. A. Allen 1995).

Stress and Animal Welfare - D. M. Broom and K. G. Johnson

(Chapman & Hall 1993).

The Horses mind - Lucy Rees

(Stanley Paul 1984).

The Less-than-Perfect Horse - Jane Thelwall

(Methuen London 1987).

The Problem Horse (An owners' Guide) - Karen Bush

(The Crowood Press 1992).

Through our eyes only? - Marian Stamp Dawkins

(W. H. Freeman, Spektrum 1993).

Understanding Equine Behaviour - Equus Reference Guide

(Fleet Street Publishing 1989).

When Elephants Weep - Jeffrey Masson & Susan McCarthy

(Vintage 1996).



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COOPER, G.  (1991),  "Punishment & Reward,  A rewarding study.",  Your Horse,  May 1991,  (pp 24 - 25).

CREGIER, S. (1994), "Training and Behaviour.",  Equine Behaviour,  Autumn 1994,  No.32,  (pp 10 - 14).

DUCOMMUN, D. (1991),  "How horses handle stress.",  Equus 170,  December 1991 (pp 22 - 23).

EWBANK, R. (1985),  "Contribution of ethnology to clinical interpretation of the horse's welfare.",  Equine Veterinary Journal, Vol. 7, No. 1, January 1985, (pp 2).

FLETCHER, G.  (1991),  "Mind your Manners!",  Your Horse,  February 1991, (pp 34 - 35).

HAMILTON, G. V. (1911), "A study of trial and error reactions in mammals.",  Journal of animal Behaviour,  Vol. 1, (pp 33 - 66).

HAW, S.  (1987),  "Mind over matter.",  Your horse,  August 1987, (pp 58 - 59).

HOUPT, K. A. (1981), "Equine behaviour problems in relation to human management.",   International  J.  Study Animal Problems,  Vol. 2,  No. 6, (pp 329 - 337).

KIRWIN, S. (1988), "The importance of mental assessment.", Dressage Review November - December 1988, (pp 11).

MILLER, (DVM,) R. M. (1995), "Behaviour of the horse.",  Journal of Equine Veterinary Science, Vol. 15,  No. 2,  February (pp 55 - 56).

PEVERLEY, V. (1992) "Evaluating horse behaviour - A Quantitative approach.",  Equine Behaviour Summer 1992 (pp 5 -10).


Equus 175,  May 1992,  pp48, 134.



To Emily Lathe the owner of Sporting Chance,

To Alex Doran the owner of True Lad,

To Jan May for her advice,  help and information,

To Richard Maxwell for his time and knowledge,

And last but not least to Chancie and Laddy!