At the 2012 Western
Veterinary Conference, held Feb. 19-23 in Las Vegas, Nev.,
Robert Miller, DVM, a former equine practitioner from
Thousand Oaks, Calif., relayed the top 10 things horse
owners, caretakers, and riders should understand about how
the equine mind functions.
"There are 10 genetically
predetermined behavioral qualities unique to the horse that
have been established by natural selection over the 50
million-year period during which the horse evolved," Miller
began. "Failure to understand these qualities makes it
impossible to have optimum communication with horses."
tend to attribute the flightiness of a horse as
stupidity," Miller said, but when horses spook and run
from things, it's simply their innate instincts kicking
in. He explained that unlike the majority of prey
animals that depend on horns, tusks, or antlers for
defense, the only mechanism horses are armed with—their
"life-saving" behavior—is the ability to run. The
following nine qualities, Miller said, stem from the
horse's flight response.
is the most perceptive of all domestic animals," Miller
said, adding that this quality allowed for the quick
detection and escape from predators in the wild. He gave
examples using the five senses:
said horses have an "excellent" sense of smell.
horse's range of hearing is far beyond that of a
human ear," he said. Additionally, he noted, the
ears swivel, giving the horse the ability to
pinpoint where sounds originate. This was critical
for survival in the wild.
horse's sense of touch is extremely delicate,"
Miller said, which is why an ill-placed saddle pad
or a single fly can cause extreme irritation. "The
sense we have in our fingertips is what the horse
has all over his body."
tried to sneak 'Bute' or a new supplement into a
horse's feed, only to have him turn up his nose?
Horses have a very tactful sense of taste. When
grazing in the wild, it's important for horses to
differentiate between good grass and moldy forage.
sense that varies most from ours is the horse's
eyesight. While horses’ depth perception isn't
particularly strong, other factors enable them to
"see things we're not even aware of," Miller said.
The horse's laterally placed eyes allow for nearly
360° vision, a crucial survival mechanism for the
wild horse. Additionally, Miller noted the horse has
superb night vision and sees in muted, pastel colors
during the day. The equine focusing system is also
different from humans, he said. When a human eye
transitions from focusing on close-up objects to far
away objects, it takes one and a half to two seconds
to adjust (Miller encouraged attendees to try
it—look at something close up and then look at
something far away, and try to focus on how long it
takes the eyes to focus). Horses, on the other hand,
make the transition seamlessly. This is because
different parts of the eye have different focusing
capabilities. Horses use the top portion of their
eyes to see up close, which is why they often lower
their heads when investigating something. The lower
portion of the eye sees far away, which is why the
animal will raise his head when looking at something
in the distance; when the horse holds his head up
high, he's considered to be in the flight position.
said horses might have the fastest reaction time of any
domestic animal, which likely results from evolving with
flight as their main defense mechanism. To illustrate
the concept, Miller showed video clips of Portuguese
bull fighting and cutting horses working cattle, in
which attendees could clearly visualize that although
the bovines made the first move, the horse always
countered and arrived at the destination first. While a
fast reaction time is quite useful for escaping
predators, it can also be dangerous for humans working
around horses. "It's important that we, who make our
living with horses, expect their reaction time," Miller
stressed. "If (a horse) really wants to strike or kick
you, you can't get out of the way fast enough."
it's equine nature to be flighty and sometimes timid,
Miller said that horses appear to be desensitized faster
than any other domestic animal. "If an animal depends on
flight to stay alive, and if they couldn't rapidly
desensitize to things that aren't really frightening or
dangerous, they'd never stop running," he explained. As
long as the horse learns the frightening stimulus
doesn't actually hurt them, the majority will become
desensitized, he said.
believes "the horse is the fastest learner of all
domestic animals—including children. If you stay alive
by running away, you better learn fast."
horse's memory is infallible, Miller said. One of the
best memories in the animal kingdom, he noted, horses
are second only to the elephant in this department.
dominance is not based on brute strength, Miller
explained, which is why humans can become dominant
figures in a horse's mind. He related an example of a
horse herd in which an older mare is typically the boss.
While these mares generally aren't in poor physical
condition, they're certainly not the strongest herd
horses do look for in a dominant figure is movement
control. Matriarch mares, for instance, assert their
dominance by either forcing or inhibiting movement,
Miller said, which allows a human to step in as a
dominant figure. Miller suggested a quick way for a
veterinarian to assert dominance over a horse for safer
examinations and treatments: Before treatment, walk the
horse in a few small circles. This forces movement and
humans, who can express their feelings through words,
horses rely on body language, Miller said. "If we are to
be competent horse handlers we must be able to
understand and mimic the body language of the horse," he
are born in a precocial state, meaning that shortly
after birth they possess the ability to move, eat, flee,
and follow, and all of their senses and neurologic
functions are mature, Miller said. What does this mean
for a human? Aside from providing enjoyment in watching
a young foal gallop and buck excitedly around a pasture,
it tells us that the horse's critical learning period
takes place shortly after parturition. Thus, Miller
recommends socializing and imprinting foals in the very
early stages of life.
Of course, every horse
is different and should be treated as an individual. That
said, having a basic understanding of why a horse
functions the way he does provides equestrians with the
knowledge needed to forge a strong relationship with the
animal and also stay safe when working around him.