Filed in Category: horse behaviour
Horse Recognition of People and Behaviours
A study was published recently by a group from the University of Renne, France to examine the importance of familiarity with both people and people’s behaviour in horses.
The study used 16 horses that had only been handled by 1 person since birth. At 2 years they were taught to stand still on a voice command. It took 5 days to ensure obedience to the voice command.
Two studies were conducted. The first was to have the person familiar to the horse appear and use the voice to command the horses to stand still. After that a person that was unfamiliar to the horses appeared and gave the command to stand still.
Although most of the horses obeyed the voice command irrespective of whether it came from the familiar person or the unfamiliar person, it was observed that the horses were much more focused in a wary manner on the unfamiliar person and less so on the familiar person.
The second part of the study was to repeat the first part, but the person was to offer different behaviours such as turning their back to the horses, looking at the ceiling, closing their eyes. The researchers observed that when the experimenter showed behaviours not familiar to the horses, the horses tended to fidget much more. This was particularly true when researchers closed their eyes.
In brief, the conclusions were that horses were more wary of strangers and even if the person was familiar to the horses the horses were less comfortable when the person exhibited unexpected behaviour such as closing their eyes. You can click here for the full study.
I think this confirms that horses are more comfortable with return and familiarity. I doubt this is a big surprise to anyone.
But I think it explains the concept that with horses it can be “darkest before the dawn” or “things will get worse before they get better” or whatever cliché you wish to use. It is often true that when a horse comes for training, all sorts of behaviours come out that owners had never seen before. I can’t tell you how many times a horse starts out difficult to catch and the owners tell me that Fluffy never does that at home.
When a horse goes for training it is taken to unfamiliar surroundings and put in a paddock with horses he doesn’t know and handled by a person he doesn’t know and exposed to all sorts of strange and unfamiliar rituals in an arena or round yard. It is not surprising that their life is turned upside down for a week or two. No wonder a horse can become reactive or harder to catch or off his feed or pace a fence line. It’s a terrible stress on a horse.
And people are no different. We are just as comfortable with horses we know well and in surroundings we know well. If we are asked to ride a new horse, our heart rate creeps up initially. When we take Fluffy to his first show, our palms can get a little sweaty and we don’t sleep well the night before.
I was once asked to ride a horse that was very reluctant to go forward. The horse had been broken in by the owner and had never been ridden out of the round yard in 3 years. The owner was too worried about losing control away from the safety of the round yard. In trying to satisfy his own need to familiarity and safety the owner had turned the horse into a shut down and confused animal. After about 3 weeks the horse was cantering all over the open spaces and even moving cattle around. Sadly, when the horse went home it went back to being ridden in the round yard again.
So people are as much a victim of the need for familiarity and predictability as horses. But it is important to break away from the comfort zone to be the best horse person riding the best horse than either of you can be. The more exposure to unfamiliar settings and the less predictable and routine life can be the better. Living life in a cocoon gets people and horses hurt. Sometimes, stretching a comfort zone can initially be difficult and cause trouble, but the long-term gains far outweigh the short-term comfort.