The Horse – Human Partnership

The Horse - Human Partnership © Jim Reilly 2020


A basic question which we must answer regarding ourselves and our horses is: What kind of relationship do we want? Do we want a relationship where the horse is a beast of burden made to do out bidding and we are the master and he is the slave?

Or, do we want a relationship which brings us together in a partnership? Assuming that all of us would rather have a partnership with our horses, then that partnership begins by us gaining an understanding of the nature of the horse. If we do not have an understanding of horses – how they think, how they speak, what their needs are, etc. –  we will find it very difficult to accomplish anything worthwhile with grace and harmony with the very creature with whom we seek a partnership.

How Horses are Different

Horses do not behave like cows or dogs. Nor do they behave like people or think like us. They see the world differently. They know what they like and what they do not like. From their point of view, they behave logically and sensibly and in harmony with nature. To us; however, theirs is an alien logic. But with our gifts of analyses and imagination we can bridge the gap of understanding and learn their language and thought. Without that understanding, we cannot hope to deal with them without creating unhappiness on both sides.

There are some areas of living in which both humans and horses have a lot in common. Some of these areas include: living in a herd and striving for companionship. We both like ‘quiet time’. We both seek reward and praise for our efforts and get upset when we are punished for something that happened that was not a fault of our own. It is the horse’s acute sensitivity that will make a partnership possible, if we can only develop a sense of sensitivity to match his.

The Horse’s Contribution to the Partnership

The horse is a living, breathing, sensitive, decision-making, magnificent creature with great strength, speed, and grace. The common thread running through all fields of horsemanship is the ideal of harmony. The human should always aim for a partnership rather than a subordinate relationship, regardless of the riding discipline one chooses to pursue. The whole persona of the horse is the living expression of freedom and independence – the horse’s ‘spirit’ in other words – and it is this aspect that is most important and is the most overlooked. To preserve that ‘spirit’ and yet become the senior partner in this developing relationship, let’s look at what makes the horse unique which ultimately will govern our interaction with him but always keeping in mind that  he was not born with some mysterious knowledge about how we want him to behave.

What the Human Should Know About the Horse

Unlike all other common domestic animals horses stand alone as they are the only ones who use flight as their primary defense. However, horses are the most easily dominated and can be more quickly desensitized to frightening stimuli than any other animal. They do not have the human’s power of reasoning but they are gifted with an outstanding memory, remembering  everything…good or bad. They have the ability to learn swiftly, but their transfer of things from one side of their brains to the other side is relatively only minimal, at best. Hence, what we teach them on one side we must also teach them on the other side. They also possess amazing instincts, almost beyond human imagination.

Horses can hear and smell things that a person cannot. They can feel things remarkably subtle, such as the slightest shift in a rider’s position which is why it is imperative for the rider to develop a secure seat. Their tactile sensing over their entire body is as sensitive as the feeling humans have only at their fingertips. Instincts coupled with memory may explain why a frightened, nervous horse cannot be calmed down as quickly as we would wish. This aspect of their nature must always be of primary consideration and must always be handled with a great deal of patience. Horses have the fastest response time of any domestic animal. Their actions are instant and spontaneous and are not the result of logical reasoning, e.g., they can accelerate from standing still to 40 mph in about 20 yards.

The horse has no concept of obedience or nastiness and does not know what a mistake is (contrary to those of us who are prone to say that “the horse made a mistake”). Additionally, he does not possess an hourly concept of time such as we humans do – although he is sensitive to phases of the day, such as when feeding time is to occur. The horse is an animal that exerts dominance and determines pecking order by controlling the movement of other horses in the herd – their body language is unique to the equine species. Thus, control of the horse’s movement is the basis of all horse training disciplines and they will accept our leadership when we can cause them to move when they would prefer not to move.

The horse has an individual space ‘bubble’ between six and ten feet – extending further to the front and rear than to the sides in contrast to Americans who have a ‘bubble’ about two to three feet extending further in front than behind or to the side. Stepping into the horse’s space ‘bubble’ causes him to move. Learning where to place ourselves in that ‘bubble’ and how to use body language (the language of the horse) will give us control of the horse’s movement.

Lastly, the horse’s eyes are located laterally on their heads so that with a slight head movement they can see all around them. They cab detect movement, like a bird fluttering in a tree, but their sensitivity is limited to seeing broad outlines: they must combine touch, hearing or smell to decide if they do or do not like what they see. That might explain why they get so worried and spooky on a windy day. Lots of things are in motion and one of them might be a predator. They can see very well at night (much better than humans). However, they do not have stereoscopic vision and depth perception like a human. Where their ears are pointing are where their eyes are looking so they have the ability to see two different things at the same time. 

Horses are generally born good-natured. They are gentle animals and are not, by nature, aggressive. All they really want out of life is to be safe, secure and comfortable. Bad behaviors are developed through human failures. A horse adopts ‘bad’ (read survival) manners if the human responsible for him is not consistent in following the ‘rules’ for handling horses. However, it is wise to remember that no matter how gentle a horse is, no matter how well trained he is, no matter how old he is – flight is still the natural response to a perceived threat. Failure to fully appreciate these things has resulted in the injury and death of many people and horses. Almost every riding and horse handling safety rule should be based on the premise that the horse can suddenly be frightened and resort to flight when it is least expected.

The Human’s Contribution to the Partnership

We, as the senior partner in this relationship, bring to it the power of reasoning, analysis, logical thinking, and the ability to control our emotions. We must also have patience, good timing, and time itself. Don’t handle your horse like a pet dog or another human being; handle him like a horse. Study his character and his mentality. Horses are always horses: they think like horses, and they act like horses. We are entering their world – they are not entering our world. Therefore, we should start thinking like a horse. We should learn the horse’s body language. We are attuned to non-verbal communication since over 70% of human communication is non-verbal; body and facial language, so why not take the time to learn the horse’s facial and body language, which is how he communicates. Punishment and pain have no part in teaching (biting is the exception which must be dealt with with immediacy and firmness on the spot) – this includes jerking on the the horse’s head when leading him; smacking him on the face when he doesn’t ‘pay attention’, leading or pulling him along with a stud chain around his nose; hitting him with a whip or crop when he ‘makes a mistake while we are riding him, etc…

Besides, most of the time when we attempt to ‘punish’ the horse we are too late. If it is two seconds after the ‘event’, it is too late – the horse will have no idea what he has done to deserve whatever it is that we do to him. Xenophon, writing about horse training in 400 BC, quoted an earlier Greek horse trainer, Simon of Athens, who said: “If a dancer were forced to dance by whip and spur he would be no more beautiful than a horse trained under similar circumstances.” When teaching the horse, we should take as much time as it takes the horse to learn the lesson. A horse needs time to think and process what he is being asked to do. For example, if we were asked what the square root of 435 was and two seconds later were asked what the sum of 45×35 plus 10 minus 55 was, we would probably say something like; “Wait a minute, I’m still working on the answer to the first question”. By the way, the square root of 435 with one digit accuracy is 20.8 and the answer to the second question is 1530.

Likewise, similar to the way we humans learn anything new or different, the horse learns quickest when the request is perfectly clear , accurate, and understandable and it is repeated over and over again until the response is the kind that we desire. Keep in mind, as with humans, some horses not only learn faster but some can do certain things better than others. Also, the typical horse has a learning cycle  and it progresses something like this: bad-good-bad for quite a while-much better-bad for a short time-then back to good on a consistent basis and then the lesson is learned.

We must have the patience to work through that learning cycle. The ‘bad for quite a while’ may come somewhere around the tenth or twelfth ride or repetition and the ‘bad for a short time’ may occur somewhere around the twenty-fifth or thirtieth ride or repetition. We should ensure that what we are requesting the horse to do has been made clear and that our timing of the request has been right.

Parting Thoughts

Most importantly, we should learn to control our emotions. If we lose our temper we will not accomplish anything. It is better to stop what we are doing and compose ourselves, because the horse will resist if we start to fight him. So spend as much time on each step of the education process as the individual horse requires. We should check ourselves before we begin work with the horse. If we are tense, apprehensive, anxious, or tentative in our approach to the horse, or if we become frustrated, we will not feel things delicately, nor will we be in control of our movements as well. These traits in people confuse the horse and they do not react well to them.

Final Reminder

It is easier to handle one pound of brain than a thousand pounds of horseflesh!