About this Book

Last revised April 10, 2017

I fell in love with my horse on our first date, and I know he loves me back. For the last decade, he and I have worked on understanding each other. This book focuses on what science has learned about horses and horse-human interaction. It is not a book about riding, diet, illness, shoeing or showing. It is more about how horses work than about how to work them, more about what they want to do than what you can make them do.

I wanted to ride Endurance, and my thoroughbred was just too handicapped from a break at the track early in life and now arthritis, so I added a gaited mule to my fleet. In my time with my horse and mule, I’ve heard a lot of stuff again and again, stuff that just didn’t seem right to me.  In search of the truth, I did what everyone else does: I talked to other riders, hired trainers, attended clinics, bought books, subscribed to magazines, explored websites. These sources all seemed to agree with each other, but things still didn’t seem right.  So I turned to science, in hopes that there would be some better information here.

I was trained as a social psychologist, and so have no fear of science or technical language or asking questions. But I had never seen any scientific literature on horses, and wondered if there even was any.

I was surprised by what I found. Science has much to say about horses, but it tells a very different story than does our dogma about horses.  After reading about 1,500 studies and writing this book, I can now say that very little of what the world believes about horses turns out to be true.

You are reading this because you love horses, too. Because you want to know more about them, and get along better. You may be in for some tough sledding in some of these pages. Science doesn’t always support our intuitions. I hope that I can bring together the neglected literature of equine science with the good intentions of the horse world, and serve horses and their humans better than we now do with good intentions alone.

If you are wondering just what you might have wrong, consider these facts:

  • There is a movement promoting imprinting in foals. Early learning is a good thing. But a careful reading shows no evidence of filial imprinting of anything at any age in any mammal. Period. Human babies don’t imprint. Foals don’t imprint.
  • The most aggressive horses in a herd are not leaders, because they have no followers. Horses don’t like bullies, and horses of lower rank will be found grazing with each other, and choosing each other as friends.
  • A stallion is not the leader of a band of wild horses. In a herd, the greatest influence comes from the senior mares.
  • In fact, bands and herds of horses don’t have leaders. Horse leadership is done as it is done in schools of fish or flocks of birds — through collective decision making.
  • A horse’s flank is more sensitive to pain than your calf.
  • Horses don’t “move away from pressure”. A draft horse will happily pull a cart, leaning into its harness. Horses move away from discomfort and pain. This makes them no different than any other animal capable of movement.
  • Rewards and penalties are very different in how they shape learning. Very mild punishment seems quicker at changing behavior, and reward is better at maintaining behavior. For something like trailer loading, reward works much better than punishment. And if you’d like your horse to love you as a byproduct of your training, emphasize reward.
  • Carrots work far better than scratches or rubbing as a reward in training. The way to your horse’s heart is through his stomach, not his withers.
  • Patting a horse on the head or neck has no intrinsic meaning to him. Horses don’t pat each other, and rarely touch each other on head or neck.
  • Horses have no idea that they are “prey animals”. They band together because they feel comfort when near those they know, and insecure when they are alone. This makes them no different than goldfish or starlings.
  • Horses don’t respect humans. They are comfortable maintaining a very small personal space when with those they trust, and humans confuse this natural crowding with a lack of respect. Horses can be punished when they approach, but this doesn’t build a bond — it tears it down.
  • “Partnership” is rare in horse-human relations. Humans are willing to label relations as partnerships when their horse is docile and compliant.
  • “Fight or Flight” is only part of the story. “Freeze” should be added to that list of responses to danger.
  • “Horsenality™” is not different than the discredited proto-psychological theory of “four temperaments” or “four humors” from Greco-Roman medicine. Developed 2,500 years ago, it was discarded by psychologists 100 years ago.
  • Masturbation is not a stall vice. It occurs in horses everywhere — we just happen to see it in stalls. And it is not a vice. It is natural.
  • Predator odor does not frighten horses unless combined with another stimulus that affects fear.
  • A workout in which your horse sweats profusely may not leave him thirsty. A mouthful of electrolyte paste will help with rehydration, but only if he is willing to drink afterwords — otherwise it may leave him more dehydrated.
  • Dehydration cannot be assessed from mucous membrane dryness or the skin tent test. Latherin — that white foamy stuff — makes sweat more effective at cooling. Scraping or toweling a horse will not help it cool — it will remove his sweat before it has cooled him.
  • Horse saliva encourages grass to grow. Grass evolved to be grazed. Horses and grasses evolved together.
  • Fighting is more common in domestic horses than in feral horses.
  • A horse’s breathing is synchronized with his stride at a fast trot and faster gaits, but not at a walk or slow trot.
  • A horse must be lying on his side to dream. Dreaming is important, and a horse tied to a hitching post can’t benefit from it.
  • Your horse has a name that the other horses know. The name you gave him is not it.
  • Horses prefer to not be ridden.
  • A horse can find his way home through the operation of “place cells” in his brain, as well as by dead reckoning with a skylight compass.
  • Your horse will enjoy your company more if you are standing on his right side.
  • A horse with a clockwise facial hair whorl is likely to be left handed.
  • Whatever is learned in the round pen stays in the round pen. Efforts in the round pen do not change his behavior outside the round pen. Horses don’t like to be chased.
  • Stereotypies such as cribbing may be initially caused by stress, early separation of a foal from his mom, confinement, and perhaps genetics.
  • Breaking a horse breaks his spirit, teaching him that nothing he does can better his situation. This “learned helplessness” underlies the docility and “laziness” of lesson horses.
  • A horse does not need to see something with two eyes to see it. The large eyes of the horse do not make anything appear bigger. Horses don’t need to be taught good head position. And they don’t need to lower their head to see distant objects.
  • Horses are not color blind, but like bulls and most other animals, they don’t see red.
  • Your horse won’t hear you any better if you speak louder than a whisper.

You will likely learn that some things that you believed about other animals are also not correct. For instance:

  • The strongest goose does not fly in the front of the formation. The V-shaped flight of geese is not due to aerodynamics.
  • A horse’s sense of smell is far better than a dog’s.
  • A rainbow trout’s face is likely much more sensitive to pain than a human’s.

I cover many topics: Pleasure, pain, carrots and sticks. Social behavior, including friendship, bands and herds, respect, leadership, partnership, dominance, hierarchy and personality. Behaviors including grooming, bonding, courtship and reproduction, dealing with danger, drinking, eating, fighting, moving, play, resting, sleeping, and rolling. Communication: how the horse does it, how we need to do it. The horse’s mind, including mood and emotion, fear, flight, fight, freeze, early learning and imprinting, mental illness, and learned helplessness. Vision, hearing, smell, touch. Common questions.

This is not a novel, and the order in which you read chapters doesn’t matter. So start wherever you want, and read what interests you.

Crazy Horse National Monument.1 Your author is a little crazy, too.

You may find this book a bit different than other horse books.

Let me tell you how this happened.


Books are piles of words, and this book has turned into a big pile of them.

I like words with meanings. For years, authors of books about horses have not troubled themselves to be understood. They felt free to use words they thought they knew and let the reader guess what it was they were talking about. So when we read about Natural horsemanship, we don’t ever get a definition of “Natural horsemanship”. When we read about riding, we are not likely to find any useful definition of words like “feel”, “seat”, “impulsion”, or “harmony.” I don’t think you will even find terms like “alpha” or “leader” defined.

Consider this quote from an important book by a well-known horse whisperer: “It’s only through feel that a rider can make use of the lightness in the horse without creating resistance.” I’m sorry, but until I know what the author means by “feel” or “lightness” or “resistance”, I won’t be able to draw anything from this sentence. This sort of writing is what I hate about horse books. Or suppose you had to explain what these terms meant — all of which you must be able to teach if you are to be certified as a “student coach” in one program: “Alignment, Bearing down, Supporting your own body weight. ‘Plugging in’ in walk, Using the lower leg, Rising trot mechanism, Walk/halt transitions.2” Special vocabularies — in which nothing means what you think — should be the provenance of religion, not working with horses. I will work very, very hard not to imitate it here.

Other common words in our horse language are clearer in meaning, but therefore more obviously wrong. If your horse pushes you with his nose while you are walking him, can we say he doesn’t respect you? Sure we can. Trainers say that sort of thing all day long. But we don’t know what this means. When a horse gives a push with his nose, it is often an invitation to play. Horses prefer to play with their friends. Why not say that? Why do we have to punish horses for every single thing they do? And why not rejoice that your horse wants to play with you?

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.” It is not well known, but Mr. Dumpty wrote most of our horse books.

As McGreevy et al (2005)3 have written, “The need for precise definitions is accepted in human psychiatry4 and is increasingly called for in veterinary behavior medicine5 . In contrast, the use of non-scientific terms is customary in equestrian circles and is added to by contemporary trainers and self-styled horse whisperers. Data suggest that qualified equestrian instructors frequently confuse the meaning of terms that originated in behavioral science.6

Language can be our buddy when we try to talk about horses. A book like this would be much shorter without the words. But words can confuse. First we have an idea, and we name it “angel”. Then we ask “how many can dance on the head of a pin?” Good question. And theologians have spent a good deal of time working on this important problem. Or we had the idea of “day”. Then someone said that something was created in seven of them. And on the eighth day or so, we created mind, spirit, and soul. Reification is the process of turning an idea into a fact. I’m pretty sure it doesn’t work.

It is my plan to define my terms, and to use terms to mean the same things that they mean in Wikipedia or any standard dictionary. When I suspect you might not know the strange word I’m using, I’ll define it — and not use other mysterious words in the definition.

Too Much Talk, Too Little Thought

If you can’t dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with bullshit.” — W.C. Fields

Where’s the beef?” — Coyote McCloud

I have read many horse books with flashy covers, in search of an idea to include in this book. In many, I’ve gone 25 pages before encountering any information at all. Across all my horse books, I’d guess that I’ve paid $20 per good idea. Why do authors think we want to waste our time with such books? (Of course, there are a few good books about horses. You may have found a favorite or two. This book might not be one of them.)

You may have considered Top Training Techniques from Tip Top Trainers. One has made a living by telling us that horses prefer to be rubbed in a circular motion, clockwise if you please. Do this simple trick, and your horse/dog/goldfish will love/understand/respect you. There are classes, videos, books, workshops, DVDs, newsletters, greeting cards, even a philosophy. I suppose if someone could invent rubbing in a counter-clockwise direction, we could sell twice as much.

Or you may have one of those trainers who knows the answer to every single question ever asked about horses. These days, most of the answers amble around vague notions of respect, predator/prey, respect, dominance and respect. When a horse respects you, he reads your mind, correctly guesses what you want, does it immediately, and waits for feedback on his performance. While he does this, he enjoys hearing your opinions on whether he has an adequate attention span or is lazy. At the end of an hour with you on his back, kicking him with your spurs and yanking the bit, if you are in the mood he is entitled to a carrot.

The world would be a better place if we did a little thinking before masquerading as a trainer or book author. Let’s aspire to dazzle, not baffle.

A lot of thinking went into this book, because I would hate it if it turned out like most of the others.

Is that Horse Pith on your shoe?

Pith is the essence of something. What is the essence of this book? It is mostly about the behavior of a horse, with a lot of attention to what a natural horse — one that is feral — might do, and why he might do it. None of us spend any time with feral horses, but we make many claims about them. We suppose we understand them, and repeat things that we’ve heard. So many of these pages are devoted to clearing up myths about horses. It is about science, as well, for if we don’t turn to science for our understanding of the horse, we must turn back to mythology and dogma.

Bringing Science, Experience, and Dogma Together

There is no connection between traditional horse training techniques and the modern sciences of animal learning, ethology, psychology, or other sciences. The poor horse is lost. In the hands of those practicing dogma, his fate is left to superstition, to myth, to conjecture. His guiding principles are platitudes. The horse floats in two parallel universes, and one brings no benefit to the other. As I write this, there is no literature uniting equine and equitation science, so I’ll need to consult many sources.

In this book, I will work as a translator, trying to explain how traditional horse training techniques can be understood with a more modern scientific framework, and how modern science could contribute to improved horse training and motivation. Thanks to the help of Google Scholar, we can discover that we are not alone, that there is a vast world of scientific research that has been done on nearly every question we might ask. I’ll connect you with that world here, without inflicting it on you. I’ll cite my sources, and let you learn more, if you wish, by following the footnotes.

I followed several strategies in trying to integrate the parallel worlds of science, experience, and dogma:

  • I’d begin with a topic suggested by science (such as how allogrooming in mares changes when a stallion is present), by experience (such as how my horse and mule both prefer certain areas to be scratched over other areas), by a solid book on horses (such as The Mind of the Horse7) or by dogma (such as the literature on imprinting foals).
  • I’d use Google Scholar8 to do several searches for papers on this topic. If Google’s abstracts seemed of use, I’d read the paper at Sci-Hub,9 writing as I browsed along. If I needed photos to figure something out, YouTube or Google Images would come to the rescue.
  • Often there did not appear to have been any research done on horses on this topic. But omitting “horse” from my search would often turn up some interesting science on other animals. My travels led me to discover erogenous zones in horses, to debunk “imprinting” in foals, to learn how grazing benefits grass. By carefully considering select other species, I could sometimes make inferences about horses.
  • I kept a close eye on language. Some people claim that “imprinting” occurs in horses, perhaps because they have heard about it in birds. It is true that some skills develop better when learned at a certain age. A mule deer in the womb can learn the sound of a human’s voice, and come running forward when first meeting that human and hearing his voice.10 This is not imprinting. It is prenatal learning. We once bought a cockatiel who was not allowed to fly from birth until she was about a year old. Clarice flies now, but has some very awkward moves and terrible landings. She would have done better if her wings hadn’t been clipped as a baby. This is not imprinting. It is a missed opportunity for early learning. Early learning is a good thing. But a careful reading shows no evidence of filial imprinting of anything at any age in any mammal. Period. Human babies don’t imprint. Foals don’t imprint. This isn’t just semantics. It is important. Splitting hairs on “early learning” and “imprinting” is important, because once something is labeled, other (often foolish) inferences are made.
  • We don’t feel comfortable assuming that we know what a horse is feeling. But I’ve heard people say “I know how your feel”, so perhaps people believe they have insight into the feelings of other humans. I certainly know how I feel. So if I haven’t eaten in a while, I have feelings that I call “hunger”. I assume that if neither of us has eaten all day, that you feel the same way I do. It makes no sense that every individual has their own unique feelings of hunger. One common feeling is enough. Here’s where we might differ: I also assume that if a horse hasn’t eaten all day, that it has gotten into a state that we’d aptly named “hunger”. Whether you believe in evolution or creationism, there is no reason why every species should experience a different feeling when they had not eaten. And so I am willing to extrapolate from humans like me to people like you, and people like my horse. All of this comes in handy when we try to understand that breaking a horse is teaching it learned helplessness. When we understand learned helplessness in humans, we can extrapolate to horses, and understand that breaking a horse is breaking his spirit and producing a horse that is depressed, that has given up trying to control his fate, and has become a poor learner.
  • I considered the evolution of behavior and the possibility of convergent evolution (the independent evolution of similar appearance or behavior). If two species share a behavior, that behavior might have evolved independently in the two species. If an entire taxonomic group, such as “mammals” shows the behavior, then it is surely not convergent evolution, but rather a behavior that dates back to the dawn of mammals. Once we know that “mammals” do something, that all the reports we have seen — on zebras, hippos, mice, cattle — agree on this, we can feel comfortable in extrapolating to horses. And so in this book you will find many references to other species.
  • Extrapolation and inference is always risky business. So when I look to other animals to make inferences about horses, I prefer to look to what we know about the most similar other species. Social organization in feral horses closely parallels that of plains and mountain zebras11. From that and other knowledge, I know that inferences about the grazing of domestic horses is probably better done by looking at the world of research on zebras than that of cows, deer or grasshoppers.
  • I am interested in how broadly a behavior is distributed across the animal kingdom. So when I learn that some birds can remain aloft for months at a time (and must be able to sleep while they fly, and must be able to sleep with at least one eye open), I naturally wonder what horses can do. Surely they can’t fly, but do they also sleep with one eye open? Specialization is good, but real progress in understanding comes by letting discoveries in one species guide questions about another. I know the raccoons in my back yard. How are they different than horses? Some knowledge of the raccoon is a good source of questions about the horse.
  • Our personal experience provides good reason to challenge both scientific findings and dogma, to challenge the narration of a YouTube video or something posted on a horse blog. Personal experience is at its best when it is used to ask questions, rather than provide answers. And when it seems to match the answers we find, it can sometimes be used to illustrate the finding. But personal experience tracks pretty close to dogma. Ask 100 riders who use a bit if their bit hurts their horse. They’ll all give you the same answer. You’ve heard it. Unfortunately, their personal experience wasn’t personal: the bit was not in their mouth. So I want to be very careful about the role of personal experience in answering questions.
  • Reasoning can be handy when we are grasping for clues. For example, why does your horse choose to roll where he does? We could all guess that the scent of the wallow is a factor, since your horse will be seen smelling the wallow, nose close to the ground, before lying down.
  • Sometimes I’d have a question about exactly how something worked, and often YouTube would have video that happened to show the answer. The YouTube videos had never been made intending to answer this question, and so provide some refreshing honesty.
  • I have tried to make science readable, without cheapening it. So I emphasize findings, rather than the methods by which they were found. Most of the time, you’ll never need to know the source of a claim, but sometimes you will. So my sources appear in the end notes, rather than cluttering the text. In the text you can breeze along reading, and in the footnotes you can find my original sources if you care.

What I Believe

Much of this book is guided by a small number of my beliefs. If you do not share these beliefs, you will regularly stumble into ideas that are hard to accept because they stem from other ideas that you haven’t accepted. So I’ll be blunt here and try to identify the roots of my thinking.

Every individual is different. If you start with genetically identical fruit flies and expose them to light, you’ll find that most fly toward the light when startled. But not all do this. Researchers12 were startled by the amount of individual variation that fruit flies show in their startle response. Individual variation is absolutely critical for the survival of a species, for it is required for evolution to occur, which is required to allow a species to continue to adapt to its changing environment. All men and women and horses are not created equal.

Every individual is the same. The differences between any two organisms are often negligible and often unimportant. Until we begin to understand that all God’s creatures got a place in the choir,13 and all of the earth is humming the same tune, we won’t be able to learn much about life. The hormones that surge through our bodies are found in all life. The basic principles of life encompass all of life. We need no name tags to understand our world.

I will provide a few examples:

  • Emotions like fear, elation and despair seem to affect fruit flies: male fruit flies, dejected after their sexual advances had been rejected by females, were 20 percent more likely to turn to drink (liquid food supplemented with alcohol in the laboratory) than males who had been sexually sated.14
  • The most effective route for finding food has been shown to follow the Lévy distribution. This same distribution is found in honeybees,15 in albatrosses, in monkeys, in deer, and in fruit flies.16

Nothing is better. Humans are not the best species. We are not superior to any other species — not one. There is no measure we can use to wisely claim we are better. If we set out to boast that we can see more colors than a horse, or are better at driving a car or planting spinach, we make ourselves look foolish. No value judgment can be made about a species that exists, or once existed. Our species, too, will cease to exist some day.

We don’t own consciousness. The Cambridge Declaration of Consciousness17 was signed by many eminent scientists including cognitive neuroscientists, neuropharmacologists, neurophysiologists and computational neuroscientists. These scientists agreed that you don’t need a neocortex to be conscious, and that animals have what they need to be conscious.

Consciousness is not a measure of worth. It summarizes brain activity rather than directing it. Its value seems to be primarily to support language, where our words must recount our thinking or explain our feeling. Without consciousness, we can still drive a car or ride a bicycle or eat a hamburger. We are not conscious when we sleep or daydream, and distractions can change its focus. Ever seen a driver on a cell phone? So I don’t care if horses are conscious 100% of the time or 0% of the time. You are plenty smart and capable when you shut it off.

Horses are actors. Many who write about horses seem to view them as moving meat without minds, driven by instinct, helpless in whatever “horseanality” they have been born with, prey animals needing our leadership. Many view their horses as lazy or dull but don’t give them credit for any spark or sparkle. We would do better if we did not judge them, if we recognized them as humans in a different form, with hopes and dreams and desires and an eagerness to enjoy the good life as we do. Indeed, horses are intelligent, thoughtful, cooperative, forgiving and loving. We might benefit if we recognized that most of their issues are caused by humans.

Evolution is a fact, not a theory. There is nothing about evolution that diminishes religion or that conflicts with a belief in God. Evolution, in fact, is a wholesome miracle that underlies everything. There are no alternative facts worth considering.

Some suggest that evolution is so slow that we could not expect to see much since the horse was domesticated. But that isn’t so. From the area in the western steppes where our horses were first domesticated, they have moved to hotter and colder places. (The steppes get down to -28°F in the winter, and up to 80°F in the summer, so horses originating there were capable of adapting to extremes.) The volume of a body generates heat, and its surface loses heat. So horses that developed in very cold places are stockier, have bigger girths and thicker necks (Bergman’s Rule)18 and shorter extremities like ears and legs (Allen’s Rule19). Hot bloods such as Thoroughbreds, you can imagine, were originally developed in (frequently) hot places.

During evolution, much is conserved — including behavior. When a quality is conserved, it is found in a species as well as some distant ancestor, and all those in between. A behavior like moving away from trouble or moving toward food or scratching an itch goes back to the first movement. Find a behavior in several related species, and it is likely that their common ancestor did this. Such similarities are called homologies — characteristics sharing a common ancestry.

Not all similarities are due to having the same origin. Birds and bats are similar in that they both have wings. But if we track back to a common ancestor, we find that the wings of the two evolved independently, after they began developing from that wingless ancestor. Such similarities are called homoplasies — characteristics sharing a common function but not a common ancestry — and are not of much interest to me, except as pitfalls to avoid.

Frogs, birds, bats, rabbits and lizards all have different forelimbs, reflecting their different lifestyles. But those different forelimbs all share the same set of bones – the humerus, the radius, and the ulna. These are the same bones seen in fossils of the extinct transitional animal, Eusthenopteron, which demonstrates their common ancestry. The bones of the forelimbs of birds and bats are homologies, but their development into wings is a homoplasy.

Crocodiles are the closest living relatives of the birds, sharing a common ancestor that lived around 240 million years ago and also gave rise to the dinosaurs. Armed with this information, we might look at some behavior like “guarding eggs”. All birds do it. Crocodiles, alligators, and gharials do it. So their common ancestor millions years ago surely did it. We should not be surprised to learn that dinosaurs did it. Among other dinosaurs, the sauropodomorph Massospondylus is known to have built nests on the ground 190 million years ago, and to carefully arrange eggs in them. Footprints in the nest area show that babies grew to at least twice their hatching size before leaving the nest, proof that a parent cared for the babies. Fossilized nests were found in layers above each other, indicating “site fidelity” — that the moms, at least, returned to the same places to lay again and again.20 We can infer much more about such dinosaurs by simply studying ground nesting birds and crocodiles. Both birds and crocodiles show site fidelity, nest guarding, and parental care of newborns. Whatever feelings of oxytocin-induced love a bird or crocodile might feel was likely felt by Massospondylus.

In this book, I draw from many fields of science:

  • Biology, including botany, cognitive biology, comparative biology, ecology, ethology, evolutionary biology, neurobiology, and psychobiology.
  • Psychology, including biological, behavioral, cognitive and social psychology.
  • Equine science and equitation science, animal husbandry, and other research on domesticated animals.

I’ve also tried to draw on the horse literature — published in print and online. When I encounter claims not supported by science, I choose science.

The biggest truths are the broadest. What I care about is commonality.

Horse Play

I’ve called this book Horse Science, Horse Sense because my focus is on what you should know about your horse. This book will have a companion, Horse Play. Horse Play is about fun things you can do with your horse, to make your time together more enjoyable. This book is something you can read lying on your back, in bed, or sprawled on the sofa. Horse Play, on the other hand, must be done with your horse, on your feet or his back. The two books are intended to work together, but the bindings of the two are designed to suit the task. Horse Play is bound so that it will stay open to whatever page you want. It is printed on paper that won’t self-destruct in a breeze.

While horses once had important jobs in society, such as plowing the field or pulling the wagon or working the cattle or carrying soldiers into battle, today’s horses are used more for play. They are hobby horses, not work horses. Unfortunately, for many riders play has become formal and stylized, with shiny boots and freshly washed saddle pads, with bits and rules. I want to bring back play, real play. When we play, we have fun. When our horses play, they have fun. Play is what we should be doing when we’re not working. Horse Play will help you play better with your horse.

To have fun playing, we can’t really expect to do the same thing every day. Riding around the ring again and again and again has never seemed like much fun to me. Horse Play will give you lots of projects that you can use to try to improve your time together and to add variety.

To play well, we need to understand those we are playing with. It seems that many who would own a horse don’t understand it. They don’t seem to know if it is happy, what it wants, what it is thinking. Ignorance means constant communication failures. Play doesn’t work unless we understand those we are playing with. Horse Science, Horse Sense — this book — should help you understand your horse. Once you’ve taught your horse to read, perhaps you can buy him a copy.

These two books have companion websites: and The sites are designed to serve you with new words, photos, and videos about horses, and comments from you. If there are corrections to anything I’ve said in either book, you’ll find them there.


In this book, I will follow several conventions:

  • I will normally refer to horse, mule, and donkey as “horse.” In the rare section where there is an important difference, I will say so and be more precise.
  • I will assume that the reader (“you”) owns or leases a horse and can try some of my suggestions on your own.
  • I will assume that your horse is a male and so refer to him as “he.” If he is a girl, only you will mind.

Other Goals

I hope also to be succinct: clear, precise expression in few words. I have read too many books on horses that might have been reduced to a paragraph by an aggressive editor. Succinctness in a book enables greater attention to detail and more comprehensiveness. I did not set out to fill pages, but to cover the topic. I don’t know whether I’ve achieved brevity, but I’ve tried.

I have usually tried to write to be readable by someone with a high school education, but sometimes there is no substitute for big fancy words. There are no everyday words for the chemical behind the sweet smell of new-mown grass (ethylene) or behind the joy of grooming (oxytocin). When such fancy words are needed, I use them. Sorry. But I do tell you how to pronounce Przewalski’s horse, and when I introduce a term, I boldface its first use and explain it. If you need to look up one of the boldfaced words, you’ll find it in the Glossary at the end. On the fancy stuff, I always use a meaning that matches what Wikipedia has to say about it.

I am not trying to write a book that turns equitation into science. But I do want to use the rationality of science, and its reliance on empiricism, as a foundation for my thinking about horses and our relation to them. Where there are facts, I want to reveal them. Where there are ideas, I want to explore them. And where there are widely shared opinions, I want to examine and perhaps challenge them. I am a skeptic at heart, and when I hear something repeated again and again, I’m even more likely to believe that it is not true. I don’t think I was an easy child.

My final goal, though, is my first. This book is intended to serve the horse. They can’t read, so I hope it will also serve the open-minded trainer and the rider. But where I had a choice between being kind to your feelings or kind to your horse, I’ve put your horse first. The horse comes before everything else.

My hope is that I can make your horse’s world better by challenging your thinking. Do you doubt my ability to annoy you? Read on. And as I said, chapters don’t build on each other, so start with whatever interests you.


1 Image source: Crazy Horse National Monument II Monument model and crazy clouds framing the monument itself. Taken in Crazy Horse, South Dakota.


3 McGreevy, Paul D., A. N. McLean, Amanda K. Warren-Smith, N. Waran, and D. Goodwin. “Defining the terms and processes associated with equitation.” (2005): 10-43.


4 DSM-IV. 1994. Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders DSM-IV-TR (Text Revision), American Psychiatric Association, Washington, DC, USA.

5 Overall KL. 1997. Clinical behavioral medicine for small animals. Mosby, St Louis, USA.; Overall KL. 2005. Manual of clinical behavioral medicine for small animals. Mosby, St Louis, USA.

6 Warren-Smith, A. K., & McGreevy, P. D. (2006, September). An audit of the application of the principles of equitation science by qualified equestrian instructors in Australia. In Proceedings of the 2nd International Equitation Science Symposium, Milan, Italy.


7 Leblanc, Michel-Antoine. The Mind of the Horse. Harvard University Press, 2013.

8 Http://

9 Currently at

10 Hutto, Joe “Touching the Wild: Living with the Mule Deer of Deadman Gulch”. 2014 Skyhorse Publishing.

11 KLINGEL (1964, 1965, 1967, 1968, 1969b, 1969c) and KLINGEL and KLINGEL (1968a, 1968b), for Sable Island ponies by BRUEMMER (1967) and for New Forest ponies by TYLER (1972).

12 Rieger, Dirk, Christina Fraunholz, Jochen Popp, Dominik Bichler, Rainer Dittmann, and Charlotte Helfrich-Förster. “The fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster favors dim light and times its activity peaks to early dawn and late dusk.” Journal of Biological Rhythms 22, no. 5 (2007): 387-399.

13 All God’s creatures got a place in the choir Some sing low and some sing higher, Some sing out loud on a telephone wire, Some just clap their hands, or paws, or anything they’ve got now. Perhaps written by Bill Staines in 1979, and since popularized by Celtic Thunder.

14 Montgomery, Sy. The soul of an octopus: A surprising exploration into the wonder of consciousness. Simon and Schuster, 2015 p. 192.

15 Reynolds, Andrew M., Alan D. Smith, Don R. Reynolds, Norman L. Carreck, and Juliet L. Osborne. “Honeybees perform optimal scale-free searching flights when attempting to locate a food source.” Journal of Experimental Biology 210, no. 21 (2007): 3763-3770.

16 Montgomery, Sy. The soul of an octopus: A surprising exploration into the wonder of consciousness. Simon and Schuster, 2015 p. 192.

17 It reads “The absence of a neocortex does not appear to preclude an organism from experiencing affective states. Convergent evidence indicates that non-human animals have the neuroanatomical, neurochemical, and neurophysiological substrates of conscious states along with the capacity to exhibit intentional behaviors. Consequently, the weight of evidence indicates that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness. Nonhuman animals, including all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses, also possess these neurological substrates.”

18 Ashton, Kyle G., Mark C. Tracy, and Alan de Queiroz. “Is Bergmann’s rule valid for mammals?.” The American Naturalist 156.4 (2000): 390-415.

19 Langlois, B. “Inter-breed variation in the horse with regard to cold adaptation: a review.” Livestock Production Science 40, no. 1 (1994): 1-7.

20 Reisz, Robert R., David C. Evans, Eric M. Roberts, Hans-Dieter Sues, and Adam M. Yates. “Oldest known dinosaurian nesting site and reproductive biology of the Early Jurassic sauropodomorph Massospondylus.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 109, no. 7 (2012): 2428-2433.


2 Comments for "About This Book"

  • Cristina Wilkins

    The questions you ask and your motivation for writing are – I hope you know – in many of our minds. While there are many horse people still looking for ‘leadership’ – for someone to tell them exactly what/when and how – there is a growing number who are not taking any instructions without questioning. The main question I was left with in regards to your book would be ‘what it is that you are aiming to achieve? That message did not come through very clearly in your draft (not to me).

    In my role as magazine editor I have, since attending my first equitation science conference in 2009, trialled different ways of encouraging people to question everything they know about horses. This is challenging for all of us – for ourselves we lose our reference points and become truly responsible for our own actions – this can be very daunting. As an editor aiming to curate information that is challenging, constructive and not too overwhelming is a task in itself. I don’t know how well we manage but I do know it has been a very enriching, learning experience for me personally, and the journey is nowhere near over.

    Going back to your writing, from my perspective at this time, the one thing that stood out and made me read on is the issue with ‘words and their meaning’. Of course this goes a lot further than just the horse industry – it seems that we have a high degree of disconnect with many words and their true meaning. I am fascinated by this and spend more and more time these days finding the real meaning of words, going back to their original version (something which is not always easy to do without the academic background in ancient languages!). So this was a very interesting aspect.

    In this respect I certainly agree that (equitation) science has a lot of work to do to improve accessibility and facilitate a better understanding. This is where I became a little confused with the aims of your work – it seemed to me you were positive towards science but on the other hand, you acknowledge that science is suffering the same communication and dissemination issues as any other dogma and has some challenges to overcome before it can provide clear ways forward.

    I hope this makes some sense and you find this helpful!

    • david

      Hi, Cristina,

      Here I am 11 months after your comment, seeing it for the first time. I regret this foolishness, because it was a really good comment. The fact is, I’ve never been quite clear on why I write about horses. I think it is because I disagree with so much I’ve read and heard. Science makes some mistakes — mostly by making itself inaccessible — but all of the other voices for horses do too.

      I think the end of the trail for a disgruntled old man like me is to launch a new religion. My horse religion would have them teach me, and have me yearn to listen and observe more carefully. My mule taught me how to catch a reluctant horse by both showing reluctance when I did it wrong, and acceptance when I got it right. She managed to teach me to ride without reins and micromanagement, and that has always been one of my great ambitions with an equine. I know now that riding without reins is not quite the way I thought it would be. For the rider, it takes more trust, more courage, more careful attention to your buddy below. For the horse or mule, it takes less learned helplessness and more decision-making, more reasoning, more thoughtful independence. And riding without reins probably requires a nice pair of roper reins and a rein keeper to keep them handy, because life is still full of surprises, and every so often, it is good to have more control than hope can deliver.

      “The Ethiops say that their gods are flat-nosed and black,
      While the Thracians say that theirs have blue eyes and red hair.
      Yet if cattle or horses or lions had hands and could draw,
      And could sculpt like men, then the horses would draw their gods
      Like horses, and cattle like cattle; and each they would shape
      Bodies of gods in the likeness, each kind, of their own.” — Xenophanes. I’m with the horses.


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