Are Horses Like Dogs?

Our familiarity with dogs provides us with a model for how we see horses and what we expect of them. For many people, the first childhood experience with an animal is with a dog or cat. Familiar animals serve as a baseline of expectations of unfamiliar animals. But horses aren’t dogs.

Dogs are about 25 times as common as horses, and so we are more likely to ask “Are horses like dogs?” than “Are dogs like horses?” Dogs give us a baseline for expectations. Horse are obviously much bigger than a cat or bird, so we think a horse should be like a big dog. If it likes us, it should follow us around. It should obey us, respect us, crave affection from us.

Horses disappoint those with such expectations. And such expectations are rarely fully shed.

Where Did Horses Come From?

In the history of human dispersion, the pattern of extinctions has always been the same: add humans, subtract species. We learned to hunt, but never learned the difference between kill and overkill. Many wish to believe that climate change produced a change of habitat which had fatal effects on the horse population of North and South America, and that this happened to coincide with the arrival of humans. But another view is possible: climate created land bridges, humans arrived, the horses disappeared, and the habitat they once maintained through grazing now changed.

What do Horses Want?

What do horses want? herd, carrots and grass, in that order. Especially in comparison with ourselves, horses have simple desires. None of those desires seems to suit us. Horses don’t want to be ridden. They don’t want to tear around in the round pen. They don’t want to get on the trailer. And they often don’t want to go into the wash stall.

All of our activities with our horse are our idea. They are activities that serve our goals. They approximate what we want. Just because your horse is passive and is willing to cooperate, and doesn’t speak English, you should not assume that he finds your time together pleasing.

What is Natural Horsemanship?

Our language easily confuses us. Pat Parelli —a horse trainer who practices natural horsemanship and founded the Parelli Natural Horsemanship program — calls a whip a “carrot stick.” Monty Roberts — a horse trainer who promotes his techniques of natural horsemanship through his Join-Up International organization — sells halters that crush the horse’s delicate nasal bones if the horse refuses to keep a slack lead line. And he sells a bit, daring to suggest that it is comfortable in the horse’s mouth. Riders have become numb to the pain they inflict in their horse with spurs and bits, in part because “everyone does it,” in part because horses don’t use the same language or speak with the same clarity that a human does: try leading your child through the grocery store with a bit, and spur him if he slows. See how that works.

Others imagine that horses simply “move away from pressure”. So if you tap them on the back end, they move forward like robots, on instinct. In fact, horses move into pressure when they are pulling a cart or plow. What horses move away from is pain or the anticipation of pain. A tap on the back end is a threat of a harder tap. The horse has a good memory and a good imagination.

Should I Blanket?

Horses adapt to the cold. In fact, they adapt better to the cold than the heat: Horses try to maintain a body temperature of 99.5°F (37.5°C). If their body temperature drops by more than 10°C or rises more than 5°C, death results. Horses can’t stand the heat, and you won’t find them in the kitchen.

Adapting to the cold — acclimatization — involves raising the basal metabolic rate to increase heat production, and adding a coat to reduce heat loss. As with other large mammals, the horse adapts primarily through changes that reduce heat loss (small mammals adapt primarily through increases in heat production)6. This is accomplished with the development of a winter coat, and as needed, vasoconstriction to shunt blood away from the skin.

Why is my Horse so Mouthy?

When I first met my horse, the humans who knew him warned me that he was “mouthy”. Mouthy apparently means that he uses his mouth to explore the human who is walking with him. I wasn’t sure why this was a problem: he doesn’t have hands, he can’t talk, but why can’t he be physically affectionate or curious with his mouth? After all, he was exploring me by pressing his nose against me, or touching me with his lips. His mouthiness has continued over the past decade, and I know that with me, he uses it to express his trust and affection. Yesterday in the barn, he licked my entire barn coat clean — while I was wearing it.

Why does my Horse behave Badly?

A therapist might ask some questions of your horse, to determine if he was mentally healthy: “Do you feel like eating all the time? Do you feel fearful, but you can’t figure out why? Do you find it hard to focus?” If your horse answered yes to any of these questions, then he’d be a normal, healthy horse.

There are not many horse bad behaviors, and probably no bad behaviors that can’t be easily cured in a mentally healthy horse. Not all horses are mentally healthy, unfortunately. Common manifestations of mental illness include cribbing, wind sucking, pacing, and stereotypic movement disorders.

Which Bit? Which Bridle?

Bits, spurs, and saddles are all potential sources of injury, and thus of pain. As pain warns us of pending injury, a horse that feels pain from a bit or spurs or a saddle is in the process of being injured. The pain or injuries from these “aids” won’t be obvious at first — at least to us, but over a period of time the injuries may show themselves.

Bits and spurs are tools that provide more control over a horse, and riders universally favor more control. Wishful thinking helps us believe that something so useful for our needs is not something that is hurting our horse. Riders will tell you that the way they use bits and spurs doesn’t injure their horse, or cause it pain.

You might ask whether a horse would be so willing to allow a rider to mount them if the bit hurt so much. As McGreevy and McLean have noted, “It is by no means certain that horses connect pressure in the mouth with the rider. They have not evolved to expect that another animal can apply pressure to the inside of the buccal cavity via a piece of metal.”

How Old is my Horse?

Like most mammals, horses have only two sets of teeth. The baby teeth are deciduous, and fall out to be replaced by a second set. An old horse will wish that these permanent teeth really were permanent.

The age of a horse may be fairly accurately inferred from its teeth when it is young. As the horse advances beyond age 5, it is more difficult to be precise in estimates. Estimating a horse’s age from its teeth is a very imprecise business. Studies have shown that in many cases, there are large discrepancies between the estimated ages provided by expert clinicians and the actual ages, particularly as a horse ages. When they are young, we estimate a horse’s age from how much their front teeth have grown (and the presence of molars); when they are old, we estimate a horse’s age from how much their teeth have worn.

How Much does my Horse Weigh?

Knowing your horse’s weight is handy in diet analysis, determining dosages of wormers and supplements, and possibly for estimating fluid loss after an extended strenuous workout. Being able to accurately assess your horse’s weight is important in determining dosages: if you underestimate his weight, you’ll underdose; if you overestimate his weight, you’ll overdose (or he will).

If you record his weight, measuring it at the same time of day or the same conditions (eg., just before morning feeding), you’ll have a record you can use to monitor his health and see trends in his weight.

The best way to estimate your horse’s weight is to not estimate at all, but put him on a scale. But if he won’t fit on the bathroom scale, you’ll need to estimate.


If you are ordering new parts for your horse, or just want to talk about them, here is a quick anatomy lesson. The terms in the two illustrations in this section may be hard to remember, but they may better than calling everything a whatchamacallit.

What Good Stuff Should I Get?

I know you have a tack room, trailer, trunk, and garage full of horse stuff you haven’t been using. Nevertheless, here are recommendations for more ways to spend your money. Unfortunately, I don’t make a dime if you tell them I sent you.