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Leadership

A common premise in natural horsemanship is that “horses need leadership.” This notion draws from the imagination, where we wonder what we would do if left on the plains with strangers. With humans, we imagine, someone would choose to become the leader, and would cheerfully make decisions for us. Governments would form, and we would submit.

Trainers seem to believe that horses are looking for leadership, that the way to have a good relation with a horse is to be that leader. “Leader” in this context is undefined, but could mean “boss” or “bully”.

The Mind of Your Horse

The brains of mammals are very similar, and differ in degree rather than kind.

The human desire to believe that we are the most intelligent species has led to a number of comparisons of brains. Brain size must matter, but our brains are smaller than those of the elephant or whale. Some researchers find pleasure in noting that some parts of our brain are much bigger than the same parts in other animals. For instance, our friend Cowboy Bob reports that “the brain cavity of a horse is filled with a lot more than what we usually think of as the “brain.” Although the space would, in fact, hold a small grapefruit, the cerebral hemisphere — or “thinking” portion of the brain cavity is a lot smaller.”

If horses could talk, though, they might point out that the brain cavity of their skulls is about the size of ours, and that lots of preprocessing happens between the nostrils and the brain, and between the eyes and the brain. If we compare head size of Mr. Horse and Mr. Man, Mr. Horse does just fine.

Fear, Flight, Fight, Freeze

Pain doesn’t merely affect a few nerves. It affects the entire nervous system. The autonomic nervous system (ANS) is an unconscious control system found in all animals that regulates such things as heart rate, digestion, respiratory rate, and the fight-flight-freeze response. When triggered, the ANS quickly decides if we should fight, flee, or freeze. If fighting appears to be the best solution, the ANS triggers anger and aggressive behavior. If fleeing seems like a much better way to solve the problem, then flight is in order. But if neither will do — perhaps because we are in the jaws of the tiger, we may go limp. This freeze response, it turns out, is often the best way to avoid further injury from a predator.

Your horse’s desire to flee a dangerous situation is no different than yours. He and you differ only in what you judge to be dangerous. So we might be wiser if we were to say “flight or fight” rather than “fight or flight”. But that leaves out freezing, which is our last best hope for survival. If we cannot escape and cannot win a fight to the death, freezing may come to our rescue. Horses are flight animals. Fight animals. Freeze animals. They will do what it takes to stay alive. That makes them just like all other animals, including us.

Vision

The immense field of view of the horse may underlie your horse’s apparent short attention span. The more a horse can see, the less it focuses. The more it can see, the more distracted it becomes. Blinders or blinkers are very useful for horses with important jobs, like racing or pulling carts and wagons. By narrowing the field of view to just what is in front, we eliminate the distractions. Of course, this heaps more responsibility on us to ensure that there are no dangers coming that the horse can now not see.

The binocular vision directly in front of the horse’s nose benefits him when he is grazing, which is most of the time. When he’s watching the grass, his peripheral vision — which is monocular — is at work watching for danger. He’s perfectly designed for being watchful while dining.

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