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Chapter 19 Horse behavior and training.

Without a clear understanding of horse behavior, individuals cannot become good riders, trainers, or owners. Horse psychology--understanding how a horse perceives the world--is used to encourage horses to respond to the goals of the trainer and rider. This training begins when the foal is still at the mare's side. Those horses that are fit are easier to train.


After completing this chapter, you should be able to:

* Name and describe 10 behavioral categories * Discuss the role of reinforcement in training * Describe imprinting * Describe the horse's senses of vision, touch, smell, and hearing * Identify how to read the emotions of a horse * Discuss how the gregarious nature of horses can influence their training * Describe the role of the sense of touch in training * Characterize longeing and its uses * Describe the role of aerobic and anaerobic fitness in training horses * Discuss how a horse is taught during training


agonistic behavior

allelomimetic behavior

barn sour

conditioned response


eliminative behavior

epimeletic behavior

flehmen reaction


hard mouth

herd obedience


ingestive behavior

interval training


mimicry behavior


reactive behavior

reward training

stay apparatus

unconditioned response


Some horse behavior is genetic. This part of their "programming" directs how they interact with their environment to maintain themselves and to survive. Other horse behavior is learned as horses respond to their environment. As with all animals, horse behavior can be categorized. Different names are given to these behavioral categories, but most names are similar to these:

* Reactive * Ingestive * Eliminative * Sexual * Caregiving and care-seeking * Agonistic * Mimicry * Investigative * Grooming * Sleep and rest

Reactive Behavior

Reactive behavior is a classification of activities used by an animal to keep itself in harmony with its environment and adjust to sudden, potentially harmful situations. One form of reactive behavior is a simple reflex, for example, withdrawing a limb in response to a local pain.

Communication and vocalization are also forms of reactive behavior. Some communication is merely body language; for example, horses exhibit group association by maintaining visual contact. Vocalization is used to exchange signals between mare and foal or between other bonded individuals when they are separated.

Another form of reactive behavior is shelter seeking. In cold weather, horses augment their shaggy coats by seeking protection from the cold and wind. During a storm, horses turn their backsides to the wind. Following a cold night, they stand broadside to the sun to expose as much of their bodies as possible to the sun. On the other hand, during hot weather, they seek shade or a cooling breeze.

Ingestive Behavior

Ingestive behavior includes eating, drinking, food preferences, daily patterns of feeding, the mechanics of obtaining food, and chewing food. The first behavioral trait of all mammals including foals is suckling. Foals start eating solid food when they are only a few days old. They start nibbling on feed and rapidly learn to eat it.

Horses in a pasture eat small amounts of feed all day long (Figure 19-1). Obviously, horses kept in a stall or corral eat at the convenience of the owner or handler. If food is freely available, horses have a tendency to overeat.

When horses graze they take a bite of grass, move a few steps, and take another bite of grass. So they are moving most of the time they are grazing. Horses graze over a large area. If plenty of grass is available, horses will eat the top of the stalks and leave the bottom. If pasture is insufficient, horses will overgraze an area and eat the grass down to the surface.


Horses use their molars for chewing before swallowing, whereas cattle ingest large quantities of food with minimal chewing.

Feeding behavior is influenced by learned patterns and preferences, palatability of the feed, the environment, and social associations. Exactly how genetics and environmental contributions affect feeding behavior is not completely clear. Thirst, on the other hand, is controlled by centers in the brain that work at maintaining a specific level of body fluid. The control factors regulating thirst are influenced by hormones, salt intake, moisture content of the feed, and environmental factors (Figure 19-2).

Eliminative Behavior

Eliminative behavior refers to urination and defecation. While urinating, all horses have the same characteristic stance. The neck is lowered and extended, the tail is raised, and the hind legs are spread apart and extended toward the back. Most horses urinate about every 4 to 6 hours, but they are often reluctant to urinate on a hard surface because the urine splatters on their legs.

Horses defecate every 2 to 3 hours, but they will also usually defecate when nervous. To defecate, a horse raises its tail and may hold it off to one side. Horses will defecate while they are moving. Stallions prefer to defecate in a small area and will even back up to a pile of manure to defecate. In a corral, often mares and geldings choose no particular place to defecate and will scatter their feces everywhere. In pastures, however, horses tend to deposit their urine and feces in certain areas and graze other areas.

Sexual Behavior

Sexual behavior involves courtship, mating, and maternal behavior. It is controlled by hormones, but some of it may be learned. Stallions find females in heat by sight and smell. Exposure to a mare in estrus prepares the stallion for mating. It is characterized by neighing, smelling, and pinching the mare with his teeth by grasping the folds of the skin in her loin-croup area. Often the stallion will extend his head and upcurled upper lip when around a mare in heat. This is called the flehmen reaction and is in response to the scent of a female's urine. In addition horses, animals that exhibit the flehmen reaction include the males of domestic cats, cattle, bison, tigers, tapirs, lions, giraffes, and llamas (Figure 19-3).



Reproductive hormones are responsible for the behavior of mares in estrus. To check the behavioral traits exhibited at estrus, a mare is "teased" or tested for receptivity to the stallion. A mare in estrus demonstrates receptivity by standing quietly when a stallion approaches, urinating frequently, exposing the clitoris (also known as winking), raising the tailhead, and spreading the hind legs. When the mare is ready for mating, she is said to be in standing estrus or in heat.

A wide range of individual expression of estrus exists between different mares. Some mares will allow a stallion to bite and smell them, but some are quite aggressive even while demonstrating other signs of estrus when teased. They may even back up into the stallion. Others show minimal change in their behavior but allow the stallion to mount. Estrus signs are usually constant in a single mare from one cycle to the next. Most mares will not show signs of estrus unless a stallion is present. Occasionally mares show signs of estrus when strange horses are present. Reliably determining estrus is nearly impossible if a mare is stabled only with other mares and geldings.

Caregiving and Care-seeking Behavior

Giving care or attention is very common in horses (Figure 19-4). Another name for caregiving behavior is epimeletic behavior. Horses seek attention and care from each other and display this behavior in several ways. During fly season horses stand head to tail and mutually swat flies for each other. Using their incisor teeth, they nibble at areas including the base of the neck, withers, back, and croup during mutual grooming. Mutual grooming is frequent during the spring and summer. Licking as a means of caregiving is limited to a mare licking her foal for about the first half hour after parturition.

Horses also signal their desire for care and attention--care seeking. All age groups show this type of behavior, which is most often seen when horses are separated from each other. For example, a young foal when separated from its mother will nicker or whinny for her. Mature horses that are used to being together become upset and call for each other when separated. At the beginning of the separation, they will frequently whinny for each other and act very excited. They may also become so nervous and excited that they will try to run through fences.


Agonistic Behavior

Agonistic behavior includes fighting, flight, and other reactions associated with conflict. In all species of farm animals, males are more likely than females to fight. Aggression is used to establish the dominance hierarchy of horses kept together. Most dominant hierarchies are linear, but sometimes they can be complex--one horse low in one dominant order may rank above another horse in another dominant order.

Hierarchy is established by some characteristic behaviors. Unacquainted horses approach each other with their heads high; they may also toss their heads. Their necks are arched and ears point forward. The face-to-face encounter is made by smelling or exhaling at each others' nostrils. They may squeal, rear up, and threaten to strike during this face-to-face encounter. As the encounter continues the horses may continue smelling each others' necks, withers, rumps, and genitals. At some time during this encounter, one horse may decide to turn its hind end around to the other horse and kick with one or both hind legs. Once dominance is established, only threats of aggression are necessary to maintain the hierarchy. To avoid or reduce this type of behavior, a newcomer horse can be penned adjacent to the group. Obviously, this requires strong, high, safe fencing. Horses that are run together from a very young age seldom fight.

Mock fighting is a variation of play. During mock fighting it is common for animals to circle each other; in a group, they will push, nip, and chase each other. Sometimes they will rear on their hind legs and paw at each other. This activity is especially prevalent among young colts (Figure 19-5).


Mimicry Behavior

Horses learn to copy the behavior of other horses at a very young age. This is called mimicry or allelomimetic behavior. When one member of a group does something, others will do the same thing. For example, horses moving toward water and crossing a pasture display allelomimetic behavior. As one horse starts toward the water, others follow. The first horse continues because the rest of the herd is following. Finally, even the most timid horse will follow the group. This type of behavior is closely related to gregarious behavior. The close presence of other animals provides companionship and has a quieting effect.

Investigative Behavior

Horses like to explore and investigate a new environment. This curiosity subsides once the environment becomes familiar. If any change or novelty is introduced, investigative behavior reappears. Horses use their senses of sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch to investigate. Foals are more curious than older horses. A mare becomes very nervous as she watches her foal investigate. But foals spend much of their time looking and sniffing at objects in their pastures or stalls. Exploratory behavior is sort of a trial-and-error learning activity (Figure 19-6).

Grooming Behavior

Besides mutual grooming, horses also groom themselves. Horses will paw a dry area and roll on their backs in the dirt. When they get up they shake their whole body. This is a grooming behavior.

Horses get rid of annoying insects on their bodies by several methods. Rapidly contracting superficial muscles on the trunk and forelegs causes insects to fly away. On their forelegs, shoulders, ribs, flanks, and thigh areas, horses use their heads to remove insects. Insects on the belly are removed with the hind leg, while the tail swats at flies on the hindquarters.


Itching is often relieved by rubbing against some fixed object. The horse will also use its head or a hind foot to scratch an itch. Horses scratch their forequarters, sides, croup, and hindquarters with the head, while the hind foot is used on the neck and head.

Sleep and Rest Behavior

Sleep and rest behavior allow the horse to restore its physiological status. During sleep the body makes metabolic recoveries in a short time. During rest, the body conserves energy; the animal may be drowsy but wakeful. The horse rests while standing.

As in humans, sleep in horses occurs in two forms-brain sleep and body sleep (REM). In brain sleep the brain puts out slow electrical waves. In body sleep some electrical currents of the brain are of the same pattern as when the animal is awake. During this time, the eyes move rapidly behind closed eyelids. This form of sleep is known as rapid eye movement or REM sleep. During REM sleep the animal needs to be lying down unless it can prop itself up against something. Horses lie down for about four or five periods per day. REM sleep is a deeper sleep than slow-wave sleep. During REM sleep the mind is very active but muscle tone is almost completely lost.

In slow-wave sleep or brain sleep, the muscles are not fully relaxed. Horses can be in slowwave sleep while lying down or while standing up. Because a horse can lock its knees and hocks with a series of tendons controlling leg flexion, the horse can sleep while standing up.

In the course of a 24-hour day the horse is alert and active just a little more than 19 hours. It spends almost 2 hours in a drowsy, resting state. So the horse is awake about 21 hours a day. The horse actually sleeps--brain sleep and REM--for a total of about 3 hours a day.

Horses sleep standing up, but of course they can and do at times lie down to sleep. When they sleep standing up, they have a system of tendons and ligaments called the stay apparatus. This allows them to "lock" their legs and relax their muscles and not fall over. In the front leg, the stay apparatus is always in place, and a horse need only relax to take advantage of it. However, to use the stay apparatus in the hind leg, a horse must rotate its hip and literally hook one bone up over a knob on another bone. Horses also use their stay apparatus while they're awake to minimize fatigue due to standing.

Abnormal Behavior

Horse owners, trainers, and riders need to learn the normal patterns of horse behavior so they can recognize abnormal behavior. For example, abnormal reactive behavior in horses includes such activities as:

* Weaving

* Head nodding and shaking

* Pacing and pawing

* Self-mutilation

* Tail rubbing

* Destructive behavior

Abnormalities of ingestive behavior include:

* Crib biting

* Tail biting

* Tongue dragging

* Wind-sucking

* Wood chewing

* Eating feces, hair, or soil


Training involves learning new behaviors. The horse learns to make a desired response. Stimuli cause responses. If the response occurs without practice, it is an unconditioned response. A response that is learned is called a conditioned response. Many of these are used in horse training. The stimulus used to train horses is called a cue. Responses are chained together into maneuvers.


Horses must learn to recognize cues. Trainers start with the cues that are the closest to being natural. A horse is not ridden from hand to leg. It is always from leg to hand. The leg is the most crucial aid to give the horse cues.

As the horse learns the basic cues, the trainer will advance the horse to new cues. The rate of learning depends on the individual horse and the clarity with which the cues are paired. The new cue should always be given first, followed by an old cue that the horse knows. If the horse seems confused, the trainer should go back to the previous cue until it is clear, then advance. Communication must be clear, so cues must be very specific. Indiscriminate cues will only confuse the horse.


Reinforcement is something that can strengthen the response to certain stimuli. Primary reinforcers have natural reinforcing properties. Feed, for example, is a primary reinforcer. Very few primary reinforcers are used in training. Secondary reinforcers are learned. Acts of kindness are secondary reinforcers to horses. For example, a soothing voice and rubbing a horse's neck are secondary reinforcers.

All reinforcement is either positive or negative. Positive reinforcement is sometimes called reward training, and it is effective because the horse wants to give the desired response. Negative reinforcement means the horse will respond to avoid or get rid of the stimulus. The three methods of conditioning with negative reinforcement are punishment, escape, and avoidance. For any reinforcement to be effective, it must be contingent on the response and given immediately. Three seconds is considered the appropriate time limit. Otherwise, the horse may not understand which behavior is being rewarded or punished.

Young horses are trained using continuous reinforcement. Gradually, this becomes intermittent reinforcement as training progresses. A horse trained on an intermittent schedule will perform longer without reinforcement than a continuously reinforced horse will. This is what is referred to as a finished, or fully trained, horse.

The more effort required by the horse to make a particular response, the more difficulty the horse will have learning the response. For example, less time is required to train a pleasure horse than to train a jumping horse. This is why it is so important to break each response down into smaller steps. Horses with a greater natural athletic ability have greater potential than those with less ability, so it is important to know and understand a horse's conformation and physical limitations when training.


Handling and accustoming a foal to human stimulus during the first 48 hours after its birth has been shown to psychologically prepare the foal for later handling. This imprinting of human contact is most effective if done within the first 24 hours of the foal's life. Handling the foal's feet, muzzle, ears, rectum, and girth help prepare it for the future when it becomes necessary to pick up the feet, clip the muzzle and ears, pass a stomach tube, take temperatures, and tighten a saddle. Time devoted to handling foals in the first few days of life is well spent (Figure 19-7).


How an animal behaves is influenced by its senses of vision, hearing, touch, and smell. Using these senses, the horse interprets and responds to its environment and training (Figure 19-8).


A horse has a field of vision that is approximately 220 degrees for each eye, allowing it a panoramic view. Its only real blind spots are directly behind and directly in front; however, a horse can certainly use its sense of smell when an object is directly in front. Because horses are capable of monocular vision (independent viewing) from each eye, they may shy at a bag they just passed when heading in a different direction. The rider may think, "My horse just saw that bag. Why is he spooking now?" He spooked because he may have seen the bag from the eye on the side that it passed first but when he changed directions he was seeing it for the first time with the other eye. A horse has to focus its attention forward in order to use binocular vision, which is limited to 60 to 70 degrees (Figure 19-9). A young horse will probably use monocular vision in new situations until it is better experienced.



Generally speaking, horses see poorly. Their eyes have a ramped retina. That is, it does not form a true arc, so parts of the retina are closer to the lens than other parts. The horse adjusts its range of vision by lowering and raising its head, much as a human does with trifocal glasses.


Such a visual arrangement is most convenient for grazing and watching for enemies at the same time, but it is a real handicap in judging height and distance. As a horse approaches a strange jump, it lowers its head, then raises it to appraise the height of the jump. At the point before takeoff it cannot even see the jump since its eyes see separately.

Horses taken from a brightly lit area for loading into a trailer may lower their noses to the floor of the trailer, then raise their heads rather high for loading. Besides smelling the trailer for identification, they may be trying to find the head position that gives them the best possible vision. They also may be taking time for their eyes to adjust to the light change, a much slower process than for humans.

Young horses that resist trailer loading are doing what saved the lives of their ancestors, who would have regarded a trailer as a dark cave. Horse handlers should allow plenty of time for loading young horses until they are well trained. A good system is to park a trailer in the horse lot and feed young horses in it.

Horses are color blind. They do not perceive blue streams running through green fields, framed in trees with fall-colored leaves. They see a drab mosaic landscape with different amounts of light reflecting from it.

Objects that remain still convey very little information to the horse's brain. A sitting rabbit or bird may be seen readily by the rider, but may remain obscure to the horse until it moves. Horses see movement instantly and react according to temperament, experience, and confidence in the rider. A stall-raised horse may shy sharply at sudden movement.

Young horses need to gain confidence by being gently urged toward objects they fear. If they are concentrating on the fearful object and are punished, they assume the object caused the pain and their suspicions are reinforced. If the rider practices patience in early training, the horse realizes the rider will not ask it to go into dangerous situations, and it will lose its fear of strange objects.

Size and position of the eyes and width of the head and body determine front and rear vision. Horses with large, wide-set eyes have more forward and rear vision than others. Even so, there are blind spots at both ends of the horse. This is why you should not approach a horse directly from the rear and why you should speak to the horse when passing behind it.

Frontal vision is affected by width of forehead and how the eyes are set in the head. Most horses probably do not see objects nearer than 3 feet directly in front of their faces without moving their heads. With their heads in normal position, they do not see the feed they eat or the ground they step on.

Pig-eyed horses, or those with sunken eyes, see less in front and behind than others. They have often been classified in song and verse as being "mean." Many pig-eyed horses are normal and useful, but one researcher suggests that those growing up in groups of foals may be "picked on" more than others and develop disposition problems.

When being ridden, the horse needs free rein in negotiating obstacles so it has good vision. Horses must be allowed to concentrate when traversing rough terrain, because they must remember their earlier view of the ground now under their feet since they can no longer see it. Undoubtedly, some stumbling results from the horse's not watching the area over which it travels and not remembering where the obstacles are.


The hearing of most horses is quite good. Rotating ears on movable heads and long necks are advantageous for hearing. Since the horse's sense of hearing is better than its sight, the eyes and ears work together. The ears will point toward a sound so the horse can hear it better. Then the horse will try to see what is making the sound. Horses hear high tones not perceptible to human ears--for instance, the blowing of horns in fox hunting. This may cause high-strung Thoroughbred hunters to show anxiety and break out in a sweat.

Fear of parade bands, loud machines, and gunshot noises may result from actual pain to the horse's ears. U.S. cavalry mounts used on pistol ranges would lose their hearing after a few years use in target practice areas.


The horse's skin is a very specialized sense organ. It tells the animal whether something is hot or cold, hard or soft, or whether it causes pain. Some horses will learn to check an electric fence daily with the hairs on their upper lip and will promptly tear it down when the battery fails.

Nerve endings in people are more abundant in the mouth, feet, and hands. Spots of most sensitivity in horses seem to be in the mouth, feet, flanks, neck, and shoulders. The mouth is sensitive to pain rather than light pressure. Bitting should be done with care and reins handled with light hands, or else sensitivity in the mouth is lost and a hard mouth results.

Some horses are so sensitive to contact in the flank that they may buck when a rider's leg is used too strongly or incorrectly. Horses vary greatly in skin sensitivity. They love to be groomed and have their backs scratched. Selecting mild grooming equipment is necessary for some thin-skinned horses. Currycombs and "shedding" blades should have fine teeth.

Saddling is a bruising experience for some horses, whereas others seem immune to any feeling when a saddle is placed on them. If a horse humps up and tries to avoid the saddle, flapping cinches and stirrups may be hurting it, it may have back pain, or the saddle may not fit correctly. This reaction needs to be taken seriously and investigated.


Most animals in the wild state have a good sense of smell. Horses in a research project in England were first frustrated by circling in closed trailers but then were able to head directly homeward from a downwind distance of 5 miles. Domestic stallions can identify mares in heat for great distances downwind.

Colts being saddled for the first few times should be allowed to smell the saddle and the blanket before saddling. This reassures them that the equipment is not dangerous and that it has been used by other horses.

Smell probably dictates grazing habits of horses, although it does not always keep them from eating poisonous plants when forage is abundant.


Every time people use horses, they exercise psychology, because their strength is no match for that of horses. If we do not use psychology, a horse may use us to achieve objectives that are not consistent with our intended goal. Such a situation results in owner dissatisfaction and a spoiled or confused horse. Modern horse psychology attempts to anticipate possible behavior of the horse under a variety of conditions and then tries to provide a comfortable condition that will calm and encourage the horse to respond correctly to the handler. Refer also to Chapter 16.

Reading a Horse

Unmanageable situations can often be avoided by correctly reading the emotions of a horse. Ears pinned backward indicate anger or a warning. These signs warn handlers that they may be bitten or kicked. Horses sometimes "fake" anger in an attempt to bluff and scare off a potential intruder. The ear position of horses performing with great resolve, such as hard trotting, pacing, or running a race, should not be misinterpreted, as the ears are sometimes held in a backward position during extreme effort. However, mares with newborn foals are probably not bluffing when their ears are "pinned back," and they should be respected.

Ears forward show interest or suspicion. Some horses show interest in everything they see in new surroundings without finding anything fearful to be avoided. Such horses maintain a good attitude and seem to enjoy their work. Others keep their ears forward and eyes open, afraid of a sudden attack.

Eyes and nostrils show emotion and reflect temperament. Dilated nostrils reflect interest, curiosity, or apprehension. When the eyes flash, nostrils dilate, and muscles tense, the horse is likely about to react. It might be only a slight start, a reverse in direction, or both. But if the cause of fright intensifies, the horse may bolt, rear, or buck. Riders who read their horses' emotions accurately can often steady the horse with reassuring words or control through appropriate hand, leg, and upper body connection (Figure 19-10).


Horses usually are considered to have memories second only to elephants. In the wild, if an attack came at a certain place, the herd avoided that spot in the future. This caution is still practiced by wild horses in the United States. If not for its good memory, the horse would be considerably less useful to people. A well-trained young horse never forgets its training. Neither does the poorly trained one. For this reason, bad habits should be recognized and corrected before they become fixed.

Horses have not ranked outstandingly well on limited intelligence tests, although they do very complex things routinely when trained. Some horses may be considered highly intelligent because they can open most gates and doors on the farm. But idle horses tend to seek activity, some of which may involve gate latches. Once they succeed, their good memory keeps them trying to open doors. When they get the grain bin open, they remember only the joy of eating. They can't associate overeating with the ensuing colic or loss of hooves from founder.


Horses are gregarious in nature; they band together. This tendency has practical implications. Wild horses in the center of the herd were safer from attack. This can be seen today with zebras in Africa.

The gregarious tendency can be used to advantage in training young horses. A young horse may be fearful of working alone. Horses walk too slowly and jog too fast until they are well trained. A good training method is to jog them away from the barn and walk them toward it. Barn-sour horses result from allowing them to run back to the barn, where they can be reunited with the herd and thus rewarded for their behavior. The routine should be changed so the horse does not expect this result.

Situations that produce barn-sour horses need to be avoided. Young horses should be sufficiently trained to be obedient before they are asked to leave the premises with a rider. Ground driving helps. If they show anxiety to get back to the barn, change the routine. A good method is to turn away from the barn each time they try to go to it. A useful technique may be to head the horse away from the barn when bringing it to stop at the end of the training session. After the rider dismounts, the horse is led back to the barn. This method is useful in ring riding.


Group riding brings out the herd obedience tendency in horses. That is, they all tend to do what others do. For example, if one enters a stream, the others tend to follow (Figure 19-11).

In the wild state, obedience to leadership meant survival. If the stallion called for silence, every horse stood still. If he commanded flight, they ran at the heels of the lead mare. The stallion ran at the back of the herd to nip those who needed more speed. Horses today are dependent on people for leadership and survival.


Understanding Behavior Means Safety

Recognizing the horse's natural defense mechanisms promotes safety. Frightened or aggressive horses may panic, escape, or fight. They may have little regard for human dominance or safety. Learn to recognize the differences between fear and aggressive behavior. A frightened horse will need slow, consistently applied reinforcement to build security. Horses that initiate dangerous, aggressive behavior must be corrected. Understand horse behavior as it relates to herd social order, stallion sexual behavior, and mare and foal relationships. Expect some horses to be more aggressive than others.

Watch for the visual signs of behavior and attitude. Recognize the signs of a frightened, confused, or aggressive horse. Don't try to herd or lead a horse when standing directly behind or in front of it. These are blind areas in a horse's visual field. A horse may bolt forward or kick when frightened or aggressive.

Approach a horse at its left shoulder. This allows you to use your body to hinder movement while positioning yourself in a safe location. Make a horse stand when turning it loose until you are safely positioned to avoid being run over or kicked. Position the horse so that its head is facing a wall or fence before removing the halter. This will keep the horse from bolting. Don't allow yourself to be trapped between a frightened or mad horse and a stall wall or other barrier. Do not chase horses when trying to catch them. This action reinforces the horse's desire to escape. Use position reinforcement when catching a horse.

Be cautious in new environments. Recognize small changes in the environment that may frighten a horse. Move slowly and deliberately around horses, letting them know where you are at all times. Avoid sudden movements that may confuse the horse or be perceived as a prelude to punishment. Punishment usually involves quick movements. Introduce clippers, blankets, and saddles in a safe, familiar place. If possible let them look at and smell a new object. With experience, most horses learn to ignore the sound, sight, smell, or movement associated with routine procedures. Always be prepared for unexpected stimuli that may frighten a horse, especially in new environments.


Training begins while the foal is still on the mare. Handling and teaching it to lead at this young age will help develop a more dependable horse through the years. Halter breaking is not difficult if done appropriately while the foal is young.

Numerous books and videos are available on the subject of breaking and training horses. Many people have their own methods and their own opinions. This is only a start.

Riders should not constantly correct or interrupt the thought train of a horse doing a job that requires deep concentration. The horse can think of but one thing at a time. The rider who continually punishes or corrects the horse distracts attention from the task at hand and the horse can become confused or angry.

Quick reflexes and panic characterized prehistoric horses. Indeed, their life depended on them. Horses will panic into flight without much consideration of the need for or consequences of such a decision. Young horses fleeing with or without riders may sustain severe injury from running into objects or from total exhaustion. The runaway horse is simply carrying out the kind of behavior that allowed its ancestors to survive. As some horses get older, they tend to become calmer; others do not.

Speed, quickness, and willingness to serve, even at great sacrifice, have made horses most useful to humans. This also poses some dangers and problems.

Flighty horses should be handled by experienced riders and must not be hurried into new and strange situations. Even though they are controllable at home, they may not be in strange surroundings and could be dangerous for the novice rider. The object is for the rider or handler to provide the support and will without provoking an unmanageable confrontation with the horse.

Communication of rider to horse is accomplished through voice, legs, and hands--in this order of importance. Voice cues for starting and stopping are easy to give and easily understood by the horse. Rein cues are more complex for both rider and horse, and signify more complicated maneuvers than simple starts and stops. Leg cues are needed for most complex responses, such as rollbacks. A horse's skin is so sensitive that it can react to the lightest pressure of the rider's leg.

Horses are equally sensitive to insecurity or confidence in their riders and will respond accordingly. If the rider lacks assurance, the horse will feel insecure and perform below its capability.

The horse is a strong, sensitive creature, capable of great speed and quick reactions. It has great ability to adapt to unfamiliar situations. This is why we like horses. Many of the things humans ask them to do are strange to their nature, so we need to understand their reaction to these new situations.

Catching and Haltering

If the mare is gentle, use her to help catch her foal. Lead her into a box stall with the foal following and get the foal in a corner. The mare will help hold the foal while you ease the halter on. Work slowly with a lot of rubbing and quiet talking to calm the foal.

The foal probably will be nervous and scared, but if the mother shows no concern, the job will be easier. After haltering, turn them both loose and let the foal wear the halter about 2 days. This will give the foal time to get used to the feeling of having a halter on. Then go through the same procedure as before, catching and haltering in the box stall. This is the time to begin leading the foal.

Teaching to Lead

Snap a good lead rope in the foal's halter ring and put a rump rope over its hips with one end coming through the halter. A cotton rope makes a good rump rope. Lead the mare out of the stall and let the foal follow. Stay in front of the foal, pulling forward on the lead rope attached to the halter while also pulling sharply on the rump rope. The foal may jump forward when the rump rope is tightened, so be careful not to get stepped on.

If the mare and foal are led around together while pulling on the lead and rump ropes, soon the foal will be leading. Once the foal begins to lead well, work away from the mare to make sure the foal is leading and not just following the mother. Do this for 2 or 3 days (Figure 19-12) for about 10 to 15 minutes each time.

When the mare and foal are brought in for weaning, the foal probably will not be afraid because it will remember the prior experience of not being hurt. Halter and lead it for a few days. Trim its feet and worm it if necessary. Any handling at this age is time well spent. The foal's gentleness and learning to lead will save time during breaking at 2 years of age when the foal will be saddled, bridled, and mounted for the first time.



Longeing is a procedure in which the horse travels in a large circle around the handler on a long strap or line. It is useful in training young horses and in exercising others. Longeing affords the horse an opportunity to improve balance and develop stride and action. It is also a good way to reduce energy in overactive horses before they are ridden. Longeing can be started after weaning, if the trainer is careful not to let a young horse hurt itself by being jerked off-balance on a longe line (Figure 19-13).

Before horses are longed, they should be taught to lead from either side, and to stop, stand, and back. They should be gentle and reasonably obedient or easy to control.

The horse should be groomed at the site of training the first time it is longed. This relieves some anxiety and puts it at ease. Also, protecting the horse from flies with repellent allows it to give its undivided attention for the lesson.


Horses are trained to longe in a small pen. After the horse has circled the ring a few times, the trainer should start to drop away from the shoulder, keeping the horse moving forward by tapping the ground lightly with the whip. The trainer should drop toward the rear of the horse.

To keep the horse moving forward, the trainer should stand by the horse's left leg and hip as the circle is gradually made larger. The trainer should still make a small circle as the line feeds out. The whip will keep the horse from stopping or closing the size of the circle.

The horse should learn to stop and stay on the perimeter of the circle. At the command of "whoa," it may turn and face the trainer. In later lessons, the horse should stop in place on the perimeter until commanded to face inward and come to the trainer. The horse should not be allowed to anticipate commands and make its own decisions. When the horse is stopped in the center of the circle or at the perimeter, it should be taught to stand in place.


Some horses keep a longe line tighter than others. A tight line on a horse is desirable. Short pulls and releases will restrain it. A soft nylon or leather halter, compared to a longeing cavesson, may encourage tight line pulling. When the horse is going in a large circle around the trainer with the right tension on the line, the trainer can stand in one position and give the lesson with minimum effort.

Many horses are definitely one-sided in their preference in longeing. The trainer should change directions to work the weaker side more than the stronger side until the horse will longe in both directions in good form.

Other Uses

One of the best uses of the longe line is to "tune up" an old, well-trained horse. If a horse is suspected of being lame, longeing is a great way to assess its movement. And it is an excellent way for a horse to "learn" self-carriage. Also, a stabled horse can be exercised on a longe line when it is not possible to ride it.

Horses can be trotted across cavalettis or fence posts to regulate length of stride. This is particularly useful in jumping horses and in young horses that do not extend enough in the trot. Gaited horses with a pacing tendency can often be improved by this procedure, as can Western horses that need more length of stride in their extended trots.

Some horses jump well on longe lines. It is good exercise for trained horses and a good way to start young jumping prospects.

Longeing is an important step in preliminary training. A young horse can learn to start, stop, stand, walk, trot, and canter on command. Longeing establishes authority and routines that reduce mounted training time.

Seasoned performers can be exercised, refreshed, or even prepared for new activities from the longe line. Longe line training is a skill that most accomplished horse owners have found worthwhile to develop.


Fit horses are easier to train. Aerobic fitness is probably the simplest and safest type of stamina to train into a horse. Aerobic training requires low-intensity, long-duration types of work. The heart rate should reach about 120 beats per minute for 10 to 15 minutes. About 3 to 4 weeks are required to achieve the training effect. After that time, the intensity or duration must be increased to improve the fitness level (refer to Chapter 6).

Horses need to be able to expend large amounts of energy anaerobically and then replenish that energy aerobically for the next maximum contraction of the muscles. Anaerobic training begins after aerobic training, and this second phase is related to specific skill training.

One of the newest concepts in the conditioning of horse athletes is interval training. Interval training is simply the use of multiple bouts of work interspersed with a relief interval when partial recovery is allowed. The theory behind this is twofold. First, it allows more total work to be done; and second, it allows fatigue to be brought on gradually and controlled. While interval training is most applicable to anaerobic types of training, it can be adapted to fit any type of training.

Warming Up and Cooling Down

Some general concepts apply to all athletes regardless of species or event. These guidelines improve performance, prevent injury, and minimize the soreness associated with exercise. The first of these is the warm-up. This stretches and relaxes the muscles to allow for greater flexibility. Warm-up increases the muscle temperature, allowing greater use of its energy stores. It also increases blood flow to the muscles, allowing more efficient transfer of oxygen. Trotting, side-passing, two-tracking, longeing, and backing are examples of warm-up exercises.

After exercise, the horse should be cooled down. Many trainers do this using a mechanical walker or by hand-walking their horses 10 to 15 minutes after the end of exercise (Figure 19-14). The cooldown period should consist of light work decreasing in intensity. This cooldown period helps remove metabolic by-products such as lactate out of the muscles. Also, it prevents muscles from tightening up after exercise, thereby minimizing soreness.



Trainers must be aware of fatigue during all phases of training. When exercise is intense or of long duration, ATP (adenosine triphosphate) supplies for muscular contraction decline and the by-products of metabolism build up. When this happens, the muscle either runs out of fuel or it is "poisoned" by the harmful by-products. The result is that the muscle can no longer contract efficiently. At that point, other muscle groups start contracting to perform a motion they are not accustomed to. The horse may misstep and injure itself.

Fatigue can be prevented by decreasing the intensity of the exercise and allowing the horse to rest for a period of time. A complete stop is not advisable, just a slowdown. Once the heart rate drops below 100 beats per minute, the work can be continued.

Muscles require 26 to 46 hours to replenish their glycogen (energy) stores, depending on the severity of depletion. Horses need at least 1 day a week completely off if they are being worked at high intensity or for extremely long periods.


How horses interact with their environment is genetic and learned. The behavior of horses can be categorized as follows: reactive, ingestive, eliminative, sexual, caregiving and careseeking, agonistic, mimicry, investigative, grooming, and sleep and rest. Understanding these 10 behavioral categories helps trainers and riders successfully interact with horses. The senses of vision, hearing, smell, and touch influence how a horse interacts with its environment and how a horse learns. Training is a process of teaching the horse to respond to cues. This begins when the foal is still at the mare's side. First the foal learns to lead. Training continues as the horse is saddled, bridled, and mounted for the first time. Longeing also requires training.

Fit horses are easier to train. Fitness includes an aerobic and anaerobic component. Like human athletes, horses in training need a warm-up and cooldown period. They are also subject to fatigue.


Success in any career requires knowledge. Test your knowledge of this chapter by answering these questions or solving these problems.

True or False

1. For horses, training involves learning.

2. The horse has a very short memory.

3. A horse owner should be able to read the emotions of a horse to avoid unmanageable situations.

4. Idle horses tend to seek activity, such as opening barn doors and latches.

5. During sleep, the horse has a period of rapid eye movement.

Short Answer

6. List the 10 behavioral categories.

7. Name the senses a horse uses to interpret its environment.

8. When should training begin?

9. What are three ways to communicate with a horse?

10. How are the emotions of a horse read?

Critical Thinking/Discussion

11. What is the difference between a conditioned and an unconditioned response?

12. Define imprinting.

13. Explain how a horse sees.

14. Define cues, stimuli, response, and reinforcement.

15. Describe the difference between aerobic and anaerobic training in horses.

16. Describe the process of longeing and discuss its uses.


1. Develop a report on imprinting. Extend the discussion to animals other than horses, for example, poultry.

2. Observe a group of horses each day at the same time for 1 week. Document their reactive behavior, ingestive behavior, eliminative behavior, sexual behavior, caregiving and care-seeking behavior, agonistic behavior, mimicry behavior, investigative behavior, grooming behavior, and sleep and rest behavior. Also note any signs of their emotions, for example, ears pinned back, licking of the lips, tense muscles, etc.

3. Groom a horse and write a description of the process and the tools used.

4. Visit with an experienced rider or trainer. Ask what type of secondary reinforcers can be used with horses. Make a list of these and note the expected response.

5. Choose one of the vices horses develop. Describe the vice and any possible solutions.



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Baucher, F. (2006). The principles of horsemanship and training horses. Home Farm Books.

Cavendish, W., Steinkraus, W. C. (2000). General system of horsemanship. North Pomfret, VT: Trafalgar Square

Dawson, J. (2003). Teaching safe horsemanship: A guide to English and Western Instruction. North Adams, MA: Storey Publishing.

Grandin, T. (Ed) (1997) Genetics and the behavior of domestic animals. New York: Academic Press.

Kahn, C. M. (Ed.). (2005). The Merck veterinary manual (9th ed.). Whitehouse station, NJ: Merck & Co.

Loriston-Clarke, J., Langrish, B. (2003). The young horse: Breaking and training. Devon: UK: David & Charles Publishers.

Lyons, J., Denison, J. J. (2002). John Lyons' bringing up baby: 20 progressive groundwork lessons to develop your young horse into a reliable, accepting partner. Los Angeles: Primedia Enthusiast Publications.

Miller, R. W. (1974). Western horse behavior and training. New York: Doubleday.

Sizemore, D. M. (1994). Horsemanship. Irving, TX: Boy Scouts of America.

Thomas, H. S. (2003) Storey's guide to training horses. North Adams, MA: Storey Publishing.

Wallace, J. (2002). Teaching children to ride: A handbook for instructors. Boonsboro, MD: Half Halt Press.

Xenophon, M. H. Morgan. (2006). The art of horsemanship. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications.


Internet sites represent a vast resource of information, but remember that the URLs (uniform resource locator) for World Wide Web sites can change without notice. Using one of the search engines on the Internet such as Yahoo!, Google, Excite, or, find more information by searching for these words or phrases:

conditioned response

horse behavior

horse communication

horse fitness

horse imprinting

horse senses

horse training

unconditioned response

Table A-18 in the appendix also provides a listing of some useful Internet sites that can serve as a starting point for further exploration.
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Author:Parker, Rick
Publication:Equine Science, 3rd ed.
Date:Jan 1, 2008
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