How the Hen House Turns—Horse Mysteries
By Cary Neeper
Horses have always puzzled me. As a child, for no good reason, I was afraid of the horse who grazed in the fields on the other side of the hill across the stream.
During our 46 years in Los Alamos, I was cautious when taking the children, then grandchildren, to visit the friendly horses on North Mesa. I was delighted when our Indianapolis granddaughters had a chance to care for a horse during their camp experiences. The mystery deepened recently when I watched the Olympic display of intricate footwork– Dressage.
How could you possibly teach a horse to step so precisely?
I had seen the Lippenzaner horses perform. The horses seemed to enjoy showing off. A friend described her experience growing up near their training center. She described how the young horses were given a free youth, a chance to grow up in a normal horse society in the mountains before weaning and selection for the rigors of show training.
Why would such a large animal agree to do such fancy, impractical foot work just to please human beings? Even more puzzling—why over the ages have horses been willing to pull heavy loads or enter horrendous battle situations with us two-legged warriors?
The puzzle came clear this week when I finished reading Margit H. Zeitler-Feicht’s book Horse Behavior Explained. The author deals with all the many requirements for keeping horses healthy in both mind and body. She reminds us that they are prey animals. Their natural reaction to anything unfamiliar is flight. Socially, they interact to sort out leadership in the herd, which is their basis for trust.
That is what a good relationship with humans means—trusting a dominant lead. Trust in a human can be broken by unkind treatment or by the trainer failing to assume dominance. Owning a horse means guaranteeing safety and comfort.
For training to stick, simple vocal rewards must come immediately, within seconds, after a desired behavior. A complicated training, even the simplest job of wearing a bit or a saddle, is introduced one small step at a time so that the normal fear reaction to something new is never triggered.
The emotional state and willingness to learn can be easily read in a horse’s ears, nostril, mouth and tail. The book provides sketches and photos to illustrate. Ears pinned forward mean a friendly cooperative mood. “…Ears turned sideways: insecurity…ears turned backwards: fear [or] pain…ears laid back flat: aggression…defense…[or]great fear.”
Busy mouth and swinging tail signal contentment. Head tossing, visible teeth or grinding means not happy. Tightly closed mouth and wide nostrils indicate degrees of fear. Pain is seen in narrowed nostrils pulled back. A raised tail signals ready for play or attention, and a tucked tail expresses fear.
I wish I had known all that as a child. I wonder how many other animal signals I have missed.