SFF Horse Behavior: Fear Factor

Quite often when I talk about my life with horses, listeners will say, “I love horses, but I’m (a little)(a lot) afraid of them.” As often as not they add, “They’re so big!”

Horses are big. Even a small Mini weighs as much as a largeish adult human. A full-sized horse weighs in, on the average, at half a ton, and the big Drafts will double that and more.

It’s not just the avoirdupois. It’s the size of the animal even when it stands on all fours.

A Mini may be no taller than a big dog, and a pony will be small enough that the average adult can at least rest an arm over its back, and even, if it’s down in Shetland territory, possibly throw a leg over without straining too much. But a horse will start at 58 inches at the withers (base of the neck, more or less) and go up from there.

And if he decides he’s going to stand up on his hindlegs, we’re talking waaaayyyyy up there. Films and popular images love them some rearing horses, even while actual horse people groan at the stupidity of encouraging any horse to get that light in the front. It’s not safe, either for the person on the ground or the person trying to stay on his back. It doesn’t even look cool if you know anything about horses. Cool is a horse at full gallop, or a horse performing some aspect of ridden art—from cutting cows to dancing in a dressage arena—or a horse just being itself in the field.

To a non-horse person, here’s this huge animal of unknown temperament and unpredictable reactions. He’s a flight animal, so he’s easily startled, and startlement often means explosive motion in apparently random directions. If a human happens to be in that space, or worse, on his back, scary things can happen.

Hence the listeners who add, “I rode a horse once, but he ran away with me and I fell off.”

And yet, to a horse person, even one who has minimal contact with the species (and that is not a happy condition if you have Horse Person’s Syndrome), the horse is quite a different animal. He’s still objectively big, and if anything he can be even scarier, because a horse person knows all the things a horse can get up to if he’s spooked or angry or a combination of both. Nevertheless, fear doesn’t matter, except insofar as it encourages a healthy respect for the horse’s capabilities.

A horse, to a horseman, is as big as he is as a horse. The pony is small, the cob is mid-sized, and the big guy can range from Yeah, He’s Kind Of Tall to Huge. He’ll still need approximately the same set of responses: quiet alertness just in case, calm affect to keep him calm in turn, and generally a light touch in making requests, though sensitivity varies by breed or type, training style, and individual inclination.

A horse person has the advantage of knowing what to do if the horse gets stroppy, and knowing when to relax and when to be productively afraid. Usually she will err on the side of caution with an unfamiliar horse, but with a horse she knows well, she can judge when to ride out the situation and when to bail. Above all, she knows how to control her physical and mental reactions, and how to control the horse’s in turn.

Horses are not simple machines: stimulus in, response out. They’re very good at learning from experience, and they have excellent memories. Even as they’re highly social herd animals who function well in a group (and will accept a human into the herd with remarkable ease), they’re individuals with their own ideas and opinions. The horse who is dull or uninterested in interacting with you is almost always the product of poor or nonexistent training. Well-handled horses are highly interactive and quite clear about their wants and feelings.

They’re also remarkably cooperative. That’s the herd instinct in action. A horse wants to get along. He may try to take the upper hoof, because herd order is important; the more power you have, the more access you get to the good food. But he’s also willing to yield to the human, and he can and does understand that the little weak predator both needs to be in control for safety’s sake, and has access to tools and techniques that reinforce that control.

The secret there, for the horse trainer, is to stay safe but also to refrain from over-control. Ask rather than command. Set up a request and then give the horse room to comply.

That’s practical sense. 150-pound human is not going to manhandle 1000-pound horse beyond a certain point. He can whip, spur, and drive, but if the horse decides she’s done, she can ditch the human and blow out of there. She just is that strong.

The fact she’s so willing to yield that strength to the human is the most amazing thing about this species. An abused or spirit-broken horse is a terrible and tragic thing, but the horse who gives freely and willingly is a joy. There’s real partnership there, and real communication.

And best of all in terms of the fear factor, the horse who willingly cooperates with his human is always aware of her. He will, as much as he can, look out for her safety. He’ll do his best to keep her with him if he decides it’s time to LEAVE NOW. He cares what happens to her, either on his back or on the ground.

We all have stories. Just in the past few weeks, I have seen or heard or experienced:

Horse with whole foreleg entangled in fence. Waits for me to get there, stands still while I work her leg free, allows me to fold it up and ease it back and onto the ground. Does not move until I tell her she’s free to go.

Horse on trail is suddenly startled. Sits down hard, sucks me into her back, then goes UP. Taking me with her instead of bolting out from under me.

Horse at end of long ride. Rider dismounts, lands just wrong, and collapses under him (later turns out to have broken ankle in two places). Horse stands perfectly still while humans converge to extricate fallen rider. Does not move until rider is safe.

Oh, we can all tell horror stories about the terrible things horses can and will do. But we balance those with all the stories of the ways in which they do their best to cooperate with us. We know that these big animals command respect, but we also know how much, for the most part, they want to welcome us into their world.

Judith Tarr is a lifelong horse person. She supports her habit by writing works of fantasy and science fiction as well as historical novels, many of which have been published as ebooks by Book View Cafe and Canelo Press. She’s written a primer for writers who want to write about horses: Writing Horses: The Fine Art of Getting It Right. Her most recent novel, Dragons in the Earth, features a herd of magical horses, and her space opera, Forgotten Suns, features both terrestrial horses and an alien horselike species (and space whales!). She lives near Tucson, Arizona with a herd of Lipizzans, a clowder of cats, and a blue-eyed dog.

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