SFF Horse Behavior: The Confident Horse

Last time, I talked about how horses can inspire fear in humans—between their size, their strength, and their unpredictability when startled. I also talked a little bit about how humans can overcome that fear, and how doing so helps make the horses calmer and therefore safer to be around.

This calming power doesn’t just go one way.

Horses, like other sentient creatures, come in a wide variety of personality types. Their nature as prey animals predisposes them toward flight from the unknown and the possibly threatening—they aren’t armed with fangs and claws, and while their bite can do real damage and their hooves are powerful weapons (think sledgehammers backed by explosive force), their best defense is their speed. From the point of view of a human, that can mean a violent leap in a number of possible (and what may feel like a few impossible) directions that either sheds the rider or tramples the handler on the ground.

And yet, as strong as instinct can be, horses can, through training or personal inclination, overcome their instincts. That’s how they allow riders on their backs: predators sitting exactly where a big cat or an aggressive bear might fall on them to bring them down. It’s also how horses could have been so useful in war, charging into danger rather than away from it, and standing firm when attacked.

A confident human can induce confidence in an anxious or insecure horse. That’s the trainer’s gift, and the gift of the really good horse person. The horse trusts the human to keep her safe, and the human does her best to justify that trust.

Some horses are born confident. They will still get the hell out of there if they believe the situation warrants, but for them the world is a relatively secure place. They know who they are, what they’re for, and how to go through life both safely and calmly.

A confident horse is often what horse people call “calm-minded.” That doesn’t mean he’s a slug, or that he’s so chill he can barely move. Very quiet or placid horses aren’t necessarily confident; it’s possible they’re so checked out they don’t care (in which case, if or when they wake up, look out), or else they just don’t have a lot of get up and go.

A calm-minded horse can be alert and lively and full of spirit, and can be a handful for an inattentive or inexperienced handler. They’ll take the initiative if the human won’t, and make decisions for themselves, not always with the human’s best interests in mind—though if well trained and positively inclined toward the human, they will keep that person as safe as they possibly can.

A calm mind is a mind that isn’t needlessly reactive. That spooks minimally and recovers quickly. That is aware and mindful, and when taken by surprise, is likely to stand its ground rather than bolt away from it.

A calm-minded horse’s version of an explosive spook will be to Look Very Very Hard At The Horseasaurus And Walk Very Very Cautiously Around It. A confident horse will even advance toward the scary thing and investigate it, though they may snort at it to express their reservations.

The combination of calm mind and quiet confidence is ideal in a schoolmaster horse. An inexperienced or nervous rider needs a horse who cares about the monkey on its back, and who will keep its head under a wide variety of circumstances. Where a calm-minded rider or handler instills confidence in an anxious horse, a calm-minded horse does the same for the human in its charge.

A horse like that can be a godsend for a fearful or traumatized person, can make the difference between continuing in horses or giving them up. He’ll be extremely quiet with a person who needs a gentle horse, and bouncy and energetic with one who can handle a more spirited animal. And if he thinks the human could stand to be taken down a few pegs, he’ll oblige.

Not by bucking the human off, either, though that can happen. He might refuse to obey any of the human’s orders until the human delivers them in exactly the right tone and fashion. Or she might do exactly what the human is asking—as opposed to what the human thinks he is asking. It’s tremendously humbling, if not outright humiliating, to think you’re a great (or at least competent) rider or handler, and to have the horse show you exactly how far from perfect you are.

These thoughts brought to you by some interesting, and very positive, experiences over the past few weeks. I had the opportunity to attend a conference at a local guest ranch with a large herd of well-cared-for horses. It was a horse-breed conference, and of course we managed to ride.

All of us are owners, breeders, and trainers, and are used to our own horses. That means both a comfortable familiarity (and our own, well-fitted saddles and equipment) and an ongoing responsibility to manage and train our horses. It was illuminating to ride horses who work with the public for a living, who are well trained and aren’t expecting further training from us, and who can handle difficult or challenging terrain as a matter of course.

These are calm horses, unflappable but still awake and alert and engaged with the world around them. They are confident, and they are kind to the less experienced or balanced riders. If the rider shows signs of knowing what she’s doing, they’re pleased to respond. If not, they’ll pack him as ably as they can.

Meanwhile, back at my much smaller ranch, my tiny trail string has been expanding its horizons with longer rides and an occasional change of rider. The occasionally, happily flighty one was absolutely quiet and totally focused on a rider who needed him to be like that, while also expecting that rider to find his control buttons and press them correctly—a challenge she met, and he was wonderfully patient while she figured it out. Meanwhile the second-career lady, the retired broodmare of a very certain age, discovered that she has warp engines; not that she hasn’t had them all her rather long life, but under saddle, on the open road, without anyone or anything to hold her back, was a new experience for her. She was a little disconcerted, but seemed quite happy about it.

That’s confidence. It grounds the horse and defuses anxieties and explosions. And it makes the horse much safer to be around. It gives the horse the power to assuage the human’s fears and teach her to trust this alien but fundamentally benevolent species.

Photo: dregsplod (CC BY 2.0)

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 even 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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