Understanding and Writing Horses: Training and Instinct

If you run a search on “horse training,” a lot of what will come up will have to do with overcoming the horse’s natural instincts. There’s also quite a bit about dominating him, and being the dominant herd member. But is this really what works, or what is actually happening in the mind of this alien species?

Anthropology, which of course is the study of human cultures, has been undergoing a bit of an upheaval in recent years, as a small group of anthropologists and social psychologists have questioned the entire basis of modern anthropological study–namely, that the culture regarded as the norm and used as the baseline for the majority of studies may in fact be an extreme outlier. This is controversial to say the least, but it opens up a whole new world of understanding for the horse trainer–or the writer. It not only suggests that we should examine our assumptions early and often and with great care, but it also asks us to keep an open mind about the way the “other” acts and thinks.

With horse training in the Western world these days, several assumptions are often at work.

  • Horses are prey animals and all their instincts are related to their status as food for predators (and humans are predators).
  • Horses are herd animals and all their actions and reactions are based on a pattern of dominance and submission.
  • Horses are entirely ruled by instinct (as determined by their status as prey animals and their status in the herd), and training for the most part involves teaching them to overcome that instinct in order to be suitable for human use.

Hence the popular assumptions:

  • Your horse would rather be out grazing with his buddies than doing anything with you. You have to impose your will on him in order to get him to work.
  • Your horse is not very intelligent. He’s mostly just a whole lot of flight instinct and a whole lot of food tropism.
  • Stallions are hormone-crazed maniacs who are incapable of any kind of function aside from that of breeding. And mares, of course, are just as crazy, though they tend to be more of the week-a-month persuasion.
  • Anyone who attributes feelings (especially anger or affection) to a horse is anthropomorphizing. A horse is not capable of emotion. He’s entirely driven by instinct (as above).

Some of this I think is motivated by concerns for safety. If a trainer has to deal with clients who persist in seeing horses or ponies as cute cuddly toys or large hairy humans with poor verbal skills, he may be tempted to lay down the law that This Is An Alien Species With Its Own Agenda And It Does Not Think Like You At All. So he lays it on thick about the herd and the instincts and the hormones, because he can’t see any other way to impress on the client (and the client’s possibly litigious family) that these are not necessarily tame lions.

But there’s also a significant component of human exceptionalism, and specifically Western exceptionalism. The idea that humans are the pinnacle of creation, that only humans are capable of higher brain functions, that emotions are unique to humans, and that communication and social structure and culture in general are human traits and no other animal shares them, is falling into disrepute, but horse trainers as a group tend to be a pretty conservative bunch. Even the ones who challenge the dominance paradigm and the prey-animal modality may still insist that horses are mostly about instinct.

There is some truth in all of it. It applies to humans, too. Our genes, our instincts, and our culture all play major roles in the ways in which we process data. In order to survive as social animals, we have to overcome certain instincts–hormones and aggression, for example. And yet, as the WEIRD study argues, much of what we ascribe to genes and instinct may in fact be cultural.

With horses, certain things appear to be a given: prey animal, herbivore, herd animal with a fluid but fairly well-established hierarchy and social structure. Gender and hormones play a distinct role in behavior. The stallion is driven to patrol his territory and drive off threats to it. The mare is tightly focused on the stallion when in season, and will have little or no use for him outside of it; she protects her foals fiercely in the first couple of weeks but then gradually allows them to grow away from her. Both sexes congregate in bands, though the herd stallion will drive off or destroy rival stallions (but he may allow one or more subordinate stallions to breed his mother and daughters).

When we domesticate the horse, we tend to let the mare be a mare, since spaying is a difficult and expensive operation, but castrating the stallion, especially as a youngster, is basically outpatient surgery. So most riding horses in the English-speaking parts of the world are geldings, and geldings are what most horse people in those regions are familiar with and relate to. That leaves the hormone crew to myth and legend (though mares are tolerated for riding), and the rest of the truisms about prey, herds, and intelligence remain more or less intact.

So are we really fighting instinct every step of the way when we train a horse? Is horse training a massive exercise in Stockholm syndrome, not to mention mental and physical abuse?

Here’s a short video I shot a few years ago of a stallion staking out his territory. He marks it, rolls on it, and declares to the world that HE! IS! KING! He’s pretty much pure hormone-driven instinct.

Twenty minutes later he was clean, saddled, and peacefully doing his warmups in the space he’d claimed. There was a little rumbling as we went by the mares, but after a time or two he had focused on his exercises. Stretching. Bending. Remembering to breathe (he tends to hold his breath when he concentrates). Directing his energy toward another kind of dance.

In the wild that energy would be spent fighting other stallions, going after predators, and breeding mares. He’d also probably be dead; life expectancy of a feral horse is about 15-20 years, versus 25-30 for a domesticated horse, and he was 16 in the video. If he were still alive in the wild, he’d be a scarred old warrior, whereas for his breed and degree of use, he was still a relatively young horse with just a few scars (the goat that gored him, the neighbors’ puppies that went after him and tried to take him down but luckily thought the hamstrings were in the front—he had a somewhat exciting youth).

He was (and still is) handled every day, several times a day. The instinct to challenge authority and then to be authority is strong, as is the drive to respond to the mares when it’s time to breed them. But he also has an instinct to give way to the lead mare (or the human who plays that role) and the instinct to cooperate within the herd.

There’s a social contract in effect. He gets to do his own thing on his own time. When he’s with me, certain rules have to apply, simply because humans are relatively tiny and extremely fragile. He doesn’t get to breed and fight at will, but he does get to be a dance partner. Work is play–and it’s mental as well as physical. Riding figures and courses of barrels and poles, learning to balance himself and the rider, going out and exploring new territory, doing groundwork in coordination with the human–these all direct his energy and keep him fresh and, yes, I’ll use the word: happy.

Would he be happier on the range? Maybe. But after going on five hundred years of concentrated breeding, in some ways he’s diverged from the original model. He’s bred to focus on humans. He’s just a little more inclined to cooperate, and a fair bit easier to work with when there are mares in the mix. He has a high tolerance for repetitive arena exercises, as well as considerable stamina for them. Even his balance is distinctive: he’s built and inclined to sit down behind and raise the front–lousy for speed, excellent for standing his ground and fighting. Or, as it happens, for carrying a rider without tripping and falling on his nose.

All of that plays into the training process. It’s cooperative rather than coercive. Where the instincts are useful–the extra bit of oomph from the hormones, the heightened sensitivity to signals and guidance–we encourage them. Where they’re counterproductive (running after mares rather than paying attention to the human), we encourage him to change his focus. We end up with a partnership, and a horse who comes willingly when he sees his saddle.

I guess we could say that we’ve nurtured the instinct to cooperate, to form a herd and work within the herd, and turned it into a herd of two: horse and rider; and sometimes even three, when the trainer joins the group. Instead of suppressing the instinct (or distorting it into dominance/submission or predator/prey), we’ve turned it into a training tool. It makes for a happier horse, and healthier, too.

And, in a more general sense, it keeps his species going. Horses as transport are mostly obsolete, and there’s very little wild habitat left for the feral herds, but horses as partners—in sport and in companionship—are still very much a thing. As long as that continues, so will horses.

Judith Tarr’s first novel, The Isle of Glass, appeared in 1985. Since then she’s written novels and shorter works of historical fiction and historical fantasy and epic fantasy and space opera and contemporary fantasy, many of which have been reborn as ebooks. She has even written a primer for writers: Writing Horses: The Fine Art of Getting It Right. She has won the Crawford Award, and been a finalist for the World Fantasy Award and the Locus Award. She lives in Arizona with an assortment of cats, a blue-eyed dog, and a herd of Lipizzan horses.

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