Interpreting Unwanted Behavior in Your Horse

Lynn Acton explains how we often misinterpret our horses’ behaviors.

In this excerpt from her book What Horses Really Want, lifelong horsewoman Lynn Acton explains how we often misinterpret our horses’ behaviors, labeling simple attempts to communicate as “bad.”

Horses want to be partners, not obedient servants. Partners think. This means they do not always do exactly what you ask (or think you’re asking). Or they sometimes do things you have not asked for. This can be a good sign that they are thinking like a partner, trying to communicate with you, keep you safe or show signs of trust and attachment.

These actions can be misconstrued as disobedience. They might even be punished. It is like being with someone who ignores what we say and places a negative interpretation on everything we do. When we do this to our horses, we overlook important information, and turn ourselves into a source of anxiety instead of security.

A horse may initiate an action in an attempt to communicate with you, and this is often misidentified as disobedience. Let me share an example.

For many years I thought of horses’ behavior mainly in terms of their responses to what I wanted them to do. I overlooked the fact that horses do not just react to what we do. They also initiate communication with a goal in mind, a strategy to achieve that goal and the ability to come up with a new strategy if the initial one fails.

In one study, a bucket of delectable goodies (apples, carrots or oats) was placed beyond each horse’s reach. The horses experimented with different methods of getting the attention of a human standing nearby, and directing her attention to the bucket. When the human was facing them, horses tended to seek eye contact, then look at the bucket.

When that didn’t work, horses tried more creative strategies to get the person’s attention and direct it toward the goody bucket. Some were subtle; others used whole body motions. [From R. Malavasi, L Huber, “Evidence of heterospecific referential communication from domestic horses (Equus caballus) to humans,” Animal Cognition, Sept 19, 2016, and Christa Leste-Lasserre, MA, “Study Confirms Horses ‘Talk’ to Human Handlers,” The Horse, Jun 9, 2016.]

Sometimes my horses’ meanings are clear to me. Brandy gazes longingly at the grass on the other side of the gate. “Please open the gate.” Shiloh tips over the water tank. “Empty. Need a refill.” Sapphire once met me at the pasture gate, and stuck her forehead right in front of my eyes so I could not miss the burdocks that completely snarled her forelock. “See this mess? Fix it!” Bronzz limped up to me and held his lame foreleg out to me. “It hurts.”

Other times I am really slow. Shiloh often lifted a hind leg while we were grooming her. Assuming this was a disrespectful gesture, I scolded her sternly. One day, I noticed that her ears were not pinned, and her leg was waving under her belly, not at me. When she put her foot down, I very cautiously reached under her belly and worked my way back. When I reached her udder, great gobs of crusty mare goop came off in my hand. Shiloh sighed with relief. This is a perfect example of misinterpreting Shiloh’s meaning because I was focused on her waving leg without noticing that the rest of her body language was not threatening. And because I was too busy assuming she was being disrespectful to notice that she was desperately asking for help!

So, why didn’t she find a more polite way to call attention to her plight? She had tried. She had danced around in her stall, lifting her leg and swinging her face at her flank. She’d rubbed her tailbone bald. To my embarrassment, I never connected those actions to her udder. When she lifted her leg, all but pointing at her udder, I had scolded her. Many horses give up trying to communicate with people. To Shiloh’s credit, not mine; she persevered until I finally caught on.

Now, if Shiloh needs to remind me to take care of her udder, she shifts a hip is in front of me. This could look like a threatening gesture to someone who does not know her, but I know she is just “showing” me the body part that needs help. If I don’t “listen,” then she lifts her leg.

Horses have a concept of what we do and do not know, and this influences their communication. This is a sign of the social intelligence that makes for sophisticated communication in horse herds.

This excerpt from What Horses Really Want by Lynn Acton is reprinted with permission from Trafalgar Square Books. You can order the book here.

Photo by Jerry Acton