Updated: May 3
Support is all horses need to get the job done. Support is clarity in what you are asking.
Support means consistency and leadership.
It doesn’t matter what the job is. It could be asking them to go over a jump, get into the trailer, cross a stream, dive into a pool, or something mundane like picking up their foot.
When we are talking about supporting a horse we need to take into consideration:
The Whole Horse and their World View
Their Central Nervous System and Brain
Their Language- Horse Speak
How horses learn Operant Conditioning, better known as pressure and release as used in Natural Horsemanship.
How do we know what horses need? Based on observable information we have learned much about how animals see and interact with their world- and what is important to them. Jane Goodall was one of the first people to take the study of Chimpanzees out of the laboratory in their own environment. Back then this qualified as a radical idea. She was a pioneer in a science now called Ethology (animal behavior in their own environment).
Before Ethology, scientists studied animals in laboratory environments. They ran different kinds of animals through standardized tests- a one size fits all approach- which allowed them to assess that chimps were smarter than horses (for example). This approach was called Behaviorism. It yielded little data of note and has since been largely abandoned.
Since the advent of Ethology there have been many studies done on the horse. One of my mentors is a French Ethologist named Dr. Marthe Kiley Worthington. She has conducted thousands of hours of close observation using the same scientific methods as Ms. Goodall recording the micro-movements of horses and authored many books.
The Horse’s World View
How a horse sees the world is based on their own evolutionary needs. As prey animals, they perceive the world as a place where predators might be lurking in every shadow. Since they can't use tools or weapons (or climb a tree or burrow in the earth), their main defense is an ability to spot danger at a distance and the ability to quickly flee.
As a result, their sensory capabilities have evolved to be dramatically more sensitive than ours.
Their structure of their eyes allows them to see in a nearly continuous arc around their body. They can see forward, sideways and backward- all at the same time.
Their heads have evolved to be long so their eyes remain elevated so they can continue to scan their environment above the tall grasses while grazing.
Their hearing is amazingly acute, and their ears can rotate 180 degrees to monitor sounds in front of and behind them at the same time.
Their noses, as well as the olfactory bulb in their brains, are huge and are thousands of times more sensitive than ours.
In combination, these senses form a field of awareness around the animal devoted to survival.
Moreover, in a herd, horses combine their individual senses into an enormous field of awareness that has great survival value. The strength of this field allows the individuals to relax and bring down their stress level- also known as down-regulation. They rely on each other to help sense dangers more quickly than they could do alone. Lower stress reduces the cortisol and adrenaline levels in the brain, promotes proper digestion and enhances physical and emotional health. This is why horses crave the companionship and support of the herd.
The Horse is Not an Autonomous Being
When a horse is removed from its herd it loses a big portion of this combined sensory field. Suddenly, they feel dramatically alone and solely responsible for their safety. This raises their stress levels. They feel the need to study each and every potential threat- every sight, sound, and smell. This makes it very difficult for them to pay attention to their person and they are easily distracted. This can make it impossible to learn.
Offering the Type or Support they Need
Once you know what horses rely on from one another in a herd, you can begin to offer the same type of support to them. In essence you can become an active herd mate and mimic the lead mare to help lower their stress levels and help them pay more attention to you and the task you are requesting they do. To be effective, the horse needs to know that you have at least 51% of the responsibility for your herd of two.
The Neuroscience of the Horse
This, of course, is a huge subject and we are only able to scratch the surface here.
In a nutshell what the horse perceives of the world around them shapes the way they respond to the world. Stimulus from their sensory receptors (sight, sound, smell, etc.) goes directly to the brain. This causes neurochemicals to activate the brain to cause the body to take appropriate actions. This is the case with any animal that has a central nervous system, which includes the brain. This might seem obvious- as that is how humans operate also.
Because of this, it is easy for us to anthropomorphize the horse. Generations of cartoons about talking animals that think like people have led many to subconsciously think horse’s thought processes and emotions are like ours. We feel “love” for our horse and assume they have a similar emotion toward us. They don’t. Their thought processes are as foreign to us as if they were an alien species. That doesn’t mean that we can’t study them and learn how to communicate and learn how to support them. This is exactly the type of exercise at which a human’s huge prefrontal lobe excels.
Who's Smarter- Horse or Person?
I have been asked this several times. My answer goes like this:
“Assume we drop you and your horse in a desert 150 miles from any town or water. Who do you think is going to find the water first? You already know the answer and yes, it would be wise for the human to follow the horse. Their heightened senses will lead them to the water much more reliably than a person. Which is smarter?
Now imagine you and your horse are in the middle of town. Ask the person and horse to find a bank. Now who is smarter?”
Humans rely on their brain’s prefrontal lobe to form categories, remember past events, make up stories about the world, have a sense of “good and bad”, and to plan for the future. These traits have huge survival value and help make us highly effective predators. The stories we have developed from childhood require that large prefrontal lobe.
In contrast, horses have tiny prefrontal lobes. They do not (cannot) think about the past or future. They cannot plan for future eventualities. They never needed to evolve this way. Horses live exclusively in the present and rely on their senses and their speed to make them highly effective survivors in the wild. The only “memories” they carry are emotional ones because they cannot form a story or narrative about their past.
"Categorical Perception” is worth noting here. Humans lump like items into categories. When we first see a hose, we make note of it and observe that it is not a threat to us. When we see another hose, we understand that it is of the same type of thing, or category, as the first hose- and by extension- not a threat to us. We do this every day all day long with every object we see. Humans build up enormous catalogs of categories that help us navigate the world without worrying about everything we see.
Because the horse has a small prefrontal lobe, they have much less capacity for “categorical perception”. The first hose they see is analyzed as a potential threat- and most likely dismissed as benign. The second hose requires the horse to analyze it as a potential threat all over again. Even seeing the first hose at a different time of day with a different pattern of shadows requires a new analysis. This applies to all potentially threatening objects in their world. As such horses use much more brain time and emotional energy navigating their world than humans. In a herd, each horse would have the support of the others in the herd to dissipate the stress of “new” objects. When you are leading a horse, proper and ongoing support from you- their person- requires acknowledging these very real concerns of theirs.
Horse Speak®- The Language of the Horse
Now let's talk about their language. Through her work developing Horse Speak , Sharon Wilsie has made enormous progress in understanding how horses interact and communicate with their herd mates. By extension, she has developed a way for us to understand horse communication. We can now hear what the horse is saying and communicate back to them in their native language. The horse is constantly communicating their needs and wants. All we must do is “listen” and they will tell us. The language that we use in Horse Speak is easy to mimic but more challenging to understand. It can be amazing to see a horse’s reaction when they realize you have just spoken to them in their language. I have often seen a horse do a double take. Once they really realize what’s happening, they begin to expect this communication. Talk about being supportive.
How Horses Learn
There are myriad different “training techniques” out there, but they all boil down to something called “Operant Conditioning”. Despite its impressive title, the concept is very simple:
If I have a whip and raise it- nothing happens. If I release the whip and smack the ground behind the horse- it jumps forward. The next time I raise the whip the horse jumps out of the way.
This concept, known as “Pressure and Release” is taught in Natural Horsemanship. Horses teach their youngsters this type of pressure and release from a young age. What is most important is the release.
The release must be done immediately after you get whatever response you are looking for. Even a partial response should be rewarded by the removal of pressure. If you are too slow to release the horse will think you want the last thing they did, which might not be what you want this time. Releasing too quickly is also counterproductive. Horses live in a world where timing, space and rhythm are of the utmost of importance, so if your timing is off they will, quite logically, doubt that you know what you are doing. They will feel unsupported, unsafe, and anxious- which we have seen is counterproductive to effective learning.
By understanding their world view and what they value, being conscious of your timing, being clear in yhjuour intent and supporting them allows you to be more effective with your horse- regardless of your goal or training technique.
Make no mistake, learning this takes time but when you do you will be in heaven, as you and your horse will be a true herd together.
I cover all these ideas, help put them in context, and show you how to support your horse in my class, “Support for Connection”.