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Staci Layne Wilson is a full-time equine writer and photographer (with over a thousand published horse articles in the U.S., Europe and the Pacific Rim) and busies herself with HorseAid, a worldwide equine relief and adoption programme she co-founded. She is also a Director and the Secretary / Registrar of the International Generic Horse Association (the world's largest all-breeds registry).

Staci has kindly allowed CarriageMart.com to print some excerpts from her book 'The Horse's Choice'. There will be a three part series in the next coming months, we hope you enjoy them.

You can buy Staci's book at her website: http://www.staciwilson.com/horses/

How Horses Think and Relate
courtesy of Staci Layne Wilson
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Horses are very simple creatures.

So why can't we seem to get along with them? The usual scenarios are one extreme or the other: horses taking charge, or people taking over. A mutually satisfying relationship with your horse is the ultimate goal. You should both be happy. Unfortunately, it doesn't always work out that way.

I think it is important to have a partnership with your horse. You listen to him and he listens to you. The door swings both ways. However, let me stress here that I do believe that the person must be the controlling partner: you own the 51% of the company.

In your horse's eyes, you should be seen as the 'herd leader' or you will get no respect. This does not mean that you must dominate or be physically tough with your horse, it simply means that you're nice to him as long as he's nice to you. If he gets pushy or snappy with you, you must put him in his place instantly. And I do mean instantly: a horse's brain isn't equipped for reasoning, so if he bites you in front of your friends and you punish him for that later on, he won't know what it's for.

I do not believe in striking horses as a matter of course; however, if a horse willfully bites you, kicks at you in aggression or strikes at you, you must take action. One sudden strike and a raised voice is sufficient. Please, don't ever beat your horse or spank him repeatedly. Watch how the dominant horse treats others in the herd that step on his toes: if it must come to physical contact (which is very seldom), it's usually one hard bite or one swift kick.

It's only the very nasty-tempered horse abusing his power that will back another into a corner and kick the daylights out of him. The places horses usually bite other horses is on the butt or the neck, learn from this and don't hit your horse elsewhere unless it's warranted. (A flat-handed slap on the muzzle for a bite is sometimes permissible, as is a swat on the gaskin for a kick... but don't make a habit out it: figure out how to prevent the undesired behaviour from happening again instead.) Negative reinforcement, such as letting a biting horse run into your sharp elbow is better than punishment after the fact, but sometimes that's just not possible. Once you've been bitten, you've got to do something.

Never, ever hit your horse between his ears, near his eyes, or on his back. This type of 'punishment' is nothing but cruel and is a only a reflection on your inability to handle the situation. If you get mad or frustrated with your horse, put him in his corral and do something else for awhile.

You must also learn to gauge the situation. Is the horse biting at you because you are hurting him in some way? (Perhaps a piece of skin is caught in the cinch as you tighten it.) Is the horse kicking at you because you suddenly came up behind him and surprised him? (I was once kicked for doing just that, and I take full responsibility. Sometimes we get too comfortable with our horses and forget our manners. Just as you expect your horse to be courteous, you too must mind your p's and q's. It's a two-way street.)

Horses are motivated primarily by a desire for comfort. Comfort can be him eating his dinner, being with his equine friends out on the trail, or it can be just standing still for a moment with no demands being made upon him. Horses learn better when they are comfortable.

A release of pressure, whether it is mental or physical, is perceived as a reward by the horse. I am going to stress the importance of this many times throughout this book. It is not meant as an insult to your intelligence, rather, it is meant for those people who skip around and read sections at random, so bear with me.

The ways horses think and relate are motivated by the fact that they are a free-roaming, constantly grazing, herd animal. Although this is not always possible in our hustle-bustle world and shrinking open spaces, the ideal life for a horse in captivity would be something like this: he would have acres and acres to roam (or at least a pasture big enough for him to run around in); he would live on grass and graze all day (or at least a balanced diet without an excess of protein and get fed small portions 3-6 times throughout the day); and he would have at least one other horse with him at all times (or at least an animal companion). In contrast, the unhappy horse lives in a box stall; is fed a high-protein, high-concentrate diet once or twice daily; and he has little or no free contact with his fellow equines.

The unhappy horse's mental distress is manifested by what humans call 'vices,' such as wood-chewing, chronic pawing, bucking, bolting, being barn sour, etc. The horse does not do these things to be bad. He is simply showing his pent-up energy or his unhappiness in the only ways he knows how. (That is not to say that some horses can't be willful, because they can: but most of the undesirable things they do really are not in their nature. Feral horses don't weave and they don't crib.)

Like many of you, I don't have a sprawling ranch and I'm not home all day to dispense feed to my horses six times at regular intervals. However, you can try and make for a happy medium by cutting back on your adult horse's protein intake (a pleasure / trail horse does not need alfalfa hay, grain, oats, Calf Manna and vitamins at every feeding. I'm exaggerating a bit here, but a basically healthy horse ridden normally one to twelve hours a week only needs oat hay or a mix or oat and alfalfa hay two to three times daily). You can build a corral for your horse instead of keeping him in a stall or small pen, or if that's not possible you can turn him out to run in an arena or longe him on a long line a few times a week (weather permitting, or course. I'm not suggesting you endanger your horse by allowing him to cut loose on ice or mud). If at possible, make sure your horse has companionship. Seeing other horses in the show ring on weekends is not companionship. If you can afford to support more than one horse, then adopt an old or lame horse or pony to keep as a playmate. If you can't, then try a goat or a sheep. Or, at the very least, spend lots of 'fun' time with him yourself. Horses are very good about associating people with actions and if all you do is ride your horse, and especially if you ride your horse hard or without respect for his feelings, then he won't like you very much. You should represent more than just work and a meal ticket to your horse.

Horses do think and they do have feelings. If you just like to ride, but don't like to spend any other kind of time with your horse, do him a favor: sell him and buy yourself a motorcycle.


This article was provided courtesy of Staci Layne Wilson.

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