Equine characteristics make horses usefulWritten by Gayle Smith
Veterinarian Bruce Connally of Wyoming Equine shared many characteristics of horses that make them functional, trainable animals when he spoke with equine owners during the Big Wyoming Horse Expo in Douglas in late April. By sharing some of the research he has come across, Connally hoped the information would allow equine owners to be better able to understand and train their horses.
“Horses are easily dominated by humans,” Connally explained. “Think about that 100-pound rider riding that 1,400-pound warmblood,” he told the group. “These horses can be a challenge sometimes, and yet you can see that, despite the size of rider, you can dominate them. It certainly isn’t about strength.”
Connally said it is interesting to think about the old time cowboys and how they dominated horses by roping them, or tying up a hind leg to control them.
“Now, we establish dominance to control movement,” he said. “If I am in a stall with a horse that isn’t cooperating, can I control it by kicking it in the stomach? Probably not. In addition, the owner would throw me off the place. The way I establish dominance if a horse isn’t cooperating is by backing it up, turning it in a circle, and saying whoa. After doing that several times, it shows your dominance to control the horse so you can do your procedure.”
Desensitizing the horse
Other animals do not share many characteristics that horses have, and one of the most notable characteristics is their ability to rapidly desensitize to something that scares them.
“They get over it pretty quickly,” Connally said, “which is how horse trainers are able to make a living. If a horse didn’t get over that stimulus quickly, we wouldn’t be able to use them. It is really valuable to us that horses are the way they are. It is what makes them functional for us.”
Horses are also quick learners of both good and bad habits.
“It doesn’t take too much repetition for them to learn either way,” he explained. “That is what helps make them so easy to train.”
“They also have a quick reaction time,” he continued. “In fact, some think they may have the quickest reaction time of any animal species.”
Once, while castrating a horse while it was standing, Connally said one moment he was looking at the emasculators in his hand, and the next he was looking at them lying in the dirt.
“Their reaction time is that quick,” he explained. “I didn’t even have time to register it.”
Using their senses
The more horses are around a person, the more they learn to recognize them. In his veterinary practice, Connally said some of his equine clients know him by the smell of his clothing, the medicines he carries and the sound of the pickup he drives.
“If I do something bad to that horse, do you think he will remember me the next time he sees me?” Connally questioned the crowd. “You bet he will. That is why I always try to leave things with the horses on a positive note. If I had to do something bad to him, I always try to pet and talk to him, and even get treats from the owners to bribe him. It is really important that that horse’s last moments with you are positive, from personal point of view as a veterinarian.”
An isolated horse never sleeps
Horses are herd animals, and the whole herd never sleeps at once. If a horse is by itself, it has no one to stand guard while it sleeps, Connally said.
“Isolation stalls are like jail to a horse. It really screws with their mind, and it will make the horse more dangerous to work around,” he said.
Connally recommends giving them a friend like a goat or another horse. As a last resort, he said a large stainless steel mirror can be placed in the stall.
“I saw one situation where the horse walked over and stood beside it quietly,” he said. “It makes me sad, but if you have a horse you can’t handle any other way, put a mirror in the stall.”
Controlling the horse
Connally shared some results of studies performed on equine in other countries. In one Australian study, researchers found that horses prefer to be worked with from the left side.
“Most horses like to have you in their left eye,” he said. “It is possible that is why some horses are resistant to longing to the right because you aren’t in their field of vision. That is why every trainer will tell you that you need to train a horse from both sides.”
“Horses are also very good at reading our body language,” he continued.
In a study in England, two people were placed in a pen with one horse. One faced the horse, while the other faced away from the horse. The horse chose to walk up to the person showing it the most attention.
“They read our body language. If you wiggle your finger at them, they know you’re saying something to them. You’re saying it in human, but they are reading it in horse,” he said. “If I walk up to a gentle horse looking at its chest or knees, I can walk right up to it. However, if I walk up looking it straight in the eye with my hands up, it will turn and walk away. Horse don’t respond to voice commands the way people do. Temple Grandin will say don’t ever yell at a cow because they don’t understand voice commands. The same is true with horses. However, if you say something to them and change your body language, it will respond because of the change in your body language.”
Exercise is important
In conclusion, Connally told the group how important it is to exercise a horse.
“Just one hour of exercise every day, whether it is turning the horse out into a pasture for a run, walking it on a treadmill, riding it or walking it, can decrease unwanted behavior,” he said. “Exercise will also make it easier to train the horse.”