Horsemanship: The Eyes Have I
Suzie School of Horsemanship Blog post: August, 2019
Reading horse behaviour and understanding the psychology of horses takes dedicated learning and is a step towards good horsemanship. The amount of horses whose actions gets misread by the human, and then treated like something it’s not is huge.
When it comes to learning to ride and horse husbandry, the element of horse psychology and natural behaviour isn’t covered. We’re all just muddling along doing the same stuff that’s always been done because that’s the way it’s always been done. Unfortunately, the reasons why we do stuff are often indoctrinated and passed down from military days and have no logical or practical bearing on our lives today, but, we still do it the same way and most people don’t question it.
I was asked for advice via message about a horse that wouldn’t lunge and would turn and run at the person trying to lunge it. There are so many reasons why a horse would do that it is impossible for me to advise over message. The owner said: “It honestly comes out of nowhere”.
Knowing what I know about horses, I understand that “comes out of nowhere” is rarely the case. Unless it’s taken by surprise there is always a sign, and the reality is that there was a sign but the owner didn’t recognise it as a sign. This is where understanding the minute signals that horses use to communicate comes in. Soon after our initial contact, I visited the pair and before we even got to the arena, I’d picked up on a signal from the horse. The signal gave me an indication of what the problem was going to be, and it’s way more common than you’d think.
I choose not to lunge horses as I don’t feel they enjoy it very much. Lunging, in itself, exercises the body but I don’t feel it helps the horse make a change mentally, or emotionally. If the horse is an anxious type, then they often get lunged to “get the fizz out” and as the horse runs forward on autopilot all you end up with is a scared horse that’s really fit. If you’ve got a more confident or playful type, they will often get bored and make their own fun and be bucking and pulling away. If the horse becomes really fed up, it can turn and run at the human in a desperate attempt to get them to please stop the exercise.
This already gives a couple of reasons why the horse may be running at the human. Was it scared and wanted them to stop so opted for fight, rather than flight? Was it bored and frustrated and wanted them to stop? The seemingly innocuous sign I spotted up at the barn proved to be a correct lead.
In preparation for this being the case I’d already been observing the dynamics between the horse and human from barn to arena, and a few other things had flagged up in support of my original suspicion. When I asked the horse to circle to the left it was a bit tight and tense but stayed out on it’s circle and didn’t show any signs of coming in. When I asked it to circle to the right is where the adverse behavior came in.
Discovering the truth
The horse hesitated and pulled back slightly before reluctantly tracking right. About half a lap in the horse started bronking on the end of the lunge rope, before turning to charge towards me and I had to defend my personal space quite vigorously. I pushed her back out onto the circle, and she took off at what can only be described as an angry canter. I allowed her to use up her adrenaline, and when I spotted the emotional change I asked her to stop and turn in to face me. The horse stopped about 9 feet away from me, to my right, and again I saw the same subtle sign that I had done previously. The sign I’d noticed in the barn was that when the owner was stood on the left-hand side of the horse the horse’s head was straight. When she was stood on the right-hand side of the horse the horse would turn it’s head to the right. What I suspected the horse was doing was trying to view the owner out of the left eye, as viewing out of the right eye made her feel uncomfortable.
This is more of a common issue than you would think, and because the horse is so subtle in its body language it just looks like the horse is looking to the right but actually, it’s doing it for a reason. Circling left was therefore fine as the horse was viewing the person out of its left eye and felt comfortable with that. Circling to the right puts the human in the right eye and so caused the horse to feel anxious. Add to that the continuous forward movement which helps anxious horses gather speed and panic set in. Of course, unless you are reading all these subtle signs along the way it would appear that the behaviour came out of nowhere.
So why do a lot of horses have trouble with the right eye? One of the first things horses were ever used for was in combat. Left hand was the accepted way to do things, and military officers used to carry a sword on their left leg. This is so that in the event of combat they could draw their sword with their right arm. As the sheathed sword would be too cumbersome to swing over the back of the horse when mounting, officers always mounted from the left and traditionally we have done so ever since.
We halter from the left, we lead from the left, we saddle from the left, we mount from the left, we dismount from the left and so the horse gets very used to seeing us in its left eye. This means that often when the person is presented in the right eye it can cause the horse to feel uncomfortable and then afraid especially when motion is involved.
I don’t know about you but I don’t carry a sword when riding anymore and I make conscious effort to saddle, lead, mount and dismount my horse from both sides.
So next time you’re with your horse, practice good horsemanship and observe their head position. Does your horse change sides behind your back when you’re leading them? Do they not like being lunged to the right? Do they only spook to the left? Do they always seem to be looking in a direction that puts you in the left eye? When your horse is fine going past things one way but not the other just have a think about side the problem is caused on and see if it might just be a right eye issue.
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Images for illustration purposes only and are not related to any of Suzie’s work.