The horse-human bond: Are we getting it right?

The horse-human bond: Are we getting it right?

Written by Helen Whitelegg, Research and Policy Manager Redwings Horse Sanctuary.

Horses’ ability to co-operate with humans gives them a unique place in our lives and affections. But what insight do we have into what they think about us? And how can we build a positive bond with an animal whose mind and body are so different from our own?

Horses and humans are both highly social animals. They tend to live in groups, establish and maintain close relationships, and communicate using visual, vocal and physical signals. But it’s generally only humans who strive to create partnerships with other species, spending time (and money!) to build connections across the biological divide. These connections are not only practical but often involve significant emotional investment on our part. For example, one study found that more than 92% of owners considered their horse a family member.

Effective horse-human interactions rely on effective communication. A wealth of theories and techniques around that communication have emerged in recent decades, with an almost overwhelming array of methods now widely promoted. Many approaches are based on ideas of how horses naturally interact in a herd, referring to hierarchies, pecking orders and dominant individuals, and often suggesting that humans must act as a herd leader if their horse is to ‘respect’ them. However, there has been much more research in this area in recent years, giving us important new insights into how horses think and behave.

Rethinking pecking orders

Evidence indicates that herds of wild or semi-feral horses don’t live within an overarching social structure. In fact, it’s unlikely that horses have the mental capacity to think in terms of a group hierarchy and their place within it. Instead, while a herd needs to function as a unit to stay safe, dynamics within that herd consist of multiple individual relationships. While one horse may be ‘dominant’ to another in their particular interactions, this doesn’t necessarily create a ‘pecking order’. Horse A may move away from horse B, and horse B moves away from horse C, but horse C moves away from horse A, meaning there is no hierarchy between the three.

Welsh semi-feral herd
Welsh semi-feral herd. Image credit Redwings Horse Sanctuary

Studies have also questioned the idea of dominant mares within a herd. Research suggests that different herd members may take a leadership role in different situations or simply on different days. It can also be not just what we see, but how we interpret those observations that change our perceptions. For example, older mares may lead the group more often because they have more experience of finding the best sources of food, water and shelter, rather than through dominance. It has also been suggested that new mothers gain higher status within the herd. In contrast, they may be more assertive by protecting their foal and more likely to instigate the search for water because producing milk makes them thirstier!

Horse-human interaction

Research is also shedding new light on horses’ perceptions of humans. Studies show that horses can recognise individual humans by sight or voice. They can also distinguish positive facial expressions from negative ones, and even react differently to body odours from humans experiencing either fear or happiness.

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However, there is no evidence that horses see humans as one of their ‘herd’. If startled, horses will invariably seek safety with other horses, not with humans, and horses can often suffer anxiety when separated from a companion or lose sight of other equines, but are unlikely to show that distress when separated from us.

We should also consider ‘dominance’ and ‘submission’ in interactions between two horses. A submissive horse tends to avoid proximity with the more dominant one and moves away if the other horse approaches. Yet, we want to be able to walk up to our horse to catch them and the horse to feel relaxed and safe as we interact with them. Thinking in terms of ‘showing the horse who’s boss’ therefore seems at odds with our understanding of equine psychology and creating a positive bond with our horse.

Feeling safe

As prey animals, horses are hard-wired to have acute sensory perceptions and a strong fear response. Like all mammals, emotions such as fear, anxiety and aggression activate part of the brain called the amygdala, with horses having the largest amygdala of any domestic animal. This helps explain their heightened sensitivity to negative experiences and the clear memories of those experiences that are stored for future reference.

Horses value safety, familiarity and predictability. Increasing these aspects of their experience in all our interactions with them is key to creating an effective and sustainable bond with them. By working with many deeply anxious, fearful and even traumatised horses at Redwings, alongside those that are nervous or unhandled, we have learnt that positivity and relaxation are critical to gaining trust and co-operation from any horse.

Keeping things positive

Positive reinforcement involves introducing something that motivates the horse (such as a treat) in a carefully timed way to reward and encourage the required behaviour. Clicker training is one type of positive reinforcement. In contrast, negative reinforcement refers to removing something the horse doesn’t like, such as pressure, to reward a certain response.

Positive reinforcement approaches such as clicker training can make horse human interactions more relaxed and productive.
Positive reinforcement approaches such as clicker training can make horse human interactions more relaxed and productive. Image credit Redwings Horse Sanctuary

We can think of our interactions with horses in terms of a bonding account, with credits and debits. Positive interactions that the horse finds rewarding and safe count as credits, helping a horse to trust and co-operate with us. When our actions trigger feelings of vulnerability, uncertainty, or fear, even for short periods, they are a debit, potentially undermining the horse’s comfort about the situation and about us.

Redwings increasingly use positive reinforcement to help bond with and train our rescued residents. Positive reinforcement is particularly important with young and unhandled horses to ensure pleasant early interactions, building up those positivity credits. It is also essential when working with horses who arrive with behavioural issues, often because they have had negative experiences in the past. We need to use positive encounters with these individuals to redress an often distressing positivity deficit and help them learn to trust us.

A positive approach reduces stress for the horse and makes training more effective by keeping the horse relaxed and interested, which supports the learning process within the brain. When done well, negative reinforcement is a valuable training tool for horses; however, we always aim to keep pressure to an absolute minimum and add a positive interaction such as a well-timed treat or wither scratch in addition to withdrawal of pressure.

Horses inevitably have to undergo uncomfortable or stressful experiences at times, from dental work or vaccinations to travelling or wound treatment. By being in positivity ‘credit’ with our horses and using positive reinforcement to help counter the negative elements of an activity, we are better placed to calmly achieve what is needed and maintain a good relationship with the horse.

It’s important to remember that a horse can perform the same or similar behaviours as a result of different experiences. One horse may find that a situation is non-threatening and has positive associations, making them happy to co-operate. Another horse may learn to behave the same way by avoiding the unpleasant consequence of not getting things right. Even if each horse behaves as wished, their underlying experience and associated memories may be quite different.

Learning to listen

We have learnt to be mindful of our own body language when around horses, such as softening our posture and avoiding sudden movements. But it is also essential that we pay constant and close attention to what the horse’s body and face tell us.

Pulling faces is just one sign that a horse may be stressed, in pain, or both.
Pulling faces is just one sign that a horse may be stressed, in pain, or both. Image credit Redwings Horse Sanctuary

There are multiple, often subtle ways a horse may express pain, discomfort or stress, both on the ground and when being ridden. By addressing an issue early, we can prevent the horse from feeling the need to escalate their behaviour to a point where it is problematic or even dangerous.

Some of the many possible signs of stress or discomfort include:

• tense body

• clamped mouth

• tightened nostrils

• tension around the eye

• ears stiffly back

• fidgeting and lack of concentration

• tail swishing

• higher head carriage

• increased defecation

Noticing any such signs is the time to stop and think about what is affecting the horse, from physical pain to a stressful environment. Each horse, handler and situation are different, meaning different solutions need to be considered. But, whatever the circumstances, it’s vital not to ignore signs that a horse is not coping well. Neither should we blame the horse for how they are feeling and behaving, but consider instead what we can do to help them.

More information on subtle signs of pain and stress are available through tools such as the Horse Grimace Scale (available at https://horsesandpeople.com.au/ridden-horse-ethogram-helps-identify-pain/ ) and the Ridden Horse Ethogram (https://horsesandpeople.com.au/ridden-horse-ethogram-helps-identify-pain/). Researchers who developed the Ethogram concluded that as many as 47% of ridden horses in the UK might have an undiagnosed health issue affecting their performance, unnoticed by even experienced owners and riders.

The bigger picture

While horse-human bond is most evident through physical interactions, how we manage our horses’ health, behaviour and performance is also an important factor. Therefore, meeting a horse’s psychological as well as physical needs each day is essential to their overall wellbeing, which in turn benefits our relationship with them.

Thinking in terms of the Three Fs can help us understand a horse’s fundamental needs and to meet those needs more effectively:

Freedom

Horses naturally roam over wide areas and are not suited to being stationary for long periods. Therefore, providing plenty of turnout has multiple benefits, from reducing stress to promoting the health of their joints and digestive system.

Friends

Horses need to spend time with other equines. Seeing and hearing horses is a step in the right direction, but close proximity and physical interaction such as mutual grooming are even better.

Forage

Horses are trickle feeders, with an urge to spend around two thirds of each day grazing. So even when we’re managing a horse’s weight, we still need to find ways of meeting their need to forage for the sake of their mental and digestive health.

Meeting basic needs such as companionship helps horses feel more positive about life in general and can improve their relationships with us.
Meeting basic needs such as companionship helps horses feel more positive about life in general and can improve their relationships with us. Image credit Redwings Horse Sanctuary

New management approaches such as group housing, enrichment, and increased turnout are beginning to offer new ways of meeting horses’ basic needs, improving their overall wellbeing and, as a result, improving their behaviour, confidence and co-operation when we interact with them.

New research is emerging all the time that helps us care for, handle and read our horses. Just as we have needed to rethink some of the assumptions of the past, we will need to continue evolving to discover more about the impact horses and humans have on each other. Not only is the journey fascinating, but as we better understand and provide for our horses, we help them to have more to offer us in return.

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