It's In the Attitude

Man has been linked to the horse for centuries, but often in the past, it was more of an adversary relationship than a partnership. In recent years, that has changed for many horse owners. Thanks to the efforts of equine behaviorists at the scientific level and a new and enlightened approach by many trainers and clinicians at the practical level, the relationship between human and horse has more commonly become one of understanding and bonding.

Clinicians such as Pat Parelli and John Lyons travel the world demonstrating that finesse is better than force. Monty Roberts has been featured on television espousing a similar approach. He coined the term "join up" to describe what happens when a horse willingly gives his trust to a human.

Before them were trainers such as the legendary Tom Dorrance, his brother Bill, and Ray Hunt, who quietly and efficiently used an understanding of the equine psyche to achieve desired responses without resorting to whips, spurs, and chains. They set the stage for today's approach.

These trainers, and others like them, have one thing in common. They understand how to get horses to do what they want them to do. They have learned this by studying the horse in a herd setting and adapting what they learned to horse training.

Natural Horsemanship

Parelli, for example, teaches people to mimic the body language of what another horse would do. "When in Rome, do as the Romans do, and when in Horseville, do as the horses do," he says during clinics.

Explains Karen Scholl, a Parelli three-star trainer, "Horses are very good prey animals. The biggest challenge for the human to communicate with the horse is that we look like a predator."

She says that many horse owners will go to catch a particular horse in the field with a grain bucket and a halter, and will fight off other horses while the one they want to catch stays out of reach. If the owner goes out to catch a different horse the next day, that one will be standoffish while the others gather around. If you go out to repair the fence and don't want any horses near you, "they pester you and you can't get rid of them," she says with a laugh.

"When approaching a horse, the biggest thing is to have people 'shut off their molecules' and reduce their energy level," explains Scholl. "You should walk up to the horse like he's your best friend and you are glad to see him. The horse feels that."

Body language is important, especially with eye contact and walking straight at a horse, much like a prey animal stalking. "Sometimes we are driving them away and not realizing it," says Scholl.

On the other hand, Scholl says that humans can't be timid. "Horses are natural followers looking for a natural leader. Parelli Natural Horsemanship is learning to be savvy, like a broodmare. She can wander up to another mare with a placid look on her face and a relaxed body and talk another horse into a mutual grooming, or she can swing her head around, pin her ears, and back another horse off.

"Body language is more important than verbal language with horses," she reminds.

Most people know the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. The Platinum Rule says: Do unto others as they would have you do unto them. In other words, you have to understand what the horse wants to get him to do what you want.


Robert Miller, DVM, of Thousand Oaks, Calif., is an equine behaviorist. He wrote the first book on imprint training of young foals and has lectured frequently and written extensively on equine behavior in general. He also has made presentations at meetings of the American Association of Equine Practitioners.

In one of his treatises, Miller sets forth aspects of equine behavior that humans must understand if they are going to relate with the horse in a positive manner:

"Each species acquires, by means of natural selection, genetically fixed physical and behavioral characteristics that help to ensure its survival. For the horse, the principal physical characteristic that helped it survive is speed, and the principal behavioral characteristic which enables that speed to be an asset is flightiness.

"The flightiness of the horse is the reason he so often injures himself or the people who handle him, and it is the reason he is so often perceived as a stupid animal," continues Miller. "But the horse's flightiness is not stupidity. It helps the horse to survive in his natural open environment. His timidity and flightiness are genetically fixed traits which have been modified, but not eliminated, by generations of domestication.

"Fear is contagious to a horse. This serves as a survival mechanism in wild horse herds. It is the reason that a young horse gets excited when another horse runs by."

One of the first steps in getting past a horse's fear and flightiness so that a trusting bond can be established is through habituation, Miller says.

"The horse can be quickly habituated to any frightening, but non-painful sensory stimuli, including sound, sight, touch, and odor," Miller says. "Once habituated to a specific frightening but non-painful sensory stimulus, the horse will retain his familiarity with that specific stimulus indefinitely."


Miller says one cannot expect the horse to look to a human with love and longing just because he no longer fears the handler. To understand this concept, one must understand something more about equine herd dynamics.

"Horses are herd-dwelling creatures and are equipped by nature to accept dominance," says Miller. "Except for the rare super-dominant individual, most horses can be readily brought to a submissive attitude toward the handler. Dominance is a quality that's not necessarily related to physical strength. The dominant horse is frequently an old, decrepit mare. Small ponies sometimes dominate full-sized horses. Dominance does not necessarily reflect athletic ability, aggressiveness, or intelligence. It is a personality characteristic of its own.

"To use a human analogy, we tend to think of politicians and warriors when we think of dominant individuals, but religious leaders and entertainers also have that charisma which evokes the desire to be submissive to them among their followers," Miller adds.

The horse trainer's goal is to establish herself or himself as the dominant figure in the horse's life by an understanding approach and not through physical force as was once common. Old-time bronc tamers understood the need to be dominant and became so by taking away the horse's most valued escape mechanism--flight.

There were people with an understanding of equine psychology in those days, but many didn't know or care about equine psychology. They wanted results, and they wanted them quickly.

When the horse was no longer needed as a beast of burden, many horses became companion animals used for pleasure instead of work. Fewer and fewer owners grew up working with horses for a living; those who didn't have that lifelong familiarity with horse behavior began seeking answers as to why their horses did what they did.

Researchers began studying horses in the wild to learn how they reacted to each other and to outside pressures when in a herd environment. Soon, they were applying what they learned to the domestic horse.

They learned about dominance by observing that each band had a lead mare which decided when the herd should go to water and where it would graze. They also learned that there normally was little or no violence involved in establishing dominance and the pecking order. The lead mare might merely pin her ears and approach another horse. More often than not, that animal yielded its space to the dominant individual.

Using Behavioral Knowledge

The Tom Dorrances of the world took this information and put it to use in their training methods. One of Dorrance's approaches to painless dominance is to stand at the end of a long lead shank that droops and puts no pressure on the halter. By his stance, the trainer is serving notice that the distance between him and the horse is his space and that the horse must respect it. Dorrance would back up with the horse following him, and when he wanted to halt, would stop and flick the shank beneath the horse's chin with a verbal command. He would continue flicking, never letting the horse get any closer, until the animal halted. When he wanted the horse to yield space, he would step forward with a command to "back" and would do a rolling flick of the lead shank beneath the horse's chin until he stepped back, giving up space.

Before long, the horse accepted his handler's space and dominance. Handler and horse then moved as in a ballet. Forward, back, side to side in complete synchronization. A partnership was born. Yet, the horse was never abused or terrorized in any way.

"Have you ever had someone 'get in your space?' and you wanted to move away?" asks Scholl. The same is true for horses. They have specific things that are acceptable body language, and they understand those things--pinned ears, a threatening raise of a foot, the ears-forward approach to a companion, the nudge of a mare to foal.

Parelli talks about "drawing" a horse. That means having body posture and attitude that tells the horse you want him near you. The reverse can be true, and you can use body language and attitude to tell the horse to get away. (Parelli calls this the schwiegermutter or mother-in-law look.)

Miller adds yet another thought in horse/ human dynamics:

"Human beings, like other species, probably elicit chemical substances called pheromones during times of emotional stress, such as anger or fear. I believe that horses can smell these pheromones so that the handler, in order to get along with the horse, must be relaxed and have a positive attitude. Anger, even if it is concealed, is absolutely detrimental to one's ability to communicate with horses."

The take-home message from this information is that the horse, in his herd setting, has given us a blueprint for communication. It is the horse owner's responsibility to understand the blueprint and learn to use it to his or her advantage.

About the Author

Les Sellnow

Les Sellnow is a free-lance writer based near Riverton, Wyo. He specializes in articles on equine research, and operates a ranch where he raises horses and livestock. He has authored several fiction and non-fiction books, including Understanding Equine Lameness and Understanding The Young Horse, published by Eclipse Press and available at or by calling 800/582-5604.

Stay on top of the most recent Horse Health news with FREE weekly newsletters from Learn More

Free Newsletters

Sign up for the latest in:

From our partners