The Natural Horse
Despite centuries of domestication and despite selective breeding, the horse has never lost its basic survival instinct; the flight machine. Of course the degree of fear within the horse differs within breed and per individual, but this sense of fear still has a profound influence on the behaviour of all horses and much more than most of us would like to see. That's why this is a part of the horse that we should take into consideration and should really try to see as something positive rather as a hang up. This is their will to survive! Their basic instinct, which makes them so alive and self sufficiŽnt..
As soon as the foal is born it is his natural instinct which drives him to stand up, drink milk from his dam and learn to move reasonably well as quickly as possible, to be ready for the moment he needs to follow his dam in flight. Then, the first year of his life is his learning year, where his dam teaches him as much as possible and he remains in her safety. Every little noise or movement could be a potential threat; a lion lying in the attack or some other dangerous creature. Survival is of the upmost importance. And just because the horse has been domesticated for a long time doesn't mean that the lions and other threatening monsters have dissappeared! The horse's instinct tells him differently! And to top it all off, we ourselves sometimes unconsciously behave like predators. It isn't surprising in the least that we sometimes make horses feel uncomfortable!! But more about this in Training - Body Language.
The entire body of the horse has been specifically designed to be able to leave at high speed on short notice. His digestive system, his muscles and his speed all contribute to this flight abillity. Even his eyes are designed differently to ours. He sees two dimensional and also has a smaller range of colours at hand. This is the main reason why dark and shady places make a horse feel really uncomfortable, as his eyes take longer to adjust in these conditions and he just doesn't see it all properly. While grazing a horse can practically see 360 degrees around him, with only a blind spot right in front of his nose and just behind the tail. If he then hears something suspicious he will bring up his head for a better look. By bringing up his head his eyes start to focus in the direction of the suspiciousness. By further uncertaincy he will bring his head right up to try and get an even better look. This motion results in the release of endorphins into his blood, to get him ready for an immediate departure. These endorphins are like a kind of amfetamin, so when a horse is very unsure or nervous, it usually helps to ask him to lower his head. This reduces the release of endorphins in the blood and can help to relax the horse.
Now some horses seem to be jumpy at almost everything and anything. These horses are usually just unsure of themselves and the situations they have been put into. They just don't feel happy in their skin. And this could have been brought up by different reasons; unsure about his rider (he feels the rider is unsure too), or a bad memory of the same place, or just plain old inexperience. It could have been induced by too much rich food, physical pain or even something spiritual; a rotton atmosphere at the stable, or nervous people and horses around him and so on.. Unfortunetly horses can't actually talk and tell us what's up, so it's up to us to look at all the possibillities and try to find the core of the problem and relieve him from it. If the problem is something spiritual, or cannot be solved immediately, there is always the possibility of using homeopathic drops like rescue remedy to try and relax the horse for that period.
Of course there is always quick "fix-it" equipment you can use to try keep those jumpy horses under your control; like a sharper bit, martingaals etc. But please take into consideration that the horse may feel even more trapped with all this equipment, which could make him feel even more nervous and desperate to escape. He might even feel a need to protect himself from it all; the survival instinct creeps up. Try to imagine how you would feel if you felt frightened of something, like a fear of heights or the fear of darkness and someone tries to force you! I don't think that that would be the solution, do you?
These are all things to keep in mind when dealing with horses. But by spending a lot of time with your horse, thus building a relationship with him, he will learn to trust you more and more. Just like the herd trusting it's leader. But first you need to earn that trust. And until then I believe most horses will prefer to trust their own instincts, their knowledge and their experiences - and who wouldn't???
For further reading I'd like to recommend the book; The Nature of Horses, by Stephen Budiansky.
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