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Horses: What Are They Thinking?

Most “non-horse people” who come to ride at The Guilford Riding School for the first time don’t quite know what to expect when they encounter our equine friends. Maybe that’s why folks who have worked with and ridden horses for awhile are called ‘horse people’ -- they’ve learned how to interact with these beautiful animals.
As soon as you walk into any stable, horses will begin to interact with you. They are actually a herd, (even in the barn), and have a leader, usually rotated but understood, who keeps an eye on things. They are incredibly sensitive to the tiniest signal from the leader. People aren’t a threat, especially since they so often bring carrots! And, most of the learning for a rider is how to become that horse’s leader.

This might be where the phrase ‘lead the horse out of the barn’ comes from. The first thing we teach a person ‘walking’ a horse is to look forward, (not at them), or the horse won’t follow you. As you refine your riding skills, eventually you will just look where you want to go and the horse will oblige. It is true that horses have very large fields of vision, but what really happens is that they sense your intentions.

Horses are ‘fight or flight’ animals -- and most often it is flight, which they are exquisitely designed for. Their survival over the centuries has been to ‘run first and ask questions later’. It’s tough out in the wild for a horse -- injury, infection and environment take their toll. And, their teeth wear out much quicker than horses in captivity, who get regular dental care. The average life span of a horse in the wild is 8 years. Our sport horses usually live 25 years.

The #1 intellectual trait of the horse is his phenomenal ability to remember. He can remember patterns, times of day and schedules, triggers, signals and aids, and geography, and loves to do so.

Patterns are what a rider asks for in training, and in competition. In fact, in dressage, trainers try not to ride the actual test before the event, because their horse will anticipate movements, spoiling the rhythm of the test.
All horses will remember to the minute when they get hay, water, feed, turn-out, groomed and ridden, if given a regular schedule, which is recommended. Our school horses begin to knicker for students a minute before the school bus drops them off at 3 p.m.

Triggers, signals and aids are what a rider, or a sympathetic horse handler, counts on for a rewarding relationship with a horse. (When I’m riding, if I give a little tug with my fingers, and sit back slightly, I am triggering a response in my horse that makes him say, “Oh yes -- a half-halt, I’ll lean back a little, for better balance.”)
And out on the trail, once a horse has been there twice, he will remember the exact route, and especially how to get back to the barn.

It is hard to say that a horse has a ‘mind’. Most don’t relate that A + B = C. They don’t think about things; they follow patterns. This makes them very trainable. Certain individuals are exceptions, however -- we don’t know why, but at the riding school we have had horses who are much more like dogs -- recognizing their ‘person’, and influencing the relationship. Long ago, we had a cremello gelding called “Sam I Am”, who defied the norm. While grooming him, just for fun, he would sometimes move his leg over and stand on my foot, and just look at me. I could see the twinkle in his eye!

When you buy a horse, or say, ride one on a city-slicker vacation out west, he will have a certain amount of training ‘installed’, somewhat like a Blackberry has ‘apps’. A horse that is ‘broke’ is rideable, but at your own risk. A horse that has been properly trained will be safe to mount, go forward with a touch of your leg, and will respond to common aids that over the centuries have evolved as the language we use to communicate with him -- that language relying heavily on his ability to memorize patterns.

A consistent one-on-one relationship for a horse and rider is amazing and rewarding, because the team has supreme confidence in each other, and can accomplish wonderful, exciting goals. (It is why at The Guilford Riding School we ask that you buy a series of 10 lessons--you will experience it!)

This mutual confidence, and reaching the higher forms of communication with your equine partner is like a dance--precise, graceful, fluid and romantic, in its way. Horses love to dance!