Handling Horses

Icon of a book About Handling Horses

Horses should be handled with care and respect. It is important to know and understand the behaviour of horses and to realize that every horse may have different handling needs. 

Horses evolved as a prey species, and have instincts that protect them from perceived dangers. A horse’s natural protective instinct is to run from a perceived threat. Horses evolved to live in social groups for survival purposes. The social structures of groups is complex, with many bilateral relationships (i.e. each horse has an individual relationship or dominance over another horse). Human interaction with horses should be based on an understanding of the horse’s natural behaviour and cognitive abilities. Handlers should use clear, consistent signaling when interacting with horses. 

“Anyone who works with horses has a responsibility to understand and respond to a horse’s behaviour.”

How Horses See and Why It’s Important

Horses have a wide field of vision, which allows them to detect potential threats from a distance. Their eyes are large, slightly protruding and set on the corners of their head. The horse has a wide panoramic vision and two blind spots– directly in front of its head and behind the horse. The horse can turn its head to visualize blind spot areas.

Horses have monocular vision, which means that each of a horse’s eyes sees a different image. When the visual fields from both eyes overlap, this allows for binocular vision and improved depth perception. Horses also see much better at night than people do. 

Research has shown that horses have dichromatic vision, meaning they have the ability to see some colours in the yellow, blue and green end of the spectrum. They have difficulty discriminating between green and grays of similar brightness. 

Instinct and Indicators

Since a horse’s instinct is to run from danger, it can jump, or “spook,” with sudden movements. Horses should not be startled with loud noises, sudden movements or strange objects. Horses also have a very acute sense of hearing. They use both sight and sound to monitor their surroundings and pinpoint potential sources of danger. 

A horse’s ears can signal its emotional state. Ears pinned backward can indicate discomfort or irritation, ears forward can indicate interest or arousal.

Vision information retrieved from: McGreevy, P.D. (2012).

Understanding How Horses Learn, Think & React

Horses well trained in ground skills, under saddle skills and/or in harness skills are safer to work with and more likely to have good welfare their entire life. Poor training methods can cause behavioural problems. Horses with behavioural problems are more vulnerable to neglect, rough handling and more likely to face the prospect of multiple temporary owners attempting to manage an untrained or poorly trained horse. 

Horses must not be trained in a manner that subjects them to avoidable pain or that causes them injury as a direct result of the training method used. They must never be subjected to training methods which are abusive or intentionally injure the horse. Horses should only undergo training that matches their physical capabilities and maturity. 

Tack and equipment must be maintained in good repair and must fit the horse correctly. Ill-fitting equipment may cause sores, irritation, and may also cause the horse to respond to the irritation rather than the handler.

Learning theory can be used to explain how horses learn, think and react during training. The following principles of learning theory can be applied to any training context:

  • use cues or aids that are easy for the horse to understand, and apply cues clearly and consistently;
  • train and shape responses one-at-a-time;
  • train only one response per cue;
  • strive to minimize fear during training; 
  • reward appropriate behaviour in a timely manner; and
  • observe the horse for aggressive or defensive behaviours and modify training methods to minimize them.

Adapted from the NFACC Code of Practice (2018)

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