KBR Equestrian Safety Series

Part Two

Continued from Part One

Unbridled Curiosity

Horses are naturally curious and tend to investigate their environment. They have an amazing ability to enter into situations that we may consider unlikely. However so long as those situations don't appear threatening in the mind of the horse, he will usually engage willingly.

Understanding how a horse is naturally programmed to respond to stimulus helps us humans interact with horses safely and avoid inadvertently creating situations that may stress the horse and cause an unexpected reaction.

A young and unhandled BLM wild horse
can't resist "joining" a poker game
What It All Means

Horses usually behave more predictably when they are not stressed. They become less worried about new things, new people and strange objects. If a horse's stress level is low he is more likely to operate out of his left brain hemisphere and logically process what is going on.

As anxiety increases, a horse's right brain hemisphere becomes more active. Ergo a young horse that might lead nicely down a trail or over an obstacle may balk or get upset when the stress of a saddle and rider is added. The scenery or obstacles haven't changed. The way the horse processes them has changed.

Encountering multiple difficult obstacles for the first time is not necessarily overwhelming if the horse isn't stressed.
Reading the Horse

Horses can tell us a great deal with their expressions and posture. A relaxed horse will have a soft, relaxed and fluid appearance. His neck will usually be supple and his head will move about and not be held high.

As a horse becomes stressed, he will typically elevate his head, stiffen his neck, show tenting or wrinkles over the eyes, show tight muscles around the jaw and lips, and/or flatten his ears. Not all these signs may appear, but as the number of signs increase and intensify, you can bet the horse is loading up with stress.

Packed with stress. Note the horse's guarded body language; ears taught, high arched neck, tight muscles in the neck and jaw.
The same horse as above. His lip is extended from anxiety when asked to climb some stairs for the first time, but the rest of his body is relaxed and he goes on and takes the obstacle.
This mare is known for her explosive volatility.
In this situation she is making it clear through
her body language that she is quite comfortable
with all that is going on.
Predator and Prey Communication

It is our experience that horses will usually try to communicate their intentions before acting on them. It is also our experience that horses don't take into consideration that we have to be facing them in order to actually see their body language. Oftentimes when we don't appear to take the hint, the horse switches from visual to physical communication, usually to the surprise of the human.

Furthermore, horses are tough animals. The same kick or bite that may merely be shaken off by another horse can inflict serious damage on a thin skinned, more fragile human. Thus while a horse may not intend to inflict serious damage, he certainly can.

The horse on the left doesn't have to look directly at the horse on the right in order to get the message and give way appropriately.
Safe and Sane Horse Approaches

Any time we approach an unfamiliar, high strung or stressed horse, a mare with a foal or a stallion with mares nearby we follow these guidelines.

  • Enter the enclosure quietly and politely.

  • Make a polite introduction to the horse, usually with an outstretched hand, palm down so he can smell the back of our hand.

  • Observe the horse but don't stare at him. Staring can be regarded as a challenge or predator's gaze.

  • Stay in visual or touch contact with the horse. Don't approach from the rear blind spot or first touch the horse in his front blind spot.

  • Avoid sudden movements around a strange horse.

  • Avoid approaching a mare's foal or a stallion's mares, or even lending the appearance to the horse that you intend to do so.

  • Stand beside the shoulder to make first "solid" physical contact. There we can observe the head (and teeth), and we are not in easy striking range of either the front or hind feet.
Saying "hello" and letting the horse get comfortable with my presence.
Making first contact with a brush
while standing at the shoulder

Once the horse is more familiar with us, he trusts us and he is not stressed by our approach, we will then approach him and handle him more directly. Until then, however, we will be careful not to inadvertently incite a reaction.

Even with a familiar horse we need to be aware of the unfamiliar. By that we mean that it is important to always read a horse's body language. While we may be a pleasant site to him, there may be something else present that could generate a stress response. It's much better to figure out the situation and resolve the situation for the horse than let him reach a flight or fight response.

Continue to
What You Should Know About Horse Related Activities

For a related information, please see:

Staying a Kick Away

Gentling Wild Horses - 101
(Approaches specifically for wild horses)

Return to Part One

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Important Note: If you take on the project of developing an untrained horse, everybody will want to give you advice. Don't act on any advice, including the ideas offered in this site, unless it makes sense to you and fits your individual situation. Your abilities and the sensitivities of your horse(s) may differ from the examples given. Be alert and rational with your actions so neither you nor your horse will get hurt. This information is offered as illustrations of what we do and the reader must apply common sense since he or she is solely responsible for his or her actions.

Happy trails!

KBR Horse Safety Information, © 1997 Lamm's Kickin' Back Ranch and Willis & Sharon Lamm. All rights reserved. Duplication of any of this material for commercial use is prohibited without express written permission. This prohibition is not intended to extend to personal non-commercial use, including sharing with others for safety and learning purposes, provided this copyright notice is attached.
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