Respecting Your Space

If you find yourself with bruised toes from your horse stepping on you, or a broken nose from your equine friend that headbutts you, or other similar injuries, you need to take steps to correct your horse’ s world view. Crowding is a horse’s way of telling you that you’re on the bottom of the pecking order. This isn’t just aggravating, but in fact is downright dangerous, given that your horse outweighs you by at least a factor of five, and in the case of the giant warmbloods that seem popular at the moment, by much more than that. So what to do about this annoying problem?

First, remember that a horse is above all a herd animal. His life in the herd, and the social relationships formed there, are the model on which all other relationships in his life are formed. If that doesn’t give you pause, spend about an hour watching horses interact in a herd. Each horse has a position in the hierarchy, from the boss mare down to the lowly one who gets run off the hay every morning at feeding. There’s a lot of kicking, body-slamming, and nipping that keeps this system humming along, most visible when a new member is introduced into the herd. If you don’t want to be stepped on or worse, you will need to find a way to put yourself at the top of the heap. Since you can’t do this very effectively by kicking or nipping, you’ll have to think of another way.

It’s worth it to notice that few horses seem to get hurt in the melee that is herd behavior. Generally speaking, when a newcomer enters the herd, there is a period when there is discord as all horses figure out where in the group the new horse will land: Will he be dominant to all others, or to just a few? Often, all of these arrangements are established by grimace, fake attacks, ear pinning, and face wrinkling (people who think horses have no expression on their faces have never spent much time watching them!) , but after a few days, the herd is peaceful again, and everyone readjusts to the new order: each must give ground to the herd members of higher status, and each in turn gets to boss those of lower status.

It doesn’t matter that you are a human being, rather than a horse. Your horse only knows how to be a horse, so he will treat you as a fellow horse, attempting to establish dominance, in which case he will try to step on you, crowd you, hit you in the face with his tail, shoulder you aside, and perhaps nip or kick you. This doesn’t mean he doesn’t like you: dominance in the herd makes for a peaceful herd and an agreed-upon division of labor. It increases social cohesion and reduces conflict, once everyone accepts his position. It’s obviously important that you convince your horse that you are higher in the hierarchy than he is, or else you risk becoming the victim of all of the nasty behaviors listed above.