The Odd Couple: Horses as Prey and Humans as Predators

Gus and SaddleAt Bar T Horsemanship, we’ve started over 30 feral horses, or mustangs. Having worked with so many undomesticated horses has given us a very unique perspective on horses as prey animals, in their purest form. We’ve all heard them referred to as prey animals before, but do we really have an understanding of what that means and how we can work together?

The Prey

Did you know that horses’ minds and bodies are constructed in a way that aides in their survival as prey animals? Take for example their eyes. Horses have monocular vision, which means that each eye is independent from the other. This allows the horse to see nearly 360 degrees, save the areas directly in front of them and directly behind them. Such a vast field of vision allows the horse to keep an eye out for those pesky predators. And those perky ears that can swivel independently? Better to hone in on the sounds of the lions and tigers and bears (oh my!) lurking in the shadows.

It’s all about survival for the horse, and their instincts are no exception. We’ve all heard the term “fight or flight” and know from experience that a horse’s first instinct is to get out of dodge the moment he encounters anything remotely scary. Flight will always be the first instinct of a horse; he won’t try to fight unless he feels like he has no other option, i.e. if he’s cornered in a confined space and feels as if his life depends on it.

If you’ll notice, horses are naturally curious animals. However, their approach differs from that of a predator’s—a predator will approach something that piques his interest directly; conversely, a horse will approach in a roundabout fashion so he can gather as much information about the particular object before he feels like he puts himself in danger. You’ll notice a horse stick out his nose to stiff, maybe tilt his head to the side a little to eyeball and will sometimes circle the object to take in the information from a few angles.

The Predator

Contrary to the horse, we humans are predators and, as a general rule, operate completely opposite from the horse with our bodies and our minds. Take our vision, for example. We have binocular vision, which means that we can use both eyes at once and see best out in front of us. This enables us to focus in on fast-moving objects…potential prey.

We also think first, act later. Predators, as a rule, take time to devise a plan before carrying out any action. Think about a lion stealthy lying in the tall Sahara grass watching a herd of gazelle take turns at a watering hole. The lion will methodically take his time and wait for the perfect moment to strike. Compare this to the reactionary act first, think later flight instinct of the horse or, in this case, the gazelle.

Also keep in mind that direct approach we discussed earlier. As predators, it’s our instinct to walk right up to an object to get whatever it is we want. This can be immensely intimidating for our equine counterparts.

Level the Playing Field

Indeed the relationship between the horse and the human is quite counter-intuitive, but we all know it can work successfully. The secret is to tone down your predatory tendencies.

If we act as a predator around our horses, they’ll naturally perceive us as a threat. Take for example our first lessons with our mustangs, which occur in a fifty-foot round pen that has a six-foot fence. If we try to approach these wild horses directly with no previous contact, you can bet your bottom dollar that the horses will fly around that round pen at the speed of light every single time without fail. However, if we adapt our approach and turn ourselves on to their way of thinking, it’s the beginning of a beautiful relationship. For example, we’ll be passive with our approach and allow the horses to get curious about the new, two-legged creature in front of them.

The key to capitalizing on the predator/prey relationship is to make your horse feel safe, comfortable and introduce him to the world of thinking before reacting. At Bar T Horsemanship, we achieve this by laying a strong foundation of groundwork with our horses and encouraging them to be curious.

Keep yourself mindful of this delicate relationship during your training and you’re sure to find success.

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