Ask a Horse: Behavior and Instinct

After our conversation about whether animals can be “jerks,” I became curious about just how much animals can control their behavior. Are they completely at the mercy of their instincts? How come some animals seem to be able to breathe and respond if startled, where as others go from 0 to spook in no time flat? How does the subject of instinct and reaction play into training, and where does emotional trauma (baggage) fit in? I followed up with Fiona for a very fascinating conversation.

AMBER: Can you speak more about instinct, and how that plays into trauma, horse training, and animal behavior?

FIONA: Instinct for animals is like programming in a computer. We have to abide by it once it is activated and no, we do not have conscious control over our behavior at that time unless the instinct is very subtle. The degree to which that instinct is activated, meaning how quickly that takes over and what sort of threshold the animal has before that happens, is personal to the individual. The species and breed of the animal also play a roll. With humans around, instincts are muddled because human value system is superseded over the instinct. You will notice this more in your household pets than horses, for the reasons mentioned before. Though certain instinctual reactions cannot be undone, the behavior associated with the instinct has a small window of opportunity for reprogramming. The size of that window is the threshold to which I refer above. That window also depends on the strength of the instinct and whether it’s a survival mechanism or a less-immediate concern.

Trauma almost always activates instinct (and therefore lack of control over behavior) because it is a survival matter. The threshold for change in such instances is so small as to be inconsequential except in extremely difficult circumstances where a new survival threat overrides the prior issue. Unfortunately, this does not cure the trauma. In fact, most animals, horses included, do not truly work through their trauma as their humans might imagine when they are training them; the animal just has its behavior and instinct overridden so many times that they enter a helpless and mentally comatose state to tolerate the activity. A surprising number of riding horses go around like this much of the time.

AMBER: I’m looking at you, rollkur. Actually, I know I encounter this in many places, so it’s not just one sport or discipline.

FIONA: Unfortunately, no. Such diminished capacity is represented across all breeds and disciplines. Some are worse than others. Any time reputation is on the line, the horse tends to be the sacrifice to the trainer’s incapacity.

Horses cannot overcome past traumas on their own. They can only continue to learn and add to their repertoire of experience. That is what a prey animal does; we must hold onto the threat and remember it because the lion won’t give us a second chance to evaluate whether or not he wants his dinner. This is why I call trauma instinctual memory. Now, horses cannot think their way out of traumatic experiences or understand the difference in circumstances between then and now in the form of risk assessment. Certainly, there are different capacities for trauma and how it activates instincts. Temperament, age, and intelligence have a big impact, and some horses simply have a higher instinctual threshold than others. Highly reactive animals have low thresholds for trauma as well as all other instinctual urges. Lower reactivity means the animal is less likely to enter that instinctual state, and the traumas they receive are usually less pronounced than their high-reactivity counterparts. Curiosity is a good indicator of threshold level. Curious horses tend to learn more easily, and have slightly more ability to learn and make behavioral choices than their non-curious friends. They have higher thresholds because there is room for exploration before instinct kicks in, and the more positive experiences they have from this exploration, the larger that window becomes. You can see evidence of this across different breeds of horses and different personality types.

Now, that reactivity level makes a lot of difference in how the horse perceives life and copes with trauma. Horses with little or no reactivity could think their way clear of past traumas, but not like humans do. Not through analytical thought. Such horses can look at the reactions of those around them for instinctual cues instead of relying only on their own. However, they cannot truly take themselves out of the traumatic circumstance/stimuli to analyze and introspect like humans can. You see, a herd needs both types: those who instinctually react without a thought, and those who take a more measured approach and gain the feedback of other herd members before taking flight (or not). Consider which horse would serve you best with your personality. The former are more likely to defer to any authority, but will be more reactive in life (some moreso than others). The latter can become more steadfast and follow through when the chips are down, but their trust has to be earned and they will happily take over if they find you too reactive or doubt your judgement. They are leaders in their own right and do not give up their authority without deep trust.

For the record, I am highly curious and intelligent.

AMBER: Yes, you are. A true lead mare. It’s a mixed blessing though if you are not in the right hands. Many people look for the first type because they are less complicated; if the horse is quiet by nature so the reactions are consistent and straightforward, they are great ammy horses because they listen well. Horses of that lower threshold type who are hotter are fine for experienced riders and those who prefer more sensitive animals, but may be too reactive to be effective partners in sport. The latter type, if quiet, tend to outsmart most riders and need a confident partner, but they can become awesome schoolmasters or even packers if they know and enjoy the job (because they might do it despite you!). Intelligent, high-threshold (low reactivity) horses can be the best performers of all, but are usually “professional rides!” 

FIONA: But back to your question about instinct and control over behavior. Predators in general have more space between stimulus and reaction than prey species because they have some intellectual capacity to examine the situation. Not the way humans do, of course, because no animal thinks in quite the same way a person might. Still, predators have more ability to view circumstances and surroundings for clues. Because predators have far greater thresholds of instinct, they have more ability to change their behavior. However, much of their willingness and desire to do so depends on the species and breed, and this genetic component factors into that threshold. It is the nature of the dog to want to please, though not so much the cat. The cat is a solo hunter and has no need to please, in nature. The dog is a pack animal with a complex social structure, and the need to please is hardwired-in. Your training results with all animals reflect this instinct and associated instinctual thresholds.

Horses have some desire to please because they a herd members. They look to the animals around them for support and security, but not because they particularly want your approval. They are more like cats than dogs in this way, even though many of you assume the horse has a desperate desire to please. Indeed, much of this is a misinterpreted desperation to survive, as many horses believe their circumstances and handling with humans is a threat to their survival. Consequently, they are anxious to the point of desperation to please so that they may simply stay alive. It’s a sobering fact, but it should help you identify the qualities your own horse might possess. However, the horse’s need to please you to survive cannot override actual survival threats (or perceived threats) unless the pleasing behavior is to avoid a more present survival risk. This is why many people find that their horse suddenly will not do what they ask when he or she perceives a threat in the environment, like a “deadly” trailer or unsafe bridge crossing. The owner may beat the horse into overriding its survival instinct, because the reality the horses faces  (which is a belief that he or she will be beaten to death) is a more immediate threat to his or her survival.

However, you should be aware that if the horse requires this sort of treatment to proceed, the relationship has never reached a point of trust and leadership; it is only based on fear and domination. That said, even true relationships of equality and trust will have moments of balking or refusal like this because the horse may sense something that you do not. The difference is largely based on the quality of the relationship. A horse who fears all humans is unlikely to want to go into any trailer simply because humans are asking and trailers are outside the better judgement of the horse. A horse who has a very trusting relationship will follow your guidance about getting in the trailer, but may balk when she senses something untoward about the device. In the latter instance, the rider may wish to defer to the horse, for our survival senses are much sharper than yours. There is much to be learned from each other for both of our species. You teach us many things, but we also have some wisdom for you.

AMBER: I agree! It’s hard as a human to gauge when the horse truly senses something that should be of concern, and when it’s more of a general distrust for all things, especially with an unfamiliar animal. It seems real to the horse in both cases, in my experience.

FIONA: It is real to the horse in both instances. The difference is that one circumstance is because of human interaction, and the other is despite it. “Because this human wants me to do this, I don’t trust it.” Versus, “I don’t trust this despite my human wanting me to do this.” If you have a very good relationship, you may convince the horse in the latter instance. The amount that the horse looks to you for guidance and trusts your leadership will determine how much of your request will be honored. If the horse trusts you and knows he can depend on you not to lead him astray, his threshold will be lower because of the safety of your presence, and he may take your input and behavior into account with his behavioral reaction to the threat. Even then, he may still get spooked from time to time, because that is the nature of the horse: to protect horse and self by fleeing from danger.

AMBER: Thank you for the explanation, Fiona. Once again, your words suggest that building a foundation of trust and grounded leadership is vital to training. We can use this understanding of instinct to bring greater fairness to our training practices, so that we are not asking our horses to do the impossible by ignoring their instincts. By understanding for how horses react and behave, we can adjust our training methods to work with the natural character of the horse instead of against it.

Have you ever wanted to ask a horse how they feel about a particular subject? Now’s your chance! Hear about horse-keeping and equestrian subjects straight from the horse’s mouth. These segments are conducted interview-style between Amber and equine advice extraordinaire Fiona, or a guest horse. Have a question or a topic you’d like to know about? Leave a comment here or on Facebook or Twitter with under #askahorse.

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