Much of of the world of horsemanship is a world of make believe.  Horse trainers, clinics, books, and the Internet generate these myths, repeat them, and work to make them true.  But repetition doesn’t change things.  Facts are stubborn.   Here are some of the things I learned when writing “Horse Science, Horse Sense”:

  • There is a movement promoting imprinting in foals. Early learning is a good thing. But a careful reading shows no evidence of filial imprinting of anything at any age in any mammal. Period. Human babies don’t imprint. Foals don’t imprint.
  • The most aggressive horses in a herd are not leaders, because they have no followers. Horses don’t like bullies, and horses of lower rank will be found grazing with each other, and choosing each other as friends.
  • A stallion is not the leader of a band of wild horses. In a herd, the greatest influence comes from the senior mares.
  • In fact, bands and herds of horses don’t have leaders. Horse leadership is done as it is done in schools of fish or flocks of birds — through collective decision making.
  • A horse’s flank is more sensitive to pain than your calf.
  • Horses don’t “move away from pressure”. A draft horse will happily pull a cart, leaning into its harness. Horses move away from discomfort and pain. This makes them no different than any other animal capable of movement.
  • Rewards and penalties are very different in how they shape learning. Very mild punishment seems quicker at changing behavior, and reward is better at maintaining behavior. For something like trailer loading, reward works much better than punishment. And if you’d like your horse to love you as a byproduct of your training, emphasize reward.
  • Carrots work far better than scratches or rubbing as a reward in training. The way to your horse’s heart is through his stomach, not his withers.
  • Patting a horse on the head or neck has no intrinsic meaning to him. Horses don’t pat each other, and rarely touch each other on head or neck.
  • Horses have no idea that they are “prey animals”. They band together because they feel comfort when near those they know, and insecure when they are alone. This makes them no different than goldfish or starlings.
  • Horses don’t respect humans. They are comfortable maintaining a very small personal space when with those they trust, and humans confuse this natural crowding with a lack of respect. Horses can be punished when they approach, but this doesn’t build a bond — it tears it down.
  • “Partnership” is rare in horse-human relations. Humans are willing to label relations as partnerships when their horse is docile and compliant.
  • “Fight or Flight” is only part of the story. “Freeze” should be added to that list of responses to danger.
  • “Horsenality™” is not different than the discredited proto-psychological theory of “four temperaments” or “four humors” from Greco-Roman medicine. Developed 2,500 years ago, it was discarded by psychologists 100 years ago.
  • Masturbation is not a stall vice. It occurs in horses everywhere — we just happen to see it in stalls. And it is not a vice. It is natural.
  • Predator odor does not frighten horses unless combined with another stimulus that affects fear.
  • A workout in which your horse sweats profusely may not leave him thirsty. A mouthful of electrolyte paste will help with rehydration, but only if he is willing to drink afterwords — otherwise it may leave him more dehydrated.
  • Dehydration cannot be assessed from mucous membrane dryness or the skin tent test. Latherin — that white foamy stuff — makes sweat more effective at cooling. Scraping or toweling a horse will not help it cool — it will remove his sweat before it has cooled him.
  • Horse saliva encourages grass to grow. Grass evolved to be grazed. Horses and grasses evolved together.
  • Fighting is more common in domestic horses than in feral horses.
  • A horse’s breathing is synchronized with his stride at a fast trot and faster gaits, but not at a walk or slow trot.
  • A horse must be lying on his side to dream. Dreaming is important, and a horse tied to a hitching post can’t benefit from it.
  • Your horse has a name that the other horses know. The name you gave him is not it.
  • Horses prefer to not be ridden.
  • A horse can find his way home through the operation of “place cells” in his brain, as well as by dead reckoning with a skylight compass.
  • Your horse will enjoy your company more if you are standing on his right side.
  • A horse with a clockwise facial hair whorl is likely to be left handed.
  • Whatever is learned in the round pen stays in the round pen. Efforts in the round pen do not change his behavior outside the round pen. Horses don’t like to be chased.
  • Stereotypies such as cribbing may be initially caused by stress, early separation of a foal from his mom, confinement, and perhaps genetics.
  • Breaking a horse breaks his spirit, teaching him that nothing he does can better his situation. This “learned helplessness” underlies the docility and “laziness” of lesson horses.
  • A horse does not need to see something with two eyes to see it. The large eyes of the horse do not make anything appear bigger. Horses don’t need to be taught good head position. And they don’t need to lower their head to see distant objects.
  • Horses are not color blind, but like bulls and most other animals, they don’t see red.
  • Your horse won’t hear you any better if you speak louder than a whisper.