Dr. Robert Miller is a veterinarian in Thousand Oaks, California, and has written several books on the psychology of horses. He talked about the subject at the 2009 AAEP convention; speed is the horses’ principle physical characteristic that has helped them survive for thousands of years. When you add this speed with the behavioral characteristic of flight, this is a great asset but it can also be a problem. Many of the injuries that occur in horses are due to being frightened, and once one horse gets frightened and starts running, the entire herd will run. Thus when working with horses, the less they are frightened they are, the less innate behavioral response will occur.
Humans produce pheromones like many other species and Dr. Miller believes horses can sense these chemicals on people that approach them. Any nervousness or anger by the handler, even if concealed, can be felt by the horse and make it more difficult to work with the horse. Remaining calm when approaching a horse is critical to successful horse handling. Horses can be desensitized to various stimuli but this takes time and should be accomplished when the horse is confined. An example of this is sacking out a new horse by the trainer. This is a technique in which the trainer ties up the horse and starts stroking him with a sack and once he gets use to the sack, the trainer is more aggressive with the sack by waving it around and desensitizing the horse to fear of moving objects. The fear response ceases and moving objects will illicit less fright from the horse. Be sure and join us next time for more on horse psychology.
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