How to Think Like a Horse: The Essential Handbook for Understanding Why Horses Do What They Do

How to Think Like a Horse: The Essential Handbook for Understanding Why Horses Do What They Do

by Cherry Hill

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In this fascinating best seller, Cherry Hill explores the way horses think and how it affects their behavior. Explaining why certain smells and sounds appeal to your horse’s sensibility and what sets off his sudden movements, Hill stresses how recognizing the thought processes behind your horse’s actions can help you communicate effectively and develop a trusting relationship based on mutual respect.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781603428026
Publisher: Storey Books
Publication date: 06/30/2011
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 192
Sales rank: 169,810
File size: 28 MB
Note: This product may take a few minutes to download.

About the Author

Cherry Hill is an internationally known instructor and horse trainer and has written numerous books, including 101 Arena Exercises for Horse & Rider, Horsekeeping on a Small Acreage, How to Think Like a Horse, What Every Horse Should Know, and Horse Care for Kids. Visit her at, where you can find information on her books, DVDs, and horsekeeping knowledge.

Read an Excerpt


Becoming the Horse

When most of us look at a horse, we can easily see his beauty and admire his nobility. It's when we start interacting with him that things can go wrong. That's because we tend to view horses in human terms.

When a horse runs away from us, bucks, or bites, for example, we are likely to interpret what we think happened rather than observing and reporting specific objective facts. A human interpretation might be "That horse doesn't like me, is misbehaving, or is mean." Once a person comes to understand horses, however, such natural behaviors are seen for just what they are and actually become less frequent. The reason is that the better you understand horses, the less often conflict will arise.

Do horses think? Well, that depends on the definition. If thinking is using the mind to process information received from the senses, then of course horses think. But do they reason? If reasoning is using logic to come to a conclusion, then horses generally do not reason. Instead, they observe, react (often very quickly), and think later.

Why Think Like a Horse?

There are probably as many answers to that question as there are horsemen, and most people would cite a blend of many reasons. Here are some of the most common answers.

* To understand the world from the horse's viewpoint.

* To make a horse feel as relaxed around you as if he were with another horse.

* To communicate with a horse in terms he can understand in order to persuade him to do what you ask. Horses are very willing, cooperative animals, so if what you ask is fair and possible and the horse understands you and is relaxed, you will have a better chance for success.

* To be safe. Accidents are often a result of a misunderstanding. The more you can think like a horse, the less likely a horse will be to panic or have an explosive reaction.

* To have a satisfying, smooth experience. When things are going wrong between a horse and a human, everything is awkward and out of sync. When things are going right, it is like a dance with perfect timing and grace.

* To minimize stress. A little bit of stress is good — as our moms told us, it builds strong character. But let's face it: both you and your horse would rather have your relationship be low stress, comfortable, and harmonious. If you are both on the same wavelength, it can be. When practicing tai chi, two of the goals are learning to recognize when your hackles are up and developing a means to smooth them down. So it goes with handling horses. We need to identify when we are part of the problem and then learn how to become part of the solution.

* To achieve goals. The more you can think like a horse, the more you will be able to communicate like a horse, and the faster you and he will progress. Most often with horses, I feel that the slower you go, the faster you'll get there.

* To help a horse become solid and confident. The more you work with his natural behavior and instincts, the more thorough and long lasting the results will be.

* To have a win-win situation. For you to succeed, it is not necessary for the horse to lose. You can both develop as you work together and emerge as winning individuals and a winning team.

* To add to the horse, not take away from him. It is not necessary to break a horse into fragments; rather, if you know horses, you will be able to add to the horse and help him develop to his full potential.

* To help you get in touch with your animal sense and become a better person. Working with animals can bring great rewards on many levels — physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual. You can become more compassionate, more physically fit, and more observant.

But the best reason of all for you to become part horse and think like a horse is that your actions will help preserve your horse's spirit. After all, that is what attracted us to horses in the first place.

A horse's stress-tolerance level is the point at which he can no longer absorb stress (noise, exercise, or trauma). This results in a failure to think or process stimuli clearly.

Instinct is inborn, intrinsic knowledge and behavior.

What a Horse Needs

If you know what horses like, want, and need, and what they dislike, don't want, and do not need, you will be more able to think like a horse. I'll start with a brief overview, because all of these topics will be discussed in more detail later in the book.

Am I talking about wild or domestic horses? Although most of the horses we handle today are born into domestication, wild horse instincts still form the basis for their behavior. Domestic horses have the same needs, fears, and innate patterns as their wild ancestors did, and their physical makeup hasn't changed much in the last several million years.

A horse's list of needs and wants might be ranked something like this:

1. 1. Self-preservation — avoiding being injured or eaten by a predator

2. 2. Eating and drinking for survival

3. 3. Procreation

4. 4. Socialization and routines

Much equine behavior stems from instincts developed over millions of years of living in a nomadic herd.


As a prey animal, the horse has survived by being wary of predators, which include the dog and cat families and humans. That's why horses are alert, wary, and suspicious, have a highly developed flight reflex, and will fight when threatened.

They don't like to be chased or cornered. They are social creatures that find safety in numbers. They have learned where to go and where not to go; which sights, sounds, and smells mean danger; where food and water are; and how to escape when danger is imminent. Although man is the ultimate predator (don't get me started), horses can learn to overcome their strong instincts of self-preservation and trust us.

Wild horses seek shelter from weather extremes and insects. While domestic horses should be provided with a safe, comfortable place to live, they do not want or need to be locked in a stall at the first raindrop or snowflake. Often, horses choose to stand out in the open rather than in the confines of a stall or pen.

Many of the subjects later in this book, such as a horse's senses, reflexes, and behavior patterns, will tie in with the survival imperative of self-preservation.

The Need for Feed

Don't kid yourself. Sure, your horse loves you, but when it comes right down to it, eating is much more important than being petted. In the wild, horses eat for 12 to 16 hours every day, ingesting the dry equivalent of 25 to 30 pounds of natural feed each day. (For purposes of discussion, natural feed is native pasture or grass hay.) But wild horses are constantly on the move. If allowed, domestic horses would eat 16 hours a day, too, but they do not need that much. Without feeding management, domestic horses would eat themselves sick, especially if what they are eating includes grain or alfalfa hay.

You can limit their intake, yet horses still have a strong urge to chew for many hours of the day. This need to chew can be satiated by feeding long-stem hay. I usually have four or more types of hay in my barn. One of them is "busy hay," which is mature grass hay, high in roughage and low in protein and energy. It comes in handy to use as the "satisfier" part of the ration. If adequate roughage is not supplied, horses may eat bedding or chew wood or the manes and tails of other horses.

I recommend feeding grass hay at least three times a day at the rate of 1.5 to 1.75 percent of the horse's body weight per day. For a 1,000-pound horse, that would be 15 to 17.5 pounds of hay per day, divided into three or more feedings. If a mixed-grass pasture is available, you can substitute pasture for some of the hay, as long as grazing is monitored carefully. Avoid alfalfa, and feed grain only if required for growth, breeding, or hard work. I feed very little grain, even to weanlings and yearlings.

Healthy Grazing

Grazing management of domestic horses is a delicate balancing act among what a horse wants, what he needs, and what is best for the land. (See Horsekeeping on a Small Acreage, second edition, for detailed recommendations on both horse and pasture management.)

If we were to let our horses graze free choice, in many cases it would result in overgrazed land and overweight horses. It is necessary to monitor pasture growth and manage grazing to fit the carrying capacity of the land and the nutritional needs and health of the horse.

Horses do well on native pastures and lower-quality improved pastures, but rich pastures and alfalfa fields can lead to obesity, colic, and laminitis. We might be surprised when horses eagerly eat certain non-grassy weeds, such as fuzzy dandelion and prickly thistle. They tend to avoid poisonous plants unless there is nothing else to eat and they are hungry. A horse's inherent wisdom and keen senses of smell and taste usually help him discriminate between what is healthy and what is not.

Clean, Accessible Water

Horses drink 5 to 10 gallons of water a day — more in summer, often less in winter. They seek water about an hour after ingesting the majority of their roughage.

Horses do not need heated water and generally prefer cool water to warm water. During winters with freezing temperatures, most horses do well drinking cold water but they often need our help breaking and removing ice on creeks, ponds, troughs, or buckets.

Alternatively, freeze-proof buckets and tank heaters can be used as long as they are carefully monitored for excess heat or electrical shorts. I provide free access to clean, fresh, naturally aerated water, such as from a spring or creek, or freshly drawn water in a bucket or tub.

Essential Salt and Minerals

Depending on the season, activity level, and individual metabolism, horses require salt and minerals in order to replenish electrolytes.

Wild horses find natural salt and mineral deposits and sometimes eat soil along with them. For domestic horses, it is best to provide blocks of free-choice plain white salt (sodium chloride), trace mineral salt (red), and possibly calcium and phosphorus supplementation. That way, a horse can select whichever he wants.

Avoid blocks with a high molasses content. Some horses will eat them in a matter of days, thereby ingesting too much salt.


Wild horses have a strong drive to perpetuate the species: you might argue that it is the reason for their existence. Although domestic horses still have those sexual urges and behaviors, they are usually not free to breed. I will not go into breeding behaviors in this book (see Recommended Reading), but I will discuss the role of the sexes in herds and the sexual characteristics as they relate to keeping and handling domestic horses.

Socialization and Routines

Horses gather in herds for protection and socialization. There is perceived and real safety in numbers. When possible, keep horses in herds or in bands on pasture. If this is not possible, design facilities so horses are near other horses or can see or hear other horses. Other animals or people can also provide companionship.

Horses are most content when they are allowed to perform their daily routines. Since they evolved as wanderers, roaming as they ate and drank and looked for shelter and safety, horses crave movement and need to mosey around and get regular low-level exercise. When a horse is confined, unable to exercise or flee from danger, he is not content and can panic. Domestic horses require daily exercise and living quarters that are safe and non-threatening.

Since horses are creatures of habit, they prefer to eat, drink, rest, and perform other regular activities at particular times. This ensures digestive health and mental contentment. (See Routines, chapter 5, for more information.)

What Horses Don't Like

Horses have a long list of things that they don't like. Most of them disrupt their eating or safety.

* Horses do not like to be afraid. If a horse feels threatened or cannot resolve a confusing situation, he will grow fearful and will be likely to panic.

* Horses do not like physical pain, yet it is surprising how they often tolerate it. When a bit is yanked or a saddle doesn't fit, it is no wonder that a horse might try to rid himself of it; yet many endure pain inflicted by inexperienced or ignorant humans.

* Horses do not like inconsistency. They are more content knowing what is expected of them and knowing that if they behave a certain way, the reaction from the human will be the same each time. It is confusing and frustrating for a horse to be treated one way today and a different way tomorrow for the same behavior.

* Horses don't like surprises, although they can learn to become more tolerant of them. Loud noises, such as backfire, gunshot, or dynamite; mysterious sounds, such as rustling plastic; and sudden movements, such as an umbrella being opened alongside the horse, elicit the startle response, which can turn into a full-fledged spook.

* Horses don't like restraint and restriction, because these take away their ability to flee, but they can learn to tolerate and not fear this. When you tie or cinch a horse or confine him in a stall or trailer, you are restraining him.

* Horses don't like isolation. Since they are naturally gregarious, they don't enjoy being alone, although, once again, they can adapt to it.

* Horses do not like being chased, because they are prey animals, and dogs, large cats, and humans are all predators. That's why if you are trying to catch a horse and he turns and starts walking away from you and you keep walking after him, you are confirming, in his mind, that you are a predator stalking its prey.

Humans and Horses

In general, humans tend to want to dominate things physically. It makes more sense, however, to use our minds, our most powerful tools, to help us become better leaders. Horses naturally follow good leaders. They can also be good mirrors of their humans. A horse's behavior and actions often indicate whether the person handling him is passive, assertive, or aggressive.

A passive horse trainer lets a horse choose what is happening. In the very first interaction between a person and a new, untrained horse, this has some merit, because it helps the horse feel less threatened. If the trainer remains passive as things progress, however, the horse will not respect the trainer and may come to distrust her. A passive person is not well defined, and horses like to know where things stand.

An assertive horse trainer is straightforward and confident and lets a horse know where she stands. If an assertive trainer is fair, consistent, and reassuring, a horse quickly learns to respect and trust her.

An aggressive horse trainer often wants to win at all costs. Since she tends to feel superior in general, an aggressive trainer views her rights and needs as more important than those of the horse. Because the end goal is often the highest priority with an aggressive trainer, she sometimes hurries and uses force instead of tact.

Human Characteristics

If you understand human behavior, you'll have a better chance of getting along with horses. Some human characteristics dovetail well with horse behaviors, and others are diametrically opposed. Where do you fit?

Horses are very large and potentially dangerous animals, and people react to them in various ways. Since it's human nature to dominate other people and animals, an aggressive attitude can surface when we work with horses. Some people who are not normally aggressive become so because they are actually afraid of horses and shift into a defensive mode. Men who are new to horses often seem to feel that they must prove they can control the beast, especially if someone else is watching. A contest of force develops: "I am going to load this horse into this trailer, no matter what!" Ego, male hormones, and fear — a bad mix.

Sadly, there are also some horse owners who don't respect their animals and take advantage of their generous natures, treating them unfairly or cruelly. Since those people are unlikely to be reading this book, I won't spend time discussing that type of relationship except to caution you: You will see a lot of horse handling and training that is pretty crude and insensitive, but it might be disguised with euphemisms that make it sound as though it is good horsemanship. Beware!

To avoid dangerous conflicts, recognize that you have an ego and determine whether it is of a healthy size. If it tends to puff up, figure out a way to park it somewhere before you head to the barn, or better yet, give it a tune-up or major overhaul. Pride in a job well done is appropriate, however, especially when it concerns horse care and training. That is the sign of a healthy ego.

Modern humans are on a time schedule — we want results and we want them now! We want to know what we have to buy or do to make our horse perfect. In reality, it just doesn't happen like that. The more you give yourself to the horse, the more you will receive in return.


Excerpted from "How To Think Like A Horse"
by .
Copyright © 2006 Cherry Hill.
Excerpted by permission of Storey Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Chapter 1: Becoming The Horse
Why Think Like a Horse? * What a Horse Needs * What Horses Don't Like * Humans and Horses * How to Become Part Horse

Chapter 2: The Horse's Senses
Vision * Hearing * Smell and Taste * Touch * Reflexes * Proprioceptive Sense

Chapter 3: The Physical Horse
Seasonal Changes * Digestive System * Skeletal System * Hoof Growth

Chapter 4: The Nature of the Horse
Bonding * Pecking Order * The Battle of the Sexes * Horse Play * Curiosity or the Investigative Behavior * The Nomadic Lifestyle

Chapter 5: Routines
The Horse's Biological Clock * Shelter * Self-Preservation

Chapter 6: Good Behavior, "Bad" Behavior
The Spirit of the Horse * Temperament and Attitude * Natural Horsekeeping * Domestication Pressures

Chapter 7: Horse Timelines
Life-Stage Characteristics * Development Timelines

Chapter 8: Communication
Reading a Horse's Body Language * The Subtleties * Vocal Language * How to Communicate with Your Horse * Voice Commands

Chapter 9: Learning
The Brain * Mental Processes * Learning Principles * Behavior Modification * Behavior Modification Techniques * Repetition * Shaping

Chapter 10: Training
Training Philosophy * Training Goals * Physical Development * Content of a Training Session * A Typical Training Session

Recommended Reading

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