Can We Be Horses?

Many natural horsemanship training methodologies suggest the handler interacts with the horse as if he were, himself, a horse. This is typically said to involve body language, trying to mimic how the ‘alpha mare’ would interact with an insubordinate horse.

Recent research looks at the equine ethogram (a list of defined behaviours that horses display) to determine if it is possible for humans to interact with horses as other horses would, and if horses interact with humans as they would with horses. This article is based on the 2009 review article by McGreevy, Oddie, Burton, and McLean: The horse–human dyad: Can we align horse training and handling activities with the equid social ethogram? Published by The Veterinary Journal v 181, pp 12-18.


At first glance, it seems that many of the behaviours horses display towards each other in their social groups are also displayed towards humans and vice versa. Humans approach horses and touch them, with scratching around the withers being more relevant than patting or slapping. Humans move horses around with chasing pressure, and horses have been known to chase a human. Mutual grooming can be undertaken between a horse and a human. We push horses over in the tie stall, and horses sometimes push us. Leading a horse with no rein pressure looks similar to horses trekking together (traveling single file). Young horses can display snapping to humans. The list goes on, but the closer we get to the barn, the fewer the similarities become. By the time we are picking the horse’s feet and saddling up, the similarities are quickly vanishing.


The most well known natural horsemanship training technique, round penning, is an excellent example of the limitations of trying to behave like a horse, and of interpreting the horse’s responses as if they were responding to another horse. Studies have shown that the behaviours typically understood to demonstrate ‘respect’ in the round pen (licking lips, head lowering, approaching the human) are context-specific. That means they are only shown towards the human in the round pen training setting, not during other interactions. Studies have also demonstrated that the effects of round penning may be achieved with a remote-controlled car instead of a human, showing that negative reinforcement and not respect may be at the root of round pen behaviour. (Remember, negative reinforcement doesn’t mean bad, it means something–like pressure–is taken away to reinforce behaviour.)

Thinking about horse behaviour as if we are horses can also lead to us expecting the horse to know what we want, and describing them in terms of ‘willingness to please’. Both of these are dangerous ways of thinking, as they ascribe more mental capacity to the horse than it actually has, and the implications of these two assumptions lie in their opposites: if the horse doesn’t do as we wanted right away, we assume he is being wilfully naughty, doesn’t respect us, and perhaps even wants to spite us. These assumptions can lead to punitive training methods, lowering training uptake and reducing welfare.


Similarities exist between horse-horse interactions and human-horse interactions, but these become disjointed the closer the human gets to riding, and fall apart completely when the horse is mounted to be ridden. If the foundation of the horse’s training on the ground relies on attempting to be a herd member, there will be no training to rely on once the trainer wants to get on, as the horse cannot possibly see a rider as being a member of its herd—there are no longer any social analogues.

Basing training on learning theory, while still taking into account the horse’s behaviour, and learning to interpret behavioural signals accurately instead of trying to interpret them as a horse, seems to be a more logical and effective training strategy.

Do you want to learn how to interpret your horse’s behaviour more accurately to forward your training efforts? I’m launching a six week online course in January 2023 to teach just that. Submit the RSVP below to be first to know when registration opens in December.

3 thoughts on “Can We Be Horses?

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