Horses and the Predator/Prey Mythology

By Terry Golson


We’ve all heard Horses are prey animals. It’s followed up by the statement: We’re predators. This is then used to justify certain training techniques.

It’s claimed that since horses are naturally afraid of us, that we have to train them differently than we do, say our dogs.

I don’t agree.

Because of the uniqueness of each species and because of how we live with them, we do interact with these animals in different ways. I don’t ride my dog. My horse doesn’t sit under my desk as I write this. Horses don’t enjoy chasing tossed pieces of kibble. Horses do want to peacefully chew on forage for three-quarters of the day.

There are similarities. When frightened, both dogs and horses run from a threat. Dogs with tails between their legs, horses with tails streaming behind them. When cornered, both animals bite. Horses, though, also have the ability to rear up and strike.

The cornerstone of much of the work that I see being done in round pens and in “desensitizing” (chasing with sticks and bags, throwing tarps on a horse, tying them up so that they can’t move) is based on this theory that horses see humans as predators, and that that position of dominance should be used to the trainer’s advantage.  Some trainers even use body language that imitates a carnivore stalking dinner. When a horse sees that, they’re  justifiably afraid. Eventually, most horses give in – although some don’t. I have clients with horses who became aggressive because of such treatment. Remember, when cornered, a horse will bite. Training that is based on fear always has unwanted consequences.

Besides that, I don’t believe that the underlying assumption that horses see us as predators is true.

Horses are perfectly capable of distinguishing between an animal that is going to eat them and a friend – even when that friend is a carnivore. How many of us have dogs in our barns? How many of us laugh at the affectionate relationship that dogs and horses have? And yet when a coyote slips through the fence, all horses go on alert. Barn cats curl up on a favored horse’s back. But those who ride in mountain lion territory know how differently a horse responds to the scent of one of those big felines.

Horses learn to identify danger from the elders in their herd and from experience. They’re not born terrified of humans. They’re wary of anything new, which is smart. But if all of their interactions with people are good ones, they’ll trust us. They do not see us as predators. Not unless we give them reason to.

What horses do have is an innate need for friendship and cooperation within their herd. They’ll include you in their group if you’re a calm, consistent, and predictable presence. Use that body language from the first interaction and even a horse that has had bad experiences with humans will respond like this.

 

This is my first meeting with this horse who has been through a lot. He certainly wasn’t thinking about the predator/prey dynamic.

This isn’t just true with humans and horses. There are many examples of prey animals that are friends with predator species. There’s my entire flock of backyard hens, who see me as the source of all good things, not as a someone who wants to eat them. I just came across this video of a rhino (they’re big, but they’re herbivores) asking a wildlife photographer for a scratch. Do you  have a story of an interspecies relationship? Tell me in the comments!


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17 thoughts on “Horses and the Predator/Prey Mythology

  • sally

    Thank you for this and for working to set the relationships towards positive communication. I am so tired of the “natural horseman” people with all their pressure to MAKE the horse listen. We need to listen and learn. It’s really so simple.

  • misspicasso

    I cannot believe people would treat horses that way and call it training!! My dog and hen have a funny relationship, where the hen takes charge over the dog and lashes out at her if she gets to close! My dog knows to respect her, but she’s friends with the other chickens 🙂 Great post as always!!

  • Chicken Carol

    I have often wondered how my hens developed the instinct to know what is potentially dangerous or not. They give off the alarm call if there is a cat in the garden but totally ignore the squirrels that run up the side and over the roof of the run. They totally ignore the visiting pheasant to our garden despite being bantams and much smaller than the pheasant but they sound the alarm call when see or hear birds of prey overhead. They are completely safe in their run, I might add. But how do they know the difference between pheasant and red kite or buzzard. The instinct must be born in them I think. They are also wary of strangers but of course all over me as the bringer of only good things.

    • Terry Golson Post author

      Only a small portion of fear behavior is innate. Almost all of our behavior is driven by consequences. I’ve recently read a book about the intelligence of fish, and even they learn from experience and from each other. This is where having animals of mixed ages is a good idea. The young really do learn from their elders.

  • Gin

    I had a friend who once had a rooster that would sit on one of her horses back while it grazed in the pasture. That wasn’t a predator and prey sort of thing, but kind of cute.

  • Jan

    That poor horse certainly looks like he needs a friend, hope you can help him. The way some horses and animals are trained is barbaric, hopefully your site will travel the world and get many followers and change peoples views on the relationship with there animals. My Hens know the difference between our cat Missy and the neighbours cats. The girls roam over half of our garden and Missy will quite often lay in a sunny spot in there run and the girls will come and lay with her, but if a neighbours cat even comes into any part of our garden the alarm calls start and continue getting louder and more vocal until we go and investigate and scare the intruder away…:)

  • Kim Perkins

    My barn has a pot-bellied pig that stays in the barn with the horses and free ranges during the day. He doesn’t really interact with the horses except when they are in a round pen for a short turn out. He likes to lift the gate panel with his snout while the horse is trying to sniff him. The horses don’t seem to mind a bit. Archie’s only vice is stealing horse blankets to line his bed!

      • Kim

        Archie the pig is quite the character! He has never dug any holes in the indoor or paddocks. He knows the best spots for acorns and apples. He does like to root around in the stall bedding when the horses are out. The rule is that when you are done brushing your horse, Archie gets brushed too. He loves the attention!

  • Brian donnelly

    I agree completely. having calm consistent prescence makes all the difference in everything we do in life.constantly maintaining ones peace takes practice and is a chosen way of life. I don’t think horses think humans are all predators. In order to ride the range you have to become the person your horse can count on and then they become the horse you can count on and nobody can do it for you.thats just the way it is.you can go to a zillion expensive training seminars and that will never change what you really have to do.