An oft talked about idea in horsemanship is the interplay between predator and prey. Humans are predators trying to train a prey animal to work for us. This dynamic can cause all kinds of reactions in your horse that may lead to unsafe prey-based behaviors. That unsafe behavior can then cause a reaction in the human that plays out in aggressive predatory behavior.
As the horse tries to flee from the predator, due to misunderstanding, we humans can become quite upset that we are not getting the results that we desire. To correct this flighty animal, we become much more goal oriented. Many believe in using techniques that create further disengagement between horse and human. For example, chasing a horse with a swirling rope or a whip so that they run in circles at the end of a rope or in a round pen, heightens the adrenaline response in both the horse and the human.
When you get into state of adrenaline is when that flight, fight, or freeze mechanism kicks in. The adrenaline response is often talked about in the horse’s response to training. Yet, the same mechanism is triggered within the human. When a horse is not doing as we had hoped, we often become triggered. We see the instinct to fight in equestrians all the time. Fear arises and rather than run, we get strong, dominating, aggressive, or strict. The adrenaline response in horse and human feeds off one another and the situation escalates.
What if we approached the process of interacting with horses in a completely different way? What if we could avoid the entire adrenaline response and predator-prey interaction? What would it be like to have a horse who is calm, connected, and curious?
The extreme flightiness of our domestic horses isn’t natural. In the wild, if horses were triggered so easily, they would waste all of their resources fleeing and fighting. Horses do not bother to react to things in the wild that do not pose a real threat to the herd’s wellbeing.
Our domestic horses do not just react to predators – they jump out of their skin at deer in the woods, a flapping bag, the neighbor’s pig, a little bunny rabbit hopping in the grass… the list goes on and on. We think that we must desensitize or bomb proof our horses to stop their over-reactiveness. What that is really a sign of, is a horse who is living with quite a bit of stored trauma from their past handling. Some of it is imprinted by other domestic horses who are also living with trauma stored in their bodies.
The idea that a horse would have a hard time working with us because we are predators makes some sense on a surface level. However, if you look at healed, untraumatized horses, you will see that the idea doesn’t have very strong roots. I had a horse who was terrified of a donkey. A donkey certainly isn’t a threat or a predator. That is a horse who is showing the imbalance within her psyche due to past trauma.
Zebras have been observed in the wild fleeing from a lion who is hunting while not bothering to expend their energy to flee when a lion walks by who has just eaten. The zebras can sense the intention and energy of the predator that they live with. We know that horses can pick up on our intentions and emotions. The horse’s ability to read our energy and body language is what we rely on in Equine Facilitated Learning and Coaching. A mentally-emotionally balanced horse has no need to overreact to beings who are not a threat.
We also have to take a look at the human side of it. One of the main supporting arguments that we are predators is that our eyes face forward instead of being positioned on the sides of our head like prey. First of all, gorillas also have eyes that face forward and they live off of a vegetarian diet. I’m not convinced that our eye placement is enough to call us a true predator.
Think about your own experience. Do you ever walk out to be with your horses and get overwhelmed with an instinct to eat them? I certainly don’t. When I take my dog – a predator – to the park, she goes wild wanting to chase (and preferably kill) any and all small animals. I, for one, have never felt the need to chase a squirrel. Even humans who enjoy hunting have control over their prey drive. I have never heard of someone – even if they are hungry and on their way to dinner – feeling the need to pull their car over and chase after an animal that ran by.
We know that horses can sense intention in others. If you are not showing up with the intention to kill, harm, eat, or threaten your horse, then there is no reason for that to be part of your relationship. The reactiveness that we get from our horses has much more to do with the way that we are approaching our work with them.
We set up our training in a way that triggers the flight, fight, or freeze response – not because we are predators. We are creating a scenario that leads to an imbalanced relationship out of a desire to train the horse to do what we want. The environment, equipment, techniques, strategy, and attitude that we approach all of our training with triggers that adrenaline response. It is through that process that we are imprinting our horses to be more reactive.
When we learn how to approach the horse soulfully, we can start to build on a different hormone – oxytocin. Oxytocin is responsible for helping us to connect and feel safe. You can help to heal your horse of past traumas and become a being that they want to spend time with. Your horse will start to seek out your company when you learn how to stop driving them away and instead share space with them from a grounded, calm, loving energy.
Horses are wired for community and they have no problem inviting others into their herd – even those whose eyes face forward. The horse is much too intelligent to care about the label of predator. They can read your heart energy and know your desire to connect with them and share space together in loving energy.
When you have a different intention for being with your horse, you change the experience for both of you. The fear can be replaced with love. The separation and need to fight can be replaced with unity and a desire to embrace the other. Blaming inflamed reactions on a prey-predator dynamic is an excuse to sweep under the rug the damaging effect that our training methods have on the wellbeing of the animals in our care.