Can Horses Read Our Minds?

I love reading books about equine nature. It’s fascinating—and horsemanship-boosting—to learn why horses behave as they do, and how that behavior evolved.

Credit: The more you know about your horse’s inborn nature and how it came to be, the better you can understand and predict his behavior.

One of the best books on this topic is The Nature of Horses, by Stephen Budiansky. The author, an award-winning history and science writer, is also a horse enthusiast who lives on a small farm in Loudoun County, Virginia.

Among the many interesting points he makes in his book is one about horses’ remarkable “bluffing” ability. They’re terrific at hinting to each other about what they’re considering doing. This ability evolved from the need to create a well-organized pecking order within a herd. The pecking-order system allows horses to work out social problems while minimizing actual violence.

Once a hierarchy is established, a herd member rarely needs to actually kick or bite. A “mean look” (flattened ears, lowered head) or raised leg usually suffices to ward off an intrusion and reestablish personal space.

These signals aren’t always obvious, however. Sometimes they’re so subtle as to be barely perceptible to us humans. That’s why a horse’s sudden defensive move (jumping to the side, say) can catch us off guard if we’re not paying close attention. Horses, by contrast, are so skilled at picking up subtle body-language signals—from humans as well as other horses—that it almost seems as if they can read our minds.

I’ve certainly experienced that with my horses.

“It is hardly surprising,” writes Budiansky, “that an animal whose entire socioecology is based on an ability to read subtle social cues can pick up on the hesitations, uncertainty, and lack of self-assurance of one rider, and the confidence and resolution of another.”

So remember this when you’re riding or working around your horse. Make sure your own mindset and body language aren’t sending “signals” you’re not even aware of—because your horse will surely pick up on them.

(Read more about science in horse training and interpreting your horse’s body language.)

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