Feature Article

Becoming A Horseman: Equine Ethology

By David Stuart

Dave Stuart
Dave Stuart training a foalĀ 

Photo courtesy of National Equine Ethology Centre

Equine ethology was born of a desire to help man in order to help the horse. This quest did not however require the invention of a new scientific field or the creation of a new discipline. It is simply a re-discovery of knowledge and experience accumulated over centuries and adapted to modern circumstances. The survival and evolution of the horse have depended on its ability to defend itself against predators. The gap between predator and prey still exists, and any relationship between man and horse is not natural and therefore must be presented to the horse in a way which he can understand and which makes sense to him. Once this understanding has been established, everything becomes simple and possible, and may be summed up as follows:

Horses teach people, so that people are then able to teach horses.

Whatever our equestrian field, and whatever our aims and motives, we are all searching for the same thing - that elusive harmony between man and horse which comes from a deeper understanding. Communication is subtle, mutual respect and trust find the perfect balance. The connection between man and horse is not only physical but mental and emotional. This quest for harmony is not easy, it requires considerable personal investment with moments of deep satisfaction (thank goodness) but also others of profound frustration. Rest assured determination and perseverance and a willingness to listen and learn will always bring success. This is the road to becoming a horseman.

This search must begin by understanding the horse and its behaviour. Being able to interpret its actions and reactions enables us to understand how it behaves. It is essential to bear in mind (and adapt ones behaviour accordingly) that everything a horse does is dictated by its nature. Many good riders or trainers still do not know why horses behave in certain ways. Understanding its behaviour automatically improves the relationship between man and horse and is the fundamental basis of the bond which will develop between them. The horse will react positively to the rider's commands, which in turn will engender confidence, a precise understanding of what is being asked of him, and respect for what he is being asked to do. The end of misunderstanding between the two gives rise to positive behaviour, and this is how the horse will begin to act in harmony with his rider. It is untrue to say that a horse acts against its rider; it acts according to its nature when it has not understood what is being asked of it...

For some years now the number of riders wishing to live in harmony with their horse has been increasing. They are no longer satisfied with an approximate approach but desire to learn as much as possible about equine behaviour to understand as much as possible about how horses act, react and learn. This is not merely a passing fashion, but a genuine philosophy essential to this relationship between man and horse which can bring mutual benefit and pleasure in sharing each other's company.

Historically the horse was used as a tool of trade. Mechanical and technical evolution have almost brought to an end his use in the agricultural, industrial and military spheres and given way to equestrian leisure and sports. The old "know-how" which came from these activities has been transformed, adapted and has evolved but on no account should be allowed to disappear completely because it is vitally important that it should serve as a basis for further reflection. Working has enabled the horse to preserve and develop certain qualities with which nature endowed him. There can be no future without the past, and this is equally true of the world of horses. The way horses are used today has changed the way we perceive them and we expect different things from them, but they themselves have not changed.

This new light brings with it more detailed research, better adapted to our own evolution; we know this deeper knowledge will lead to true understanding of the nature of the horse which will allow us to anticipate and even arouse his reaction .Whatever the motive, it is a positive development.

It would be foolhardy to ignore with and for horses. This is really a re-discovery, a deepening and an adaptation of knowledge gleaned over centuries. Much of the methodology recommended nowadays is based on observations and reflections that have stood the test of time.

In the ancient writings of Xenophon, we find similar ideas:

"Only a gentle hand can calm a nervous horse" (Xenophon, 370 B.C.)

Throughout the centuries people have striven to improve equitation. Among those during the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries were Antoine de Pluvinel (1555-1620), William Cavendish, Duke of Newcastle (1592-1676) and François Robichon de la Guérinière (1687-1751). In the 20th century Bill Dorrance (1906-1999) mentions the works of General Faverot de Kerbrech (1837-1905) and Captain Etienne Beudant, both disciples of Baucher with regard to the understanding of equitation with feeling.

The ethological approach is not a newly discovered science. There is nothing remotely revolutionary, no break with the past, but on the contrary the continuation of a body of knowledge to which it is simply logical to integrate new factors resulting from the way we live and our understanding of our environment. These factors include:

  • new research
  • the specific requirements of the ways in which we use horses today
  • our realisation that the horse must be respected if we also are to be, and that in respecting him we respect ourselves
  • our desire to get the most out of the time spent with our horse, and in the best possible conditions. Free of stress for both parties, and based on communication which may not be totally natural but is shared and carefully-constructed.

This redefining of relations between man and horse is merely an evolution, not a deep-seated reform.

"A horse thinks, feels, makes decisions. Treat him like a friend, not a slave. People have to learn that whatever the horse does is right. You're the one who got into his life, he didn't get into yours." (Ray Hunt)

Practical understanding of the horse and his behaviour is within our grasp and will be the starting point for a shared educational experience, which could be thought of as a partnership. Everything we ask of the horse must be explained in a way he can understand. It is for the rider to find the right way to communicate his desires to the horse, which will enable the rider not only to modify the horse's behaviour but also develop his capacity. Commands which are well-received, clearly understood, and well-assimilated allow the rider to become more demanding without causing the horse to become tense or stressed. The relationship with the horse can be characterised by the following four fundamental and chronological steps:

  • Understanding
  • Foundation
  • Equitation
  • Competition

We have seen how understanding the horse and its behaviour is essential and must be the first thing we try to acquire. It is the essence of equine ethology, and without fully appreciating this, the following steps cannot lead to success.

This understanding will form a solid foundation which will serve the horse all his life and which will mean that even unfamiliar situations are faced without stress, but with trust and confidence and a greater chance of success. This logical rational process will lead the horse quite naturally to equitation. A horse which is mentally prepared will be capable of doing its physical best. The last step, competition, can only be attempted when the basic foundations of understanding have been acquired and may enhance performance.

During the first two steps, the horse is mentally, emotionally and physically prepared for success, after which it becomes possible to choose a field of equitation and set oneself competitive goals if desired. Unfortunately, the order of this learning process is rarely respected. Essential steps are neglected, underestimated, leading to confusion. Instead of resolving problems, we aggravate them or worse still create more.

"Often, people like me compete before we know how to ride, and ride before we understand the horse. This needs to change." (David O'Connor, Olympic gold medalist, three day event, Sydney 2000.)

Before attempting to build something, one should have a clear idea in mind of what the finished product should look like, and how one intends to achieve this. This applies equally to the construction of a new house as to the training of a young horse. The important thing is to begin with the end in mind and know what you wish to do before you start.hoofprint


About the author:
Dave Stuart is an Australian, the head instructor for Equine Ethology UK and a former Parelli 5 star instructor. He has been described by Ray Hunt as one of the greatest natural horsemen in the world. In 2004 Dave was personally invited by the Crown Equerry to present natural horsemanship to her majesty Queen Elizabeth.

For more information:
National Equine Ethology Centre
P O Box 2233
Wrexham, LL11 0AY, UK
Tel: +44 (0)870 0781254
Fax: +44 (0)870 0741254
Web: www.EquineEthology.com