Horse Characters & Behavior #1 Instinct VS Ratio

Have you ever wondered why your horse behaves perfect and seems to be the calmest in the world when he is inside of his pasture, but spooks from every leaf falling to the ground whenever he is on the trail?

Walk a mile in your horse’s shoes, and better your relationship drastically.The horses natural tendency
The horse is a prey animal by nature. This means that in the wild he is constantly wary of approaching danger and as soon as he suspects that his safety may be jeopardized he will flee. Only at a safe distance he will stop and reassess the situation. His ‘idea’ about this is: ‘I’d rather flee from the wind in the bushes 10 times and be safe, than not flee once and be sorry.’

The wild horse’s first tendency to a new object will be to flee from it. If his first tendency would have been to go and have a look-see out of curiosity, horses would most probably have become extinct a long time ago.

Basic need 1 as trigger
Of course it would cost a lot of energy for him to actually be thinking he was in danger 100% of the time. That is why mother nature made the horse with the physical capability to stay calm in general and use his rational or creative side of the brain, and whenever needed, change to the instinctive or reactive side of the brain in a split second. These ‘sides of the brain’ are also regularly called the left or right sides of the brain.

This makes sure that in daily life, when there is no danger around, he doesn’t need to put a lot of energy into making adrenaline and activating the muscles necessary to flee from danger, but use his energy to find food, & comfort and play dominance games with his herd mates.

We have to understand though that, even though our horse looks calm in his daily environment (using that rational side of the brain), he will surely switch to using his instinctive side to keep himself alive as soon as he sees (or smells, or feels, or hears!) something he perceives as danger. This means that when our horse doesn’t feel safe around us, or in his environment (for example on a trailride), he will mostly use his instinctive side of the brain and will be tense constantly.

The horse in a human world
In a way it’s wonderful that mother nature thought of this way to keep our horses as a breed alive so that we can still enjoy it. But most of the time it doesn’t help us in daily life when our horse is using his instinctive side of the brain. This side of the brain makes him forget that we are there and that we will protect him. This is why horses freak out and run through fence lines, bolt or try to climb out of the back window of a trailer.

Kortom, voor zowel ons als ons paard is het enorm handig als hij leert om zijn rationele hersenhelft te gebruiken. Hierdoor is hij leergierig, speels, nieuwsgierig en open voor communicatie. Het zou mooi zijn als onze paarden in het dagelijks leven zo’n 99% van de tijd hun rationele hersenhelft zouden gebruiken.

Helaas kunnen de meeste paarden dit niet in hun eentje bereiken. Aangezien wij degenen zijn die hen in een nieuwe omgeving hebben gebracht, is het ook onze verantwoordelijkheid om ze te helpen hiermee om te gaan en die rationele kant te gaan gebruiken, zodat we allemaal beter kunnen genieten van het leven. Not very practical…. Is it?


To be sure we are in a safe situation when we look at our horse’s state of mind (when he is using his rational side of the brain) it’s important to be able to read his body language.

A number of symptoms showing that your horse is using the instinctive or reactive part of his brain:

  • Tail high in the air or squeezed between his cheeks
  • Stiff or tense neck muscles, a high neck or the neck lowered completely (like an ostridge sticking his head in the sand!)
  • Snorting, sniffing or puffing sounds coming from the nose
  • Big, tight, rigid eyes or eyes that don’t blink a lot
  • Not being able to stand still (short, rigid steps) or not being able to move at all (nailed to the ground)

A number of symptoms showing that your horse is using the rational or creative side of his brain:

  • A relaxed tail
  • A relaxed neck (about the height of the rest of the body horizontally), relaxed muscles
  • Blowing out, sighing, yawning, licking or chewing of the mouth
  • Relaxed, soft eyes that blink regularly
  • Calm, even steps

Next time you’re with your horse just try and read if he is using his rational or instinctive side of the brain. Is there one side that your horse uses most of the time, or is he trained in using both sides?