The subject of behavior is fascinating to me because we all usually interact with a captive horse. The behavior of captive horses adapts to what they know from human handling at birth. They have never been free from human influence, good or bad. Yet deep in their minds are the instructions to survive as free animals. Conflicts arise when primal instincts are juxtaposed with current knowledge and beliefs of what they are experiencing.
For example, all horses should be afraid of humans because, in the past, they are hunted and eaten by other animals. Some were captured and tamed for riding and pulling our things around. All owners must realize that the horse’s brain is similar to ours. When we touch a hot stove as a child, we remember and avoid touching hot stoves forever. When our mothers embrace us after a bad dream, we remember that too. All memories reside in the left neocortex. The emotions associated with that memory connect within the left limbic system (amygdala), and this emotional area of the brain is directly related to the motor cortex, causing movement. When afraid, the horse will run. When afraid and have nowhere to run, the horse will fight, their most basic survival behavior.
The complexities of owning a horse lie between “normal” behavior and survival behavior. What drives them to pleasure (mutual grooming)? What drives them to chew the barn down? What makes them curl their upper lip? What is causing food aggression, bad riding behavior and shutting down? Surprisingly, the causes are simple and similar to our thoughts. Unfortunately, some of these behaviors may be impossible to correct if we continue to cause them. With some aggressive and dangerous horses, euthanasia occurs. But I have found one thing that seems to work. Let them know you are listening. Some need to know you are listening.