Horses Are Not Dogs

(c) 3004 Lynne Glazer

(c) 2004 Lynne Glazer

Coincidence being what it is, just the other day one of my equestrian connections twittered this very thing. “Horses aren’t dogs!” Apparently she had run into another case of would-be trainer trying to apply what she knows about dogs to the equine in her life.

“Write (or do) what you know” is often excellent advice, and writers may think, well, a dog is a domesticated animal, and so is a horse; if I know how my dog acts and thnks, I can extrapolate that to the horses in my novel.

Hence, the horse who runs around whinnying at everything; who gets a bag of oats dumped in front of her while the rider goes off on a day-long, secret reconnaissance; who travels for days with next to no stops for food or water–the list goes on and on.So, you may ask, what’s wrong with that? Well, first of all, a whinny is primarily a distress call; horses for the most part don’t vocalize, though they may snort in alarm or to clear the sinuses, whicker (flutter their nostrils)  at something they love (foal, food, pet human), or paw and bang against the wall to demand something right NOW! Stallions are talkier than mares and geldings; they have a whole set of challenges and come-hither noises, and in front of a mare in heat may sing a Wagnerian aria. But they are not going to whinny when you talk to them; they may nuzzle or butt you, whicker at you, or tilt an ear in your direction. They don’t whine or whimper, either, contrary to the novels I’ve read in which they do so early and often.

Dumping a bag of oats in front of a horse and leaving him for a day? You’ll come back to a dead horse with an exploded gut. Horses cannot eat large quantities of concentrated feed. They’re grazing animals, designed to work their way across the steppe, eating poor-quality grass and whatever additional fodder they can get at. They don’t have any self-control in front of rich (especially sweet) feed and will gorge on it until it kills them. Because, unlike dogs, horses can’t vomit. What goes in one end must come out the other. If that is blocked or allowed  to ferment, the horse is at immedate risk of death. Google “Colic, the number one killer of horses,” and see how many hits you get.

Because horses are grazers who have evolved to ingest small quantities of grass forage all day long, those long quests across barren country will require a train of mules loaded with grain and fodder, and there had better be plenthy of water available. No water = impaction colic = dead horse. You can keep a horse alive by feeding him cubes of hay or small amounts of grain, provided he also gets some grazing. As for water, he’ll need a minimum of ten gallons per day in a temperate climate with little or no exercise. In a hot climate or during hard work, he may need fifty gallons a day or more. He shouldn’t run hard and then be given a barrel of ice water, either. Make him drink slowly and walk him around to make sure the system keeps running smoothly.

Vocal and logistical issues aside, horses don’t think like dogs, either. A particularly good summary appears here.  Dogs are pack animals and predators. Horses are herd animals, which is not quite the same, and prey animals, which is quite different. It’s true that a herd, like a pack, works together for a common goal, follows a leader and has a hierarchy, and so on, but where the pack is working to find prey to feed on, the herd is working to keep from becoming that prey. The dog runs at you. The horse (with certain exceptions–stallion on guard, mare protecting foal, etc.)  runs away from you. That’s her evolutionary advantage: fast reactions and superior speed.

This doesn’t mean she’s a simple Pavlovian fight-or-flight machine. For quite a long time horses have had a reputation for being, essentially, stupid, and those who contest this have been accused of anthropomorphism and general silliness. Recent studies have fond that equine intelligence is much higher than researchers expected. I’m particularly fond of the study in which the Morgan outdid the border collie, and read years ago in a print publication about verbal-acuity tests that put horses above German Shepherds. My personal experience is that once the horse figures out you’re talking to him, he’ll acquire quite a large vocabulary, and respond to simple sentences. A really smart horse has about the understanding of a human toddler. Excellent on concrete concepts and “You stand still while I mount, I give you a cookie,” not so solid on abstracts like “I’ll see you at 9 a.m. tomorrow”–though they have an infallible internal time clock when it comes to mealtimes and turnout schedules.

Horses learn really well by example, which makes sense in the context of a herd. Horse sees somebody else doing something, horse will imitate it. They also have a truly remarkable memory. Recent studies have found that horses can remember a single event ten or twenty years ago, and reproduce behavior taught at that point, even if it has never been repeated since. That line about the elephant never forgets? The horse never does, either–and since he lives, on the average, twice as long as a dog, he has more time to remember. He’s a great latent learner, processes data well and thoroughly; you can teach him something one day, and come back three days or three months or three years later and find he’s right there for you when you ask for it again.

Bottom line? Horses have their own distinctive biology and psychology. Extrapolating from other animals, notably dogs, can lead to egregious and sometimes fatal errors. If you need to write about horses but have no experience of them, at the very least get a horse person to do a beta read. If you can get some experience of horses yourself, so much the better. You might find you like enough to make a regular habit of it.

Next week I’ll talk about how horses and humans interact. In the meantime, come back for comments; we have some great people posting, and a wide range of experience. Lots of good stories coming.




Horses Are Not Dogs — 20 Comments

  1. Great post. 🙂

    The overly-vocal horses of many movies (like the horses neighing when charging down the lists in “A Knight’s Tale”) no doubt have much to do with perpetuating the myth of horses making sounds just about all the time, but I don’t imagine Hollywood is likely to be reading this. 😉

    The study linked to was quite fascinating. It reminded me of how many who clicker-train their dogs note that after a while, they will start offering up all sorts of new behaviour in the hopes of a reward. I am thinking a clicker-trained horse would be lots of fun, and lots of trouble.

  2. Near where my dad lives, the Travellers sometimes leave their ponies tethered on the verge to graze. It’s amazing how much grass these small (Shetland-size) animals get through. Very neat circles, too.

  3. One coincidence I like is the one where we’ve both felt a need to create a Horses For Writers line of information. You, through your hands-on camp (which I would love to attend someday) and me by organizing a series of communications I had over the years with various writers.
    When I looked at my files recently I found that I have enough for a second book of tips. Amazing how many new mistakes come up every year.

  4. Your essay on “Horses Are Not Dogs” was pretty accurate. Horses and mules are smart learners and rarely forget what they learn which is why they should be taught carefully, because if they learn something wrong, they don’t forget that either. It is very difficult to “untrain” a horse.

    One glaring mistake in the essay is horses are not like dogs in that they do not come into heat. Dogs’ reproductive cycle is every six months. Horses go into estrus about every thirty days. Mares are receptive to mating once a month and again one week after foaling.

  5. I teach riding to young children and one of the hardest obstacles I often have to over come is the idea that “horses are just big dogs!” It’s that belief and ensuing behavior that can get people in alot of trouble with horses! It’s the first lesson I teach to both the kids and their parents – the nature of the horse as a prey animal!

  6. Ellen, I don’t address the sexual biology of horses at all in this blog entry, and it’s not generally relevant to writers using horses as transport (which is is generally what horses do in books by nonhorsepeople).I’ve been breeding horses since 1994 and have a fair working knowledge of how horses make new horses. Perhaps you’re thinking of some other article? This entry was already quite long; many topics didn’t make it in. That’s what comments are for. There are some very knowledgeable people commenting here, and since I’ll be blogging weekly, there’s plenty of time to address the topic again.

    Firle, I pasted the link straight off my URL line–must have inadvertently dropped the last letter. Thanks for the fix! (Bloggoddess Nancy Jane Moore also did some fixing–we’re having a glitch with our link formatting.)

    Gayle et al., the “big dogs” thing is a problem in two directions: either the student is too familiar and thinks the horse isn’t any stronger or more threatening than the family dog, or the student is afraid of dogs, sees a horse as a half-ton canine, and freaks out.

  7. When I read “Horses are not dogs.” I couldn’t help but add “but some of them think they are.”

    My first horse–a gorgeous golden buckskin half-bred mare–used to try to crawl into my lap when I was sitting within reach. Mostly she settled for laying her entire head in my lap and heaving a hugely contented sigh.

  8. My childhood horse — a sorrel mare I called Sue (I was seven and my naming skills were not advanced) — learned early in life to take all new riders under the nearest low hanging object to see whether they were smart enough to stay on. But she never did it to someone who had already passed the test. Your studies would suggest she remembered how each rider reacted to her, which is cool.

  9. Linda, Clicker-trained horses are VERY fun. And also occasionally a wee tad frustrating when they offer new behaviours at inopportune times. Or when they see the big purple ball that is the clicker-ball game ball, and figure it would be fun to play a round — while I am thinking that we are schooling dressage ;). Which is not to say I don’t think clicker training is valuable and fun — it was the door in for me with a challenging but sweet and smart mare, who is now all kinds of awesome 😉

  10. Clicker training is great for teaching humans how to calibrate their training instructions. In short–it trains the human at least as much as it trains the animal.

  11. Oh, most definitely, Judith — The process of learning to clicker train means MY timing is So Much Better now ;).

  12. Several comments here:

    Jean-Claude Racinet (sadly, RIP) once said in a clinic that it takes nearly four times the amount of time it takes to teach a behavior to a horse to extinguish it. We were talking about the prevalence of bad behaviors, and that’s always stuck with me. Horses have superb memories, and that is why mistakes in handling made at a young age are so hard to eliminate in later training. Many good colt trainers prefer a horse that’s not been handled to one that’s been indulged and taught bad habits in early handling.

    Communication–I have noted that more intelligent horses who tend to form bonds with human handlers–even schoolies–have developed adaptations to their typical communication with humans. These horses will deliberately attempt to engage human eye contact in a human, not horse manner (direct, close, face to face gaze even though the human may be in the horse’s blind spot, ears forward, pleasant facial expression). Then the horse will relay what they want the human to know–raising a foot, for example, to show an injury or sore spot (this has happened to me with two different horses), or just expressing an attitude through facial expression. Once you know the nuances of equine nonverbal expression, you find out that horses do engage in a running commentary on the humans in their lives. And it’s not always favorable.

    Finally, behavior hardwiring through selective breeding can be pretty strong in some subgroups of equines. I have worked with Quarter Horses for a large chunk of my life and I own a horse bred for reining and cutting. Horses bred to herd are not quite as bad as herding dogs–but still, if something moves in a particular, submissive manner–horse, cow, dog, human, anything that moves–the head goes down, the ears go back, and the horse locks on it. It’s enough to deter all but the most aggressive of dogs.

    From descriptions, similar instincts hold for horses that have been bred to jump for several generations, as well as some other activities out there.

  13. Dressage is hardwired into the Lipizzans, for sure. They’ve been selectively bred for it since the 1500s. Sometimes it feels as if the figures are engraved in the convolutions of their brains. The Airs certainly are natural to them (as to all horses, but they have a certain additional level of balance and strength). And they know how to move and carry themselves most effectively under a rider. Mostly, as with great jumpers or cutters, your job is to help them get fit, show them how to balance under you, then get out of their way.

  14. Oh, absolutely with Lipizzans and dressage. A friend of mine keeps wanting me to breed my mare to her Lippy stallion.

    Um–I’ve ridden a Lipizzan/QH cross. I don’t think I can handle a horse with that much brain power…especially a cowhorse-bred QH on a Lippy.

  15. The QH-LippX’s I’ve seen have actually gone more toward QH type and level of intelligence. Nice smart horse, but not a border collie on steroids. What would happen with a really good cutter or reiner, however…

    The Arab/Lipp can tend toward Ultimate Evil.

  16. Arab/Lipp crosses are “interesting”. One thing I learned about Arabians in my many years of working with them is that they learn fast, BUT they don’t like things to change. PERIOD. As in “What do you mean you want me to counter canter? I learned to canter on the correct lead. I will not…” and on to a temper tantrum.

  17. Not to mention “I already did this once. Why do I have to do it again? Are you punishing me? This is stupid. I’m bored! Look! A Horseasaurus! (wildspook)”

    It’s all about the drama.

    I love Arabians. 🙂

  18. Adding in to the “love arabians” camp ;). Last night, while Mom and I were out grooming the herd, our one Arab mare (who is also the Boss Mare, natch), said that She Needed Love and Attention and Scritchies please. No one else was allowed any attention unless SHE was also getting some ;).