Predator and Prey?

If you read this blog for very long, it will become clear that I have no trust for the “Natural” Horsemanship movement.  From my first exposure, with a now world famous practitioner before he was anybody, I have listened to explanations that rarely accurately reflect reality.  Among my favorite topics covered by many of the practitioners is the “human as predator, horse as prey” dynamic.  It is not that this idea is completely unfounded – humans preyed upon horses for many centuries before we got the idea to domesticate them, and even then it was mainly to raise them as food.  My problem with their use of this topic is the inaccuracy in their portrayal of it, and the frequent contradictions in their practices.  To illustrate, let me share some of my favorites.

You have to stop acting like the predators we are” – this is one of my favorites.  Yes, horses are prey animals, and their main

A wild pony foal showing no instinctive fear of the human "predator". Borrowed from Epona.TV
A wild pony foal showing no instinctive fear of the human “predator”. Borrowed from Epona.TV

defense is running away.  I agree that when you work around horses you need to always keep in mind this single fact.  But think of this – what is the one thing that most hunters of large animals have in common?  They chase their prey.  What is the main thing that “natural” horsemanship practitioners all share? They chase horses around a round pen – defenders will deny this, but making a prey animal run is chasing, no matter how calm you remain. So, how is that NOT acting like a predator? The single best way to not be a predator around your horse is to stand still!  Even a wild mustang will eventually get curious enough to come over if you just stand stock still.

Control the feet and you control the horse” – coupled with the previous one, this falls into the contradiction category.  Most

A wolf pack controlling the movement of their prey.
A wolf pack controlling the movement of their prey.

of the practitioners that cite this as the reason why they chase the horses around give as an example horses in pasture together.  Their claim is that the “dominant” horse (another myth they promote) “controls” the movement, and therefore the feet, of the subordinate horse.  Well, who else controls a horse by controlling his movement?  Predators!  If you watch a wolf pack take down a large animal, it is all about moving or stopping the movement of the animal, until they can maneuver to deliver the fatal blow.  The amazing contradiction in the fight for life is that the prey frequently will stop and remain still when their path of flight is controlled.  This is the very moment many “Natural” Horsemanship practitioners take advantage of to “prove” their methods are working.

Horses recognize us as predators because our eyes are on the front of our face and not on the sides” – I had a hard time keeping a straight face when the very serious woman, certified at level 2 by the practitioner I mentioned earlier, shared this bit of wisdom she’d learned from him.  Yes, it is true that predators have their eyes forward and prey have them on the side.  But let me just say this – if a horse is waiting around to see where a predator’s eyes are placed on their heads, that is a horse who will not survive to reproduce!  Our horses are here because their ancestors reacted to threats long before they could see “the whites of their eyes”.  They look for postures and actions from a far distance, in order to get full advantage from their flight defense.

Using posture to “calm” or “move” the horse – posture is a powerful tool.  Horses read posture exponentially better than

Noble showing the foal "snapping" behavior toward an annoyed Coffee - "I mean no harm!"
Noble showing the foal “snapping” behavior toward an annoyed Coffee – notice no indication of leaving, in spite of Coffee’s “posture”. In the next moment they were sharing hay.

humans.  Those moments when you think they’re reading your mind, you are probably telegraphing and don’t know it.  A favorite use of posture by “Natural” Horsemanship practitioners is to stand tall face the horse and approach somewhat puffed out (this part I think is somewhat unconscious) when they want to move the horse, and then turn their face away when they are showing the horse they are not a threat (that exact phrasing having been heard numerous times).  They claim this has a basis in herd behavior – but there is no scientific basis to this.  The only “I’m not a threat” posture reliably found in horses is the foal’s snapping behavior. However, there is another basis for this posture change – for that you need only look at the African plains.  In a seeming contradiction, zebras can been seen grazing nonchalantly as lions pass alarmingly close – on other occasions, those same zebra are on high alert when lions are at a much greater distance.  The difference? Posture, of course!  Lions out for a stroll probably are generally not even looking at the zebra, while those out for lunch are plotting their approach and therefore are focused upon their prey.  Equids have survived the millennia by being able to recognize the difference.

We do have a history of a predator/prey relationship with the horse – but the simple fact is that we have been using horses for other

We have long history of partnership with horses, as this 4000 year old image depicts.
We have long history of partnership with horses, as this 4000 year old image depicts.

purposes for thousands of years now.  In that time, we have bred animals suited mentally to the services we want them for.  How else do you explain foals who are naturally curious and friendly, even if no human was present at their birth.  My Tally was hours old before we found her – and her first action was to walk straight up to us, as friendly and bold as any adult in our barn!  If they instinctively view us as predators, or recognize the eyes being forward, how do you explain her behavior?

Our horses may be hard wired to flee when afraid, but they are not looking at you as a predator.  That is, unless you are chasing them around a round pen!  Case in point, I leave you with this.

The goal should never be to generate this kind of flight behavior.  For an animal whose very existence once depended upon flight, associating that response with humans has long term negative effects.  In a later post I will relate my experiences having to resolve that very problem.

Be good to your horses!



9 thoughts on “Predator and Prey?

  1. Suppose that the predator/prey model is a misnomer, and use more accurate terminology is perpetrator/victim. then the fundamenta psychological abuse and practices inherent in ‘natural’ horsemanship suddenly make much more sense.


  2. oops-too many typos- here is trying again:
    Suppose that the predator/prey model is a misnomer, and use more accurate terminology such as perpetrator/victim. Then the fundamental psychological abuse and practices inherent in ‘natural’ horsemanship suddenly make much more sense.
    Especially as people are slow, puny, weak, and generally pathetic predators compared to wolves, tigers, snakes, or even dragonflies.


  3. “Perpetrator/victim” … I like that. I just wish there was a way to get the followers to see that the actions of their gurus don’t fit with the words, and that it actually is (as you say) a form of psychological abuse. But the gurus are too good at explaining away what people see with pretty sounding words.

    By the way, love the dragonfly reference! 🙂


    1. Reminding people that two of the best known ‘natural’ horsemanship faces, Monty Roberts and Buck Branaman, are both victims of horrendous abuse. struggle with their own demons , and perceive their experiences through the perp/victim lens sometimes helps.
      But there is a great desire to fool oneself out there. Bitless bridles fanatics are a great example. Why it is more humane to compress the cranial nerves against the bone causing severe and inescapable pain than to use a snaffle bit that allows the horse to use their tongue and lips to communicate, disagree, and even evade abuse, completely escapes me. In my area there have long been a number of precursors to the contemporary bitless headgear that are called war-bridles and used to subdue unruly animals because of the severe inescapable pain (including permanent nerve damage) they cause.


      1. I think a lot of people are looking for “modern” and “enlightened” approaches, so they buy the rhetoric. My favorite, and I heard it again very recently, is that prior to the “natural” horsemanship movement, all horses were beaten and broke like the Wild West cliche from the movies. This completely ignores centuries of trainers who educated their young horses in a methodical fashion.

        Agree completely on the bridleless! I see a parallel in their complete dismissal of any use of a stud chain – yet, they have all developed rope halters that have “well” placed knots for “more refined” communication. Mostly they just look like they cause significant pressure in tender places.


  4. as I am terribly cynical, I tend to think that people are really looking for a group to hang out with and share some fancy words that justify not putting in the time, effort, and humility it takes to learn to ride,observe, and develop a relationship with their horse. It is so much easier to buy some fancy gadgets, pat each other on the back ,and blame the horse for not living up to the hype.


    1. Oh, I have certainly known those people – and the show world has its share of people who really are just about the competition and winning, rather than the horses. That is one reason we have so much abuse and drugging in some of the arenas. However, I have met more people who are highly well intended, but come to horses late in life and are easily led down a bad path that certainly sounds good to them. After all, that trainer wouldn’t be world famous if he wasn’t the best, right? Uh, yeah …


  5. That’s what got me started with this – the voices of reason are out there, but they are outnumbered. So, maybe we can help eventually tip the scales in a better direction!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.