top of page
  • Writer's pictureKatja

Pony 101: Horse Psychology

CW: Pictures of brains!

If you’ve read The Black Stallion books by Walter Farley, or watched ANY horse movie, ever. You might think that horses are magical creatures (they are) and all you need to do is look soulfully into their eyes in order to bond with them and become a famous trainer.

And um, I hate to break this to you, but NO.

Look, horses are absolutely magical. They are 1200 lbs. of magic, of therapy, of amazingness, of speed, of glorious manes, and dangerous hooves & big teeth. But horses are also prey animals. And they aren’t smart in a conventional sense. Horses spend the majority of their life being anxious and hoping nothing eats them. Especially plastic bags. They are the apex predator of the modern equine's world.

Let’s start with the horse’s brain. For the longest time, it was believed that this 1200lb animal with muscles and four hooves and big chompy teeth, had a brain that you could hide in the palm of your hand. A brain approximately the size of a walnut. This has since been disproved, but in the end, horse brains are still very small in relation to their size. Studies suggest that equine brains are only .01% of their body weight, while in humans, the brain accounts for 2% of our body weight.

a picture of animal brains side by side and with a ruler to show the varying sizes

So, comparatively speaking, the horse's brain isn't that far off from the size of a human brain. The major difference is in the development of the frontal lobe and the cerebral cortex, wherein humans hold their critical thinking skills and ability to create long term plans or understand philosophy. (Yes, I'm really simplifying this for the sake of this blog) In an article for Horse Illustrated, Understanding Your Horse's Brain, equine professional Crissi McDonald says:

“It’s not that horses don’t think like we do. It’s that they can’t think like we do. Without a well-developed frontal lobe, horses cannot hold grudges, plot revenge, try to win, plan a way to get out of working or take pleasure in making us mad—even though these are ideas that generations of horsemen have believed, especially during a frustrating experience with a horse.”

Basically, horse's aren't capable of abstract thought. And as humans who interact with horses, we are QUICK to project our own thought processes and emotions to everyday equine antics. Can horses be intelligent? Yes. Are some problem solvers? Yes. But for the most part, the horse's goal is to eat and be comfortable. When they encounter trouble, their brains kick into survival mode. Horses are flight animals--meaning that if they run into anything worrisome, their first instinct is to run away

I love that horses, these magical glorious creatures, that are huge and can seriously hurt you, are terrified of the world.

The first manifestation of this is how horses are up and ready to flee for their lives within about an hour after birth. That mobility is a key factor in what keeps them safe from predators.

GIF of a foal losing its balance and falling over in the grass
Look at this lil' cutey (that mom totally pushed him)

When working with horses, it's important to make it safe and positive--one bad experience can scar them for life and make them not trust humans. Horses are keen to pick up the emotions of those around them. This was a major part of why I had to take a step back from riding. I'd had enough bad experiences that my doubts were transferring over to my horse and because I was riding around looking for the scary monster (that absolutely didn't exist), my horse was like OMG MY HUMAN IS WORRIED. THINGS MUST BE DANGEROUS!! And my horse would be skittish and that made for a dangerous combination. As soon as someone else got on, they were all business. Horses rely on their humans to reassure them that no, that plastic bag holding the apples they love so much is not actually going to kill them. (I know, I keep bringing up plastic bags, but honestly, they are the bane of equine-kind everywhere!)

Some horses will just spook or shy--usually a sharp movement that quickly gets them out of immediate harm. Some horses will spook and then take off. It truly depends on their training and their relationship with the humans in their lives. If a horse trusts you to keep them safe, they will endure it. You'll see them freeze up and get tense, but they'll stick it out. Sometimes these spooks are enough to unseat a rider, sometimes the rider is relaxed enough and ready to go with the flow and they manage to stick with the horse. But a lot of riders come off when their horses spook. (this a great way to unseat your horseback riding characters and cause them even more trouble and grief!)

Horses are also susceptible to loud noises and to things darting out in front of them, whether it's a dragon or a bunny rabbit or one of those vicious plastic bags just twirling in the wind. It startles them. Loud noises are a usually more of a combination of rider reaction and the noise--if the horse just hears the noise and they're alone or riderless, they don't tend to react as much as they would if they have a rider who also tenses and is startled at the noise. Different breeds tend to handle things differently as well. Drafts and ponies tend to be more of a go with the flow kind of equine. They'll see something scary and stop and look, but then they go on with their lives, or they might even go investigate. Hot blooded horses, tend to be a bit more high strung and skittish and get to the flee stage of things much faster.

With training and trust, horses are able to overcome this reaction. The proof comes in the fact that humans ride horses. Because you know where the rider sits? RIGHT WHERE A JAGUAR WOULD LAND IF THEY WERE GOING TO HAVE THAT HORSE FOR LUNCH. And where is that noisy, scary cart that horse is pulling? RIGHT BEHIND THEM, CHASING THEM! I was at an event in the heart of Ohio Amish country on a Sunday and as church let out in the afternoon, all the buggies started coming down the road. My horse was a champ (and thank goodness I wasn't riding him). He froze and stared, wide-eyed at them. I like to think he was sending out his mental equine vibes and saying "WHY AREN'T YOU RUNNING FASTER? THAT THING IS GOING TO EAT YOU." and the buggy horses were like, 'Nah, it's cool, they never catch me, so no need to go faster!"

This can backfire though. When horses find a place they think of as safe, they'll seek that out even when it's unsafe. This is the case in a barn fire. Horses, even if their stall doors are open, tend to NOT run away from the fire. Their stalls are a place of safety where they don't have to worry about being harmed or being uncomfortable. So while they acknowledge that the fire is dangerous, they also don't run away from it because as far as they're concerned, they're in a safe zone where nothing can hurt them. Which is why barn fires are so feared--yes, the loss of the structure is bad, but it's the loss of equine life that really hits hard. Conversely, this is why horses, when they run off or get loose, almost always end up right back where they belong. They learn their home, they trust their home, their home feeds them. So that's where they head when the manure hits the fan.

How you can apply this to your writing?? You can incorporate horse body language into scenes to add another layer to the story. It's going to influence the mood and tone of the scene and since horses mirror their human's emotions, it can offer a revealing subtext to show how a character is truly feeling.

Perhaps the most telling sign of how a horse is feeling is how they wear their ears. Equestrians learn very quickly to pay attention the ears of their horse and any other nearby horses. Judges look for it in the show ring as they decide which is fanciest pony to prance around the arena that day.

My favorite is the droopy ear. Nothing would make me happier when I was riding than if my horse's ears were just kind of flopping about. It told me he was relaxed and content.

Next up is sleeping. Did you know that horses will only lay down if they are exhausted or if they feel safe? Horses, like cows and similar animals, have the ability to sleep standing up purely for the purposes of making a quick getaway. The "lock knee" mechanism keeps them standing. If you've ever watched a horse get up from the ground, its a laborious process and by the time they would get up, it's going to be too late for them--the predator (that grungy plastic bag) will have devoured them. Horses do need to lay down in order to get into REM sleep--which is necessary for their health and well being. If you catch your horse lying down or are able to approach them and hug them or feed them treats while they lay down, that horse trusts you and feels safe with you. If you want more info on horse sleep habits, check out this article from Horsey Hooves.

So these are all things to keep in mind--if you have your protagonists fleeing from the baddies and they stop to let the horses rest and tie them up so they can't lay down, those horses aren't really getting the rest they need and this will affect their ability to be good escape ponies. A day or two without REM sleep is going to make them irritable and groggy and just generally not happy. More than that and you start to risk that horse collapsing at random times in the middle of your protagonists escape. Fun side bar: We had a lesson horse at college who would randomly collapse. It was a long term neurological effect from, I think, EEE (eastern equine encephalitis). He was a FABULOUS lesson horse and it didn't happen often. I loved when I got him for lessons (and he never collapsed while I was riding him.) His name was Palace.

Horses that are going to be in boisterous settings go through intensive training. Police horses and military horses are exposed to a lot of stimuli. Same goes for carriage horses in the city. I always wanted to send my horses to New York City for a few months because after that I figured he wouldn't be scared of anything. Racehorses are another equine that tend to not be startled by anything--the things they experience and see at the racetrack give them all sorts of life experience points. I present to you one of the most amazing horse chase scenes Hollywood has ever created. Yes some of it was made with a green screen, but this horse is PEAK athlete and just an all around bad ass. I present to you: True Lies

To bring this all back to where we started. Horse's brains don't work the way human brains do. They don't process emotion or complex thinking like we do. Their entire behavior is based on not wanting to die. Even the most solid of horses will react to pain however. Because they can't reason why they are feeling something, their reaction is going to be to try and run away from that feeling. This is entirely me and my superior maths skills here, but I'd wager that 90% of behavioral issues we see in horses are actually pain responses whether to ill fitting tack or unidentified injuries.

Case in point, my sweet Bastian had Lymes disease, which was a nightmare. Anyway, Lymes in horses is like a traveling lameness that comes and goes. And when it came, Bastian would basically scream OUCH with his entire body which resulted with me getting more acquainted with the ground than I would have liked. It took a while to figure out why my sweet dragon was doing this, but after the diagnosis and two rounds of medication, he was a completely different horse. I could feel how much more comfortable he was because he wasn't afraid the invisible pain monster was coming to eat him. Sadly, this whole process and the amount of times I ate dirt directly impacted my bravery and caused me to stop being the solid support system my horse needed and again, led to me stepping back from riding. This is one of my favorite pictures of us at one of our last dressage schooling shows before things started to get really bad.

The take away here is that horses react to fear and pain in irrational ways because they lack the abstract thought processes to understand that that plastic bag isn't a saber toothed tiger or that the reason their back hurt was because of a perfect storm of their saddle pad having a wrinkle in it and the rider losing their balance for a second which increased pressure and caused an ouchy. They just process OH MY GOD I'M GONNA DIE.

Now, dear readers, you can go forth and be horse psychologists. Look meaningfully into a horses eyes, whisper in their ears and tell them it's all going to be okay. You are now a master horse trainer.

Drop your questions or comments below! Thanks for reading!!

175 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page