Training & Services

Prey Animal Dynamic Revisited

By: Ann Kirk

Greetings to all you horse lovers! By the time you read this, nine whole months of the year 2021 will be gone. It is amazing how fast time goes by! As I sit to write another article, I think back to the many questions asked of me at clinics and lessons. There is much confusion about what drives a horse and so I am revisiting a couple of articles I wrote back in 2008.

I am often asked how to solve this problem or that problem concerning riding or handling a horse. But often the “problem” is only a symptom pointing to a violation of the teacher/student relationship during training. There are two aspects of the horse that must be taken into consideration every time you enter its space. One is the prey animal instinct and the other is the herd animal dynamic. Either one is a recipe for disaster if they are ignored. We often get in too big of a hurry to go enjoy the trails (or the rails) and try to push the “student” to accept things on our time schedule. John Lyons says, “When you start with your goal, you start with a wreck.”

Expecting a horse to do things my way usually leads to behaviors that are natural to the horse but can be quite scary to us. They don’t plan on being “bad” or “disrespectful”. These concepts do not even exist in horse language. They are just reacting to the pressure like a horse. This sometimes takes the form of rearing, biting, or kicking. Or maybe less obvious forms such as barn sourness, being hard to catch, or shying on the trail. Whatever their attempt to communicate, it is important not to ignore their “voice.” It pays to take time to evaluate the source of their resistance.

It bears repeating that terms such as “right,”  “wrong,” “good,” “bad,” “respect,” or “disrespectful” do not exist for a horse. Horses are governed by instincts programmed into their being by Creator God. They don’t think in terms of “good” or “bad,” but in terms of what works and what doesn’t. If I begin working with my horse with the thought that he is being disrespectful, I can get a mindset that I have to show him who’s boss. This often leads to being too aggressive which in turn puts the horse on the defensive, thinking it’s trying to save its life.

The first priority of any horse is to be safe. If he feels threatened or attacked, he is wired to try to escape first and fight to the finish second. I have been in far too many power struggles with horses when I have forgotten this and even if I win, I lose. If a horse is scared or defensive, I may be able to force him, but I can not teach him. I always have to go back and reestablish trust before I can proceed with teaching the horse what I want him to learn.

Does this mean that I have to be super gentle all the time and seek to never raise the emotional level of my horse? No! Quite the opposite! Raising the emotional level is an essential part of producing a calm, trusting horse. Pressure is not bad if you understand what you are looking for and how to get it.

Being persistent, though, is a must because most horses’ first reaction to pressure of any kind is to resist. This is in their DNA. If they wait to see if it’s truly dangerous, they could be dead. That’s how they think. So the pressure must be persistent enough to get them to look for the right answer but passive enough that it does not produce a panic which will shut down their ability to think it through. Then, as you begin to get more and more right answers, you can combine them to make a great performance horse that becomes like a dance partner. As his trust level grows, it will become evident in his lightness and lack of resistance.

So never disregard the prey animal instinct in your horse.  All your dealings with him must take it into consideration. When you encounter a “problem” area, give him the benefit of the doubt and believe that fear is making him act out in an inappropriate way. If you are wrong and the behavior comes from the pecking order dynamic (which we will talk about next article), you will find that the same lessons still apply for solving the dilemma. Though most of you may not want to be horse trainers, if you own a horse, you are training him. Taking the time to learn how you can condition the desired response in a way that is non-threatening and clear, is essential to your safety and enjoyment of your horse.

Consider your horse as a kindergarten or 1st grade student and you are the teacher. You want to be consistently advancing but in small enough steps that the “child” can learn the lesson. Remember, the lesson is always clearer to the teacher than it is to the student and the teacher cannot tell the student when the student has learned the lesson. A good teacher never “beats” or scolds the student for not understanding a lesson or for being afraid for the teacher knows that it is his responsibility to explain the lesson in a clear enough manner that the student can get the right answer. I cannot expect my “student” to spell or read until he knows the individual letters so I must teach the separate pieces before I can put them together for control. I can’t expect to enforce what I haven’t taken time to teach.

So, with all that said, take time to enjoy your horse. Challenge yourself to get better acquainted with his behavior patterns and seek to make a connection that is not linked to the demands of riding. Work on anything that needs improving on his ground manners and it will carry over to more respect and trust when you get on his back. Hope this is helpful to someone and I will look forward to hearing from anyone who has a question that I might help with

Next article, we will talk about the herd animal dynamic and how understanding it can make us safer around our horses. Gaining understanding builds our confidence and makes it more enjoyable to ride. So, until next time, be safe and God Bless. – Ann

For more information on Ann Kirk and her Sensible Horsemanship Program, go to She welcomes questions and will take the time to answer them personally.

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