Understanding a Horse’s Basic Instinct
by Pat Parelli on Dec 27, 2023
By Pat Parelli
Horses are nature in its finest form, so they have a number of basic, natural instincts that are important for us to understand. As horsemen, we want to use communication, understanding, and psychology in all our interactions with horses, so let's start by understanding their basic instincts first.
The number one instinct for horses is to be perceptive to danger, people, places, changes, and things. Why? Because they're prey animals, and if they stand around and aren't skeptical, they'll probably get eaten. This is the nature of the horse. We have to understand that horses are born skeptics, cowards, claustrophobics, and panicholics by nature in various degrees. If we can understand this first instinct then we can channel it and turn it into being perceptive to our cues and communication as well.
In order to use psychology, we need to understand that flight from fear is the horse’s next instinct. They're going to be perceptive and skeptical and move their feet to try to get away. But, if we can play with their nature, we can turn horseplay into horsepower. How? It's pretty simple: by playing with the horse on a circle, whether On Line, at Liberty, or while riding, we ask our horse to give us balanced impulsion instead of flight from fear and take horse nature and turn it into horseplay. The horse will soon start to become our partner and understand that synchronizing with us is the secret. As long as we’re on the ground or riding a circle, infinity will be on our side, regardless of how fast the horse goes. So, the horses' first two instincts are to be perceptive to danger, people, places, changes, and things, and flight from fear. But where are they going to fly to?
This leads us to the third basic instinct. The gregarious nature of the horse: they always seem to know where the other horses are, where the gate is, and where the barn is. Why? It's their instinct to know where to run to find safety. So we want them to learn we are safe, whether on the ground or on their back.
This is why I talk about communication, understanding and psychology. Often, it’s about knowing what to do, when to do it, and when to quit doing what you’re doing. If we can time things to the horse’s thoughts and feelings, the horse can get hooked, and want to stay with us, whether we are on the ground or in the saddle.
So the basic instincts of the horse are often frustrating to humans because the horse perceives things as dangerous that we wouldn't think about (like a mailbox that's open today that wasn't open yesterday), or because the horse is wanting to go to the other horses, the barn, or the gate. These situations can be frustrating, but if we learn to not fight those instincts but instead to channel them, we can turn horseplay into horsepower and a perfect partnership. I’m here to help you have a better horse life, and the only way I know how to do that is by keeping it natural using communication, understanding, and psychology. May the horse be with you.