Getting to know Henry
Horses are the ultimate prey animal, meaning in the wild they are the hunted. They have an acute fight or flight response which has helped them to survive for millions of years. If given the choice they will choose flight every single time. The only reason they ever choose fight is if they are prevented from flight, or think they are. While they appear to be claustrophobic, their very existence requires that they can get away from what threatens them. This is one of the reasons why domestic horses are healthier and happier in a pasture environment where they can be free to roam where and when they want, adding to their sense of safety.
This is also why they have both binocular and monocular vision, an acute sense of smell and hearing, excellent night vision and the ability to function perfectly with only ten minutes of deep REM sleep a day. Binocular vision means that horses have the ability to focus both eyes on a single object and see one image just like you and I. But because their eyes are on the sides of their faces, they can also see almost 360 degrees around their bodies with only narrow blind spots directly in front and behind them and use their eyes monocularly. They are able to see different object simultaneously with each eye. They don’t have good depth perception because of the placement of their eyes, but this is not a problem for them because the natural movement of their heads going up and down as they move allows them to gauge the depth of the ground in front of them. And on a moonlit night, they can see as well as we can during the daylight hours. Their ears move independently to pick up every little sound close by and at a distance, all at once. And their brains are constantly registering sounds that we can’t hear even when we are specifically listening. Along with a much more sensitive sense of smell, horses are perceptive in ways that we, as predators, can never understand or experience.
Horses in the wild take turns getting their required ten minutes of REM sleep in which they have a lay down flat, totally unaware of their environment. They trust that their herd mates will watch over them and keep them safe. This is one of the reasons why young stallions gather together in groups instead of going their independent ways once they get kicked out of the herd by the reigning stallion. There is safety in numbers. All horses generally spend a couple hours a day napping while standing up, or even laying down. But they are awake enough to move quickly if necessary.
If Henry notices something that might pose a danger he would be smart to stay alert and be ready to flee if required to save his life. That is the job of the alpha male of the herd, to alert others to danger at the first possible sign. The alpha female then generally is the leader in the herd. She determines in which direction they run, for how long, and keeps everyone together. Kind of like our marriages, right guys? You make the big decisions about “what” and she makes all the other organizational ones such as when, where, and how! We think the pecking order is harsh when we see the biting and kicking which naturally happens in herds. But if you see the horses sensing danger, it’s pretty amazing how all the horses count on these more dominant members to keep them safe, even gathering around the leaders for protection when a new horse is added to the herd.
If Henry were the alpha male the herd probably wouldn’t last too long in the wild due to his eating disorder. He would alert the herd to danger and then get a big mouthful of food before running away. But his calm personality is also what makes him a wonderful horse for beginners. He is not very inclined to spook at every little “danger” [deer darting into the path, a group of barking dogs, etc.] like a sensitive reactive horse would be. He’s perfectly happy being in the middle of the pecking order of his herd.
A full social life is as important to the health and happiness of any horse as a sense of security. If you spend any amount of time observing horses interact, you will see them bossing each other around, depending on each other for conversation and play, arguing over whose food is whose, grooming each other, napping together in the sunshine on a cool day, swishing flies off each other, generally acting like any of our families. There are introverts and extroverts, loners and leaders, small horses with Napoleon complexes, gentle giants, right brain emotional horses and left brain thinkers . . . pretty much just like us, right?
Their communication is every bit as deep and complicated as ours, but distinctly different. They greet one another by breathing into each other’s nostrils while we shake hands or kiss cheeks. They are much more tuned into each other’s [and our] energy and emotions. We are too, but we just don’t know it. They communicate telepathically as do we, but they rely on that form of communication much more than we do. We learn to tune out our ‘intuition’ or ‘hunches’ at an early age and learn to rely on our other five senses almost exclusively, putting us at a distinct disadvantage over most animals.
We are just learning as a species to tap into our sixth sense as we work more closely with animals. “Humans have been successful in training these magnificent animals, not because we overpower them, but because they consider humans honorary members of the herd”, writes Lydia Hiby in her book Conversations with Animals. We are learning that being able to communicate with our pets at a deeper level than just reading their body language or hearing their verbal clues is something that we can all do if we just take the time to quiet our minds and trust in the still small voice we hear when we take the time to listen to them telepathically. Not just talk, but listen.
They experience the same emotions we do. They just deal with them, and then are over it. They don’t ruminate and play over their every thought and feeling, over and over, like we do, thinking that maybe there is a clue there that we might have missed. They don’t spend hours planning just what they will say if this or that happens. They just deal with every experience honestly and immediately and don’t give it another thought. We could learn so much from them about living in the moment and trusting that we will have everything we need when we need it, like they do. Folks like to call that instinct; we like to call it wisdom. Each horse has a distinct personality and experiences emotions uniquely, just like us. For instance Anna Clemence Mews and Julie Dicker, in their book What Horses Say, states, “What rewards do horses want? The greatest response from the horses they interviewed came to a single, unqualified answer: praise! They also wanted to be stroked gently and caressed.” And the other thing they asked for was food as a reward. But for most horses that was less important than praise and stroking.
They go on to say that of the horses they ‘interviewed’, the vast majority preferred being in the field over a stable, having a job over inactivity, spending time with their people riding, clear direction and open communication [with smell being their primary sense of communication], having us tell them that it’s not their fault if we are upset as they pick up on our moods. Horses appear far more observant and aware of us than we are of them.
They are, like us, expanding and creating souls. We used to think that animals were simply tools for our use and consumption, but science is finally sophisticated enough to be able to start opening the door to all living creatures’ inner life, in fact showing how much like us they are. When God gave man dominion over animals in the book of Genesis, is there a possibility that he meant for us to care for his creation as they care for us?