A Note about Sugarbush Draft Horses

I see it over and over again, and no matter how many times it's said, it's still wrong. "Sugarbush Drafts are just an Appaloosa Draft Cross". Uh.... no. The Sugarbush Draft Horse was a breed created many years ago in Ohio. While the initial cross was made using Percherons to Appaloosas, in the many generations following, the breed has been solidified into a consistent type. Saying these horses are "just" a draft cross makes as much sense as saying that AQHA horses are "just" a Thoroughbred cross, American Cream Drafts are "just" a dilute Belgian, or that Morgans are "just" a grade.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Your Horse is NOT a Dog

Often people new to horses try to treat their horses like they treat their dogs.  It's normal, it's common, and it even kinda makes sense.... but it's wrong.

Dogs are predators, horses are prey.  They pretty much think about things exactly opposite of each other.  In North America we commonly have dogs as pets, and understanding their behavior is pretty common.  Even people who have never owned a dog "get" certain things about them.  If they are showing their teeth, then they are not happy, if they have a funny deep rumble in their throat, it could be bad... you know, little things like that.

But horses are something that is much less common for people to interact with.  I've met people who didn't realize you have to teach a horse to carry a rider - they thought they just were born willing to!  (Don't we wish!). 

So recently, this article has been making the rounds of the internet.  Now, I know nothing of this trainer, but what he says here is pretty spot on in my opinion.  The point is WHY it's right though.  We've all seen it, and many of us have done it.  We wanted our horses to be our friends, and our dogs (er, I mean companion animal).  While they can be both, they will never be either human, nor canine, and we love them for exactly that reason.  They are HORSES.

Most animals have a dominance hierarchy.  Some one is in charge, and the others follow.  In horses, that is usually a mare (Herd mare, or alpha mare).  Because of the way we humans keep horses though, it can also be a gelding.  Now, stallions are often kept alone, but they can be run in a herd as well... it's just a bachelor group of all boys.  My boys do fine with this usually (it's a bit rough in spring though) and one of the stallions always ends up as the alpha.  This is because it's just how animals are.  We humans even do this, although we have "better" reasons for it.

In humans, we obey our boss, because if we don't, we don't get paid.  In horses, they obey the "boss" because she finds the best grass, organizes who gets water, and makes group tail swishing sessions.  It's pretty much the same reasons we have for listening to our boss, if you think about it.  Money buys all the things that the horses get directly from their boss:  Food, friends, and peace of mind.

These are my herd mares.  The bay, Hex, is the alpha, but most would think it is Jinx, the black, by watching their behavior.  Hex is a calm and mild mannered ruler.  She loves her herd, and especially loves the babies.  Jinx, her full sister, is a much more aggressive personality.  Jinx is actually the beta horse, and fill the role I call the "bouncer".  She does Hex's dirty work.

Hex decides where they eat.  The clover is good in the NW corner today, or the bermuda is lush in the south end.  Where Hex decides to graze is the side of the pasture that the entire herd tends to drift towards.  When something threatens the herd, they rarely panic until Hex moves out.  When they do panic, she shows them to run back to the houses, and humans come to make it better.  She's the brains of their mob mentality.

Jinx though, she's the strong arm.  She meets and "greets" the new horses into the herd.  That usually means some kicking and biting, and a lot of running.  Jinx's job is to show the new horses where the goods are, and what order the goods are handed out.  She also breaks up fights (usually by being the meanest horse there) and bullies those who try to take more then their share.  This is most evident at the water trough.  Sadly, Jinx is not as smart as Hex.  Hex knows things, so Jinx defers to her. 

Because my horses live on about 30 acres, they tend to come up to water as a group.  Hex and Jinx naturally get a drink first (I mean there is a privilege for being the boss, right?) and then they watch over the rest as they drink.  It's HOT here in Texas right now, and water is vital to life.  The horses haven't learned that there will always be water when they need it - they have very limited understanding of technology like that - so they tend to think only of the "now".  Like, "I want more NOW".  It's the job of the herd mares to make sure that one greedy horse does not prevent the other 15 from filling their bellies.  I'm lucky in that my girls do it well, and fairly.  Not all alpha mares are so benevolent though. 

So why do horses follow them?  Why don't they gang up and over throw them?

Because they are horses.  If other things eat you, then you want to be closest to the biggest, baddest, meanest, toughest, smartest horse there is!  If you're friends with that horse, then your chances of eating enough daily to run fast enough when needed, and beat the tar out of predators, is that much higher.  Who cares if the alpha is rude... they are the most likely to LIVE.  Living is a good thing when you're an animal that others tend to eat.

Now, compare this to dogs.  The alpha dog is often the strongest too, but it's a bit different.  If the alpha dog doesn't share, well, then the rest of the pack doesn't eat.  If the rest of the pack is weak, then they won't hunt as well, and the alpha will also go hungry.  Because of this, being "nice" matters more.  Give something to get something is a dog thing (ok, and humans too) but not a horse thing.

Dogs must find food.  Horses live on top of it.  Grass is everywhere!  And yes, that matters to how a horse thinks.

If you want to show a dog that you are more dominant then it, you give it food.  Food has no basis for horses' rank though.  They poop on it, sleep in it, and are surrounded by it!  For dogs, giving food means that you are a strong hunter, able to make a kill... for a horse it means you can lower your head.

That doesn't mean they don't LIKE it... just that their mindset about it is totally different.

And as most of us know, submission in dogs is based on showing vulnerability, and eye contact.  Belly up, not looking is a submissive animal.  Well, horses don't see so well, and they sure don't want to show you their vulnerable spots.  Submission in a horse is more about moving their feet.

It makes sense if you watch a herd though.  If alpha horse gets the best because it is the strongest, then running a horse away from it's prime location is a show of dominance.  The alpha "allows" others to groom it, on the alpha's time, when the alpha says.  That's also a form of moving its feet.  The whole mentality in horses is "you stand where I say, when I say, and you will live longer".  Since horses like to live, they like the leader who treats them this way.

Now, lets apply that to humans!

You want to be "nice" to your horse, so you give it cookies, groom it when it likes, and let it decide where to go.  To a dog, that would be showing leadership.  You have food, you have a comfortable place to live.  Well, in the horse's mind, you just told it that you are the submissive horse, and that your pony companion can move you at will.  "Moving at will" often means kicking.  Yes, being too kind to your horse is the same thing as saying "ok Dobbin, kick me when you want to".  This is just how horses are.  Just like we have some instincts that make us do stupid things (yeah, think back to your first crush, and look at all the stupid things you did before you disagree) horses have instincts that push their behavior too.

Somewhere someone is saying I'm wrong.  "But my horse LOVES me," you're thinking.  Well sure, but that has nothing at all to do with whether your horse would KICK you.  You may love your spouse, but that doesn't mean you won't yell at him or her.  It's the same thing.  See, a horse has a mind the size of a golf ball.  It's not exactly a big brain.  They do amazing things with it, but they are kinda limited.  To a horse, it doesn't make SENSE that kicking you would HURT you permanently.  I mean, they kick each other, and they've been kicked a lot.  You get on them and kick them, or use things that bite them, so obviously you understand the way it works in a herd.  So why is it that they can't kick you again?

In a horse's mind, there's only one real reason - you outrank them.  And if you don't, well, don't be shocked at what happens.  This is even MORE true if you have a more dominant type of horse.  That cute little baby there with Jae loving on her.... yeah, that's the horse that tore up my face.  She didn't MEAN to do it.  She was trying to kick another horse, because she out ranks the other horse.  In her mind, if I had a problem with it, I would have stopped her.  Instead, I just "went away" (into the dirt under their feet) so obviously her actions were allowed.  She IS the daughter of a herd mare after all, and 3rd in my herd rank right now.

Horses rarely hurt humans because they "mean to".  Most often we humans are just incidental.  Diva kicks at Sweetie and sends me to the ER.  Boo spooks at something falling, and sends my mother to the ER.  Poko chases Doodles, who steps on Jae, or the filly is running scares and looking behind her so doesn't see me standing in front of her, the car spooks the horse I'm riding....  This is how horses hurt humans.  Rarely does a horse think "I'm bigger then you, so you will do as I say".

Our problem is that we relate best to our dogs.  We have many similar instincts as they do.  We can do silly human things that make sense to them.  Dogs sleep in groups, so cuddling makes sense, while predators tend to "cuddle" on the horse's back/neck/legs.  Dogs have limited supplies of food, so treats make sense.  Horses live in food.  Dogs LIKE you because you're nice to them.  Horses LIKE you because you will live the longest, and help them live longer because they are close to you.

Being nice to a horse is something we do for our own minds, not the horse's.  How often are we baffled at an abused horse that shows affection to its abuser?  This is why: because horses are horses.  This same thing, though, is what makes us love them, and keeps us in awe of their power and grace.  It's part beauty, and part mystique.

Just think about how often you expect your horse to think like a human.  Now stop and think about how few humans can really think as well as you expect your horse to!  Humans have massive brains, with extra little parts in them to help with the thinking thing.  Horses have itty bitty little brains.  And yet, we - the large brained creatures - expect our horses to learn to do things our way.  Doesn't that sound a little bit backwards?

Instead, we should be learning to do things the horse's way.  They can't be as smart as we are.  A horse will never learn algebra, let alone calculus!  A horse will never be able to quote the great authors, nor recognize classical artwork.  But we always find ourselves expecting this type of thinking with them.  "Oh, my mare loves me, she'd never hurt me!".  We've all heard it before, right?  Hell, half (or more) of us have SAID it.  But hell yeah she'd hurt you.... if she thought it would save her from danger.  And really... horses see lions every where.  Danger is their way of life.  Remember, things tend to EAT them.  They are prey.

I've been lucky in my life.  I've only been kicked once.  I always said when it happened, it would be BAD, because I can only be lucky so often.  Now I was wrong in how I got hurt.  I assumed it would be Ash.  She is my most trusted horse, so I naturally figured that at some point I would "forget" to be cautious, and do something stupid, and get hurt bad because she reacted to something else.  Well, I was right in everything but the who part.  I did something stupid.  I got hurt.

I think I can say that for every time I've ever been hurt.  But they have never been the horse's fault.  The first time you even think it was the horse's fault, you've likely just realized you're treating your horse like a dog.  If you comfort your horse for acting afraid, your horse sees it as reward for acting that way.  You just trained your horse to do that every time!  We've all done it.  Hell, took me 3 months to figure out how to bridle Spot with out a fight, because he was fearful of being bitted up.  He'd act up, I'd try to calm him.  I showed him just how easy it was to delay putting on his bridle while getting nice scritches.  Eventually it dawned on me, and I slathered the bit in molasses, shoved it in, and put a flash on him.  The bit was secure, he got something yummie for having it where it should be, and there was no fight.  Easy, and he was rewarded.  He liked that.  He now takes his bit nice and easy, and really loves riding.  I treated him like a horse, and he became a better horse.

I've always thought that once we can wrap our minds around what it means to be a horse, and how truly different horses are from dogs, that owning horses is easier.

Now, I'm am NOT saying to go out and beat your horse to make it a "good" horsey.  Not at all.  I'm just saying that we should analyze our actions a bit more, and think about how the horse perceives them from a horse's point of view.  The article I cited earlier is about a lady whose horse is her "best friend" but only when it's convenient to the horse.  She explains how well she taught her horse that the horse makes all the decisions, and then complains that her horse is making all the decisions.  Why is she confused?  Because she was trying to treat her horse like it was a person, or a dog (more a person in her case I think).  But I focus on training novice horsemen/women, and the most common thing I see, is people who confuse horses with dogs.  They lift their hand to the horse's (vulnerable) head, for the horse to sniff.  Dogs have a keen sense of smell.  It is their strongest sense.  Horses rely on sound mostly, with smell as a secondary. 

Most of us would rarely walk up to a strange dog and flip it over, yet we do something that amounts to the same thing in horses.  How often have you seen the vet/farrier walk up to a horse and with out greeting the horse just pick up its leg?  Would you ever grab a strange dog's tail with out making sure the dog knew you were there?  Yet you want to put the horse's muzzle, where it can't see your hand?  And after we do this to our horses over and over, day after day, we're shocked when one time in a million it goes bad.  Horse's are amazing creatures.  They are kind, tolerant, and faithful.  But still, they are horses.  I think it's up to us as humans to respect them for that, and learn their ways, rather then blaming the horse when the horse acts like a horse.  Especially if we don't even know what a horse is supposed to act like.


  1. I've seen what happens when the hierarchy falls apart. When I was weaning foals, the alpha mare and the most submissive mare got into a match on whom was going to be closest to the barn where their two foals were stalled. The submissive mare was a much more protective mother and won that battle. That created chaos in the pasture as the other mares could still dominant the sub mare but the alpha mare couldn't. I quickly removed the sub mare from the herd so that the normal dynamics could be restored. Since the sub mare was the better broodmare I eventually sold the alpha mare and things went back to normal in the herd.

  2. I have often ruminated upon this subject since someone told me that "training dogs is just like training horses" thus meaning that if you are good at one, you will automatically be good at the other.
    I really like how you've distinguished that horses are prey and dogs are predators. That is a big difference!! There are some similarities, but they are not the "same."

  3. Laughing Orca RanchAugust 1, 2011 at 5:16 PM

    Oh yeah. as a novice horse owner with only limited experience working with and around horses while growing up, I know I treated my first horse like a dog, and I have slipped up a few times and done the same thing with my current horse, too. Sometimes horses make it too easy with their dog-like behavior and at other times it's that uncertainty of "Well, if I be nice to my horse, maybe when I ride it, it won't buck me off or be nasty with me". You can't help but think, "This creature is 10 times heavier than I am and can really do whatever it wants to. Why should it listen to me and do anything I ask it to do? If I was a horse, I probably wouldn't, especially if there was food to eat" lol!
    Speaking of food, my mare has no grass at all in her paddock...not a blade of grass or vegetation anywhere on the ground for her to graze.This is New Mexico and we only get rain from July-August, so no grass grows until then.

    I feed her hay and fill her hay mesh feeder twice a day, and sometimes I give her some grain mash or a few cookies. And once or twice a week, I might come fetch her and take her down to a grassy patch behind our house and permit her to graze it. Otherwise, I am in complete control of when, where, how and what she eats.
    So, I am her only link to any food that she gets. Does that change the herd dynamics at all?

    Great article/post, by the way. Very thought provoking. But I did miss your Fear Friday posting this week *pout*


  4. Laughing Orca RanchAugust 1, 2011 at 5:23 PM

    Oh and I meant to ask you what you thought of Clicker Training. I don't practice it at all, but I know people who do and who say it works very well and who swear that clicker training for dogs and for horses is done the same way. In fact they would probably tell you that you could have used Clicker Training to get that bridle on Spot and it would have been much easier, quicker and your horse would have been more agreeable and cooperative from the very start.
    How can Clicker Training be so successful for both species when dogs and horses are so different?


  5. You nailed it. So many people want there horses to "be their partner." Horses just don't think in those terms. There's a hierarchy within the herd, and that's what horses know. There are no equals. That's not to say that you can't love your horse, because I definitely do, but you have to understand that you have to "be the boss," or else the horse is. Someone has to be in charge.

  6. I have come a long way from the dog/horse path. I agree, horses want someone in charge. Ever since I started bossing around the dominant gelding in the paddock during feeding, I've seen a subtle change in my horse's attitude. (I boss around the gelding because he wasn't respecting my space when I go in to feed. He's good now.).

    As a dog trainer I have to say there are some similarities. Clicker training isn't about training a dog, per se, it's about using reward (whatever that reward is, treats, space, pets, energy of approval) in a set procedure. Nearly any creature learns this way - what you described for bitting, for example, is just reward based training. Getting a horse over being ear shy is reward/retreat.

    Maybe I see similarities where I shouldn't. Dogs need an alpha, and they want a strong alpha. They will show affection to an abuser. Dogs need consistency and fairness. Dogs need firm rules (whether people provide them is another matter, people don't get stomped by a chihuahua, so badly behaved ones aren't that big of a concern).

    The one area I'd have to agree things depart is dogs will do something for you out of love for you. Horses, in my experience, don't. They will work for the joy of the work (cow horses remind me of this all the time), but the rider, not so much.

    But they will respect you. Which is close to love. And in a horse's world, probably much more important.

  7. One has only to look back into my blog archives to see that I was guilty of attributing emotions to horses that they do not possess. It's a common and natural mistake when you're new to horses to try and equate them with something you do know: people and dogs. Once again, I have you and your family to thank for teaching me everything I know.

    That linked article was fantastic.

  8. So I've been mulling on this most of the day and I have one question - I'm very interested in what you & your commenters think if you have a sec to answer . . .
    Do you think that horses feel empathy for humans? Like- when "their" human is sad, or gets wounded (even if they did it). I just recently had a trainer/breeder tell me that horses are empathetic and I have had experiences with horses acting like, well - they care.
    What do you guys think?

  9. That was a great blog post and linked article! So many times, I've heard people comment or ask how their horses feel about this or that? I think people are afraid they'll hurt the horse or it's feelings, when in reality the horse can KILL them without any intention or second thoughts on behalf of the horse.

    Some of my favorite rides are when my horse and I are "partners" which means that when I want to do something, they are willing partners and go right along with me, without any hesitation. It does not mean we are equals. Always, one must guide the horse, no matter how subtly.

    I have a two year old filly who thinks she is the alpha horse. She was born to the alpha mare and so she bosses all the other horses around, even her own mother, although I have seen Annie stand up to her more often in recent times, in regards to eating grain, especially. I also need to show her that she cannot boss me around. However, I am not as prepared as the other stable mates and cannot fend off her kicks like they can without getting hurt. I find it's the young ones who test the rules most and are so often unpredictible in their behavior, that they can hurt people the worst. I work carefully around her, but I'm always trying to push her around just a little more until one day she realizes that I truly am the "Boss".

    I do believe horses feel affection towards each other and their humans even if it's not in the same blind adoration of a dog towards it's master. Quite possibly, because many horses are stabled and food is not around them 24/7. They are dependent on their humans for food but it's not only that which draws their affection towards us. Going on rides is enjoyable for many horses and even when my horse was stabled at a barn where I was not the one feeding, I still received welcoming nickers. No, I did not have treats with me either. Grooming is an enjoyed activity that many horses appreciate too.
    Visit with my horses and you'll realize that Yalla! and her mother do not only crave treats. They want to be near people.

    Yalla! and her mother, Annie,are Arabians and they are known for being extra people friendly. After all, they've shared tents with humans for thousands of years. There are many legends of horses' faithfulness to their masters such as this famous legend. Al Khamsa refers to the five favorite horses of the prophet Muhammad. According to this folklore, Mohammed denied his mares water for three days as a test of endurance and stamina. He then released the mares to run to an oasis and quench their thirst. As a test of loyalty, the mares were called back by the sound of the battle horn before reaching the water. Of the hundreds of mares charging forward, only five stopped and returned to Mohammed. These became known as "the five". Each of these brave and loyal mares was given a strain name -- Kehilan, Seglawi, Abeyan, Hamdani and Hadban -- and was carefully bred, creating the foundation of the Arabian Horse's Bedouin bloodlines. Arabian horses that can trace all of their bloodlines to these Bedouin strains are collectively known as "Al Khamsa Arabians".

    Okay, that went off topic but I do believe that sometimes, there is loyalty and affection towards humans. Plus, I love that story. Don't we all wish we had one of those five special mares?

  10. Great post!

    I learned the basics of prey animals from Temple Grandin's book Animals in Translation. That book talks a lot about cows, but a bit about horses. Horses are way closer to cows than they are to dogs anyway!

    Laughing Orca - yes, clicker training works. It works best, IMO, if you're not in a hurry and you already have a good leadership position with your horse. I don't use it for every situation, but I've had good luck with it. I use it when it's ok for the horse to "say no." Like, I want my horse to go past spooky trash cans on the road, no matter what. That's not an option. But if I'm not in a hurry, I'll use clicker training to encourage her to touch the scary trash can. She can say "no, I don't want to touch it" and that's fine - but she still has to walk (or skitter) past it, either way. Make sense?

  11. I tried clicker training for fun once and taught Jaz to move a ball. It's amazing how quickly they pick stuff up when there's food involved. I wouldn't use it as foundation training, though.

  12. You know, we're in the middle of a drought, so pretty much the same situation here (although I still have some sticks of dead stuff, but not much). And truth be told I have no idea if that changes it, BUT, I have a theory.

    I think it's more of an instinct for them to assume food is or food is not available. Kinda like we think of air. Now, with that said, they DO appreciate treats and "good food" (the sweet spot to graze, etc) but in MY opinion, they never really have the whole "you gave me food, so you allow me to live" mentality that dogs do. It's more the appreciation that humans have of chocolate or jewelry... something special. If that makes sense.

  13. See you actually just nailed the problem though. The end result is almost the same, but the path to get there is backwards. That is what is different between horses and dogs.

    Many people out there naturally tailor their actions to the subtle clues they are given, and handle the differences well with out even realizing it. But those who try to do it by the numbers (first this, then that, and if that doesn't work then this next step... always) are the ones who have the most trouble.

    I'll hit on love here in a second. You inspired me =)

  14. I actually think that the problem with how we give animals human characteristics is mostly due to language. Look at the word love as an example. LOVE is a very vague term. It could mean the bond a mother has for a child, or a husband for his wife, or a pedophile for young inappropriate children. Sometimes it's used in a good way, some times a bad way, but it's simply 4 letters on a page. It's the nuances and understanding of the social aspects around it that makes the difference (i.e. pedophiles are BAD).

    So when we discuss our horses, we use these vague terms to get the ideas across. My horse loves me - well what kind of love? My horse trusts me - about what exactly. The language we need to learn about horses, but it's not clear and concise enough to always get the exact same point across to ever single person. =)

  15. Ha! Another great thought there. The short answer is yes I do think they have empathy, but it's not some special magical power. I often joke that my horses have ESP (Extra Sensory Perception) but in reality, it's just the way the horse's mind and language works. Horses read body language as their main form of communication, in relationship to smells, and sounds, this allows them to make decisions based upon putting it all together.

    Like I said, they have itty bitty brains, but they use them oh so well!

  16. Laughing Orca RanchAugust 2, 2011 at 2:12 PM

    I'm not so sure. I think this is where anthropomorphism comes into play at times.
    After my mare kicked me in the eye last summer, I don't remember her coming back to check on me to make sure I was still alive. And even as I stumbled my way back through the gate and to the house, she never came over to tell me she was sorry or that she felt bad for almost killing me.
    It took me a couple weeks before I was ok enough to visit her up at the barn, and when I finally did, she did seem glad to see me (or was that just my feelings projected on her?), and she she did sniff my face where the wounds still were. Did she recognize that she was the one who caused them? Or did she feel empathy about me being hurt. I really can't say for sure. But I don't think so.

    After my first horse dumped me and ran off, I found her with her chest pushed into the fence of my neighbor's horse corral, shaking and trembling.
    Was she sorry for getting me dumped? Was she worried I was hurt? Or was she still scared about whatever it was that spooked her? Or perhaps worried that I might smack her for dumping me then leaving me (I would never do that, of course)?
    After I had my ACL surgery for my fall-induced injury and I was finally able to hobble up to the pasture with my walker, did my horse come over to apologize, or show worry, or concern over my injuries? Nah.
    She saw me hobbling around, and took off to the other side of the pasture and even though I was crying (both because I was hurting and because I was disappointed my horse shunned me), she refused to come any closer to me.

    I'm not sure that a horse's idea of empathy is the same as ours. And I don't know what they consider worthy of showing empathy about, if anything.


  17. Another excellent article from you. I think a part of the reason we as humans try to interct with horses as though they had true "dog like" feeling is from the books that were read in the early years. There are too many to list, but I'll bet the farm that most of us reading this right now have read at least one of those wonderful horse stories and truly wish it were true. Good for you for explaining the real difference between the two in the "real world"

  18. In my experience when I've been dumped, the only reason the horse turned around to check on me was I think, to wonder why I was on the ground. I do know, that when I am in a real cranky mood, it' definately reflects on how my rides goes. I don't think it's empathy. I wish it was, I think we all do.