Equine ethology is a relatively new field that emerged in the 1970s. It seeks to study the behaviour of horses in their natural environment. Thanks to these studies, we now have easy keys to understanding horses, interacting with them and providing them with better care.
One of these studies, carried out in 1972 by the National Studs (now the French Horse and Riding Institute), consisted of setting up experimental herds of horses for ten years. The idea ? To observe them better in order to understand them better.
What is ethology ?
Ethology is the science of animal behaviour. It concerns the different types of social and individual behaviour of animals. It consists of observing animals in their natural environment in order to better understand them, and therefore to better communicate with them.
A good example is the study of bees by Karl Von Frisch (1886-1982). This study enabled him to discover the "bee dance", when bees communicate with each other to signal the presence of interesting food. This behaviour is innate because it is dictated by their genes.
The main principles of equine ethology
One is not born a horseman. You become one by learning to understand them in order to better communicate with them. A horseman is not necessarily a rider who respects his mount, but any person who loves and seeks to understand horses by observing or caring for them.
In horsemanship, it is better to get what you want through the equine's adhesion and not through force. To achieve this, it is wise to ask your horse for what you are sure you can get. Clearly, man is neither a predator nor a dominant for the horse. He must seek to establish a complicity with his horse and obtain its cooperation.
To achieve this, the rider must use pedagogy, be patient, calm and fair. In short, he must adopt the right state of mind by being the horse's referent, not its tamer (even during dressage). Like a good father, the man must be reassuring to his horse. The horse must have confidence in the rider and not be afraid of him. In order for the horse to respect the man, it is necessary to understand his needs and be consistent in his demands while moderating his requirements.
Note : USA was late in adopting the principles of equine ethology. The movie (The Man Who Whispered in Horses' Ear) in the 1990s clearly contributed to the fact that this animal science is no longer confidential or taboo in USA. However, it was not until 2006 that a conference on equine ethology was organised by the National Stud.
Horse ethology : the keys to success
The different keys to success in ethology are : knowing how to observe, questioning oneself, controlling oneself, and being constant in one's demands.
Knowing how to observe
"Being a good rider" and "knowing how to observe" are inseparable. Taking the time to observe your horse in a meadow is very enriching, because you learn a lot about the way it behaves in a group. Let's not forget that the horse is a gregarious animal that does not like to be alone.
What can observation of horses reveal ?
- We can recognise the dominant, the dominated and their place in the hierarchy. We can also detect their different modes of communication according to the posture of their limbs or ears.
- You can tell if your horse is in good health. If you have developed a great complicity with your horse, you know each other practically by heart. And at a glance, you should be able to tell what state of mind your companion is in today.
The aim is not to remain on one's achievements, but to know how to progress from day to day. To achieve this, it is essential to know how to question oneself, to be humble and to be able to criticise oneself : it is not always the horse's fault ! You have to know how to recognise your mistakes. And more importantly, to know how to rectify the situation when it proves necessary.
Your horse has done his exercises well, he has given you the best of himself, he has taken a step in the right direction ? Do not hesitate to reward him with caresses or your soft voice. Gestures, as well as the look and the voice, allow to communicate with the horse.
When you are afraid, you have difficulty controlling yourself and the horse will sense this as you approach. Try to approach him in the right frame of mind. Even if he is powerful and massive, take courage and work on yourself to get rid of your apprehension. Take a deep breath and moderate your heart rate.
Self-control involves the following behaviours :
- Know how to control yourself to approach your mount and learn to channel your energy.
- When you approach your horse, walk with a confident stride, look squarely at your horse, then talk to him and stroke him with a steady hand.
- Be consistent in your gestures as body language is essential to communicate with your horse. Don't hesitate to spend a lot of time with your horse and be tactful with him. If you are attentive, your companion will teach you a lot in return.
Horses have habits, and they hate to change them. The same applies to your attitude towards his behaviour. When you change your attitude, it is destabilising and unsafe for him.
In summary :
- Be constant and consistent in your communication. Your horse puts his ears back and tries to bite you when you saddle him ? Punish him every time, with the same word ("No !") and the same gesture, and not once in a while. It is through repetition that he understands what is right and what is wrong.
- Conversely, as soon as you have obtained a positive response from your horse, always have the reflex to use the downward aid (stop all action, release hands and feet).
- Finally, the learning process requires the calm and composure of the rider or horseman. Give him time to assimilate what you expect of him. Talleyrand said : "With a horse, I go slowly, because I am in a hurry".
Grooming, a major asset of equine ethology
A major asset of ethology is grooming. Grooming is not only hygienic, it is also a way to please the horse: horses love these massages, which relax them.
Grooming also aims to get the horse used to being touched on all parts of its body. This is very useful during the breaking-in period.
Take the time to groom your horse, as it is a special time for you and your horse to get to know each other better. Grooming allows you to develop a real relationship of trust with your horse, and to communicate with him.