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Miller’s Insight Into Basic Horse Behaviors


By Leigh Ballard         

Robert Miller, DVM, is an internationally known veterinarian and horse behaviorist. In his book, Understanding the Ancient Secrets of the Horse’s Mind, he enlightens the reader on several horse behaviors that are important to understand for achieving success with horses. Although horses have been domesticated for thousands of years, their instincts still dominate their behavior. 

Horses are precocial animals, meaning that, at birth, they are neurologically developed, and within a short time, physically able to survive by following their mother. As a prey species, this trait is critical to their survival. Unlike predator species (e.g., hawks, wolves, humans), which take weeks, months, or even years to be able to survive, horses are fully functioning soon after birth. In this early time of their lives, they quickly learn behaviors which are crucial for their survival, and their future behaviors are easily influenced and molded.

After some years in veterinary practice, Dr. Miller discovered that foals whom he handled extensively immediately after birth, usually due to delivery complications, tended to be gentler than those who were left alone. From this observation, he began his experiments with imprinting newborn foals. Because foals are able to learn so quickly after birth, humans can teach them to respond to stimuli without fear. Freedom from fear decreases their natural flight response, and they are more easily handled.  Initially, his efforts focused on practical veterinary goals, like ensuring the foals would tolerate examinations, handling all parts of the body, clipping, etc. without fear or argument. Later he realized he could include techniques which would make a foal more easily trainable in the future. He learned he could control the foals’ movement with a light pressure and the removal of that pressure. The foals learned to move from pressure in any direction, and this was learned quickly and was retained.

The horse’s natural response to pressure is important to understand when handling horses. The tendency to push into pressure rather than away from pressure is called Opposition Reflex.  Many animals,’ especially horses,’ instinctive first response to pressure is to move into it rather than to yield to it. How to manage this behavioral reaction is important for humans to understand because almost all of training involves controlling movement with pressure.  Leading, tying, and riding cues are all based on yielding to pressure. When a human understands that a horse must learn to ignore its instinctive opposition reflex, training will go much more smoothly! Miller’s early imprint training for responding to light pressure is useful here.

If the Opposition Reflex behavior is not recognized and dealt with appropriately, humans can inadvertently instill bad habits and dangerous situations might be the result. Miller gives the example of a horse in a small stall, crowding the handler. The usual human response to crowding is to push on the horse, which often causes the horse to push even more strongly toward the person, due to the Opposition Reflex. Miller says a better response is Tapping.

Miller gives an example of using the Opposition Reflex to slow down a horse that wants to rush backwards out of a trailer. The handler can push strongly against the chest while unloading the horse, and often the horse will respond with the Opposition Reflex, resisting being moved backwards and, therefore, slowing down the backward movement out of the trailer.

Horse herds are held together by a social dominance hierarchy. The most dominant horse achieves its place by controlling movement of the herd, and the dominant horse is the leader. Miller observed that the control over the foals’ movement (mentioned above) had a dominating effect on them. He discovered that the human could be seen as the dominant individual (or herd leader.) Miller understood that control of horses is achievable because we assume leadership roles by controlling movement.

In regard to foals, Miller realized the importance of Allelomimetic Behavior in learned behavior development.  Sometimes called allomimetic, this behavior is a range of activities in which the performance of a behavior increases the probability of that behavior being performed by other nearby animals. This is copycat or imitative behavior, and it especially influences young horses. Miller points out that behavior of broodmares, or even other horses with which a young horse lives, can significantly affect the young horse’s temperament and behavior.

The tendency to mimic behaviors can be a useful tool for training young horses. For example, balking is common with young horses because they are fearful of or intimidated by new, unfamiliar situations. When leading a horse that balks, one can continue walking, in place if necessary, to model the behavior one wants from the horse. Gentle, well trained horses can be used to model the behavior wanted from the young horse when loading in a trailer, riding out on a trail, and for other new and potentially frightening experiences. The young horse mimics the calm demeanor and behavior presented by the other. Conversely, an ill-mannered broodmare models cantankerous behavior for her foal to mimic.

Miller explains how Operant Conditioning shapes behavior. Operant Conditioning is a learning process whereby a behavior is modified by its consequences. The term was first coined by behavioral psychologist B. F. Skinner in 1937.

Behavior that receives positive reinforcement is repeated and becomes consistent.  Miller prefers to characterize reinforcements as either comfortable or uncomfortable, rather than calling them rewards or punishments. These reinforcements can be psychological or physical. Operant Conditioning gives reinforcement or rewards when a desired behavior occurs voluntarily. Miller gives the example of teaching a horse to back up using rein pressure which is uncomfortable. As soon as the horse takes one step back, rein pressure is dropped and the event becomes comfortable. After repetition, usually with three identical experiences, the horse becomes “conditioned” in his response to that particular stimulus and seeks “comfort” by voluntarily backing up when the rein pressure is applied. A process called Successive Approximation gradually adds more steps and shorter times to the response, and ultimately leads to a very responsive horse. Miller offers a well-trained cutting horse as a dramatic example of Operant Conditioning.

Conditioning requires consistent reinforcement and is a gradual process. The chief effective ingredient that a trainer can bring to the process is Patience. The other very important factor is Perceptivity: how quickly the trainer can perceive the response and offer reinforcement. This Perceptivity is important because sometimes undesirable behaviors develop because they are unwittingly “rewarded.” Miller discusses many misbehaviors that are actually learned responses, a result of conditioning.

Miller’s astute observations shed light on the “secrets” of horse behavior. His clear examples and in-depth but simple explanations about why horses are the way they are make his book very easy to read. His insight and very useful concepts are noteworthy. Understanding them can show us how we can achieve the success we seek with these beautiful, but often perplexing and frustrating, animals. This knowledge can also show us how our behavior may be leading to undesirable behavior and consequences with our companion horses.

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