Survival instincts

Everything a horse does that is counter-productive to the humans wishes derives from one of the two survival instincts of the horse. If you can develop an understanding of these two survival instincts and then combine them with the skills and techniques of horsemanship, you will find the answer to all the problems you may encounter when forming a partnership with the horse.

I always relate back to the wild horse when describing the survival instincts. This is because the wild horse’s reactions are pure and easily understood. All domestic horses have the instincts of the wild horse and they come to the fore when the domestic horse is troubled or misunderstood.

It is my belief that the domestic horse is only one generation away from being wild. If we were to turn our horses loose, the progeny of our tame horses would be as wild as any wild horse of many generations. This demonstrates how strong the survival instincts are in the horse.


Horses are flight animals. This means they are designed to run from danger. Either perceived or real. It is not uncommon for some domestic horses to run blindly through fences or crash into obstacles in their path when they are badly frightened.

In the wild, when a horse senses a threat, it runs as fast as it can away from the perceived threat. After it has run a certain flight distance, around 440 metres, only then will it turn its head to check out what frightened it.


It is the horse’s ability to switch from survival mode/right brain to reasoning mode/left brain that enables us to teach him. When resisting us the horse is often in right brain, demonstrating this flight mode with a need to constantly move his feet, ie run. If we can allow him to run for some time [flight distance] then cause him to change direction often, this will help him to change from right brain to left brain. When we can help him to change to left brain we have now got the horse in his reasoning mode and can help him learn what we want him to do. Or better still, set up a line of communication with him.

A quick note on desensitisation.

Desensitisation is a technique we use to get the horse to accept things that it is afraid of. Essentially, desensitisation is capitalising on the horse’s ability to switch from flight mode to reasoning and go check out what frightened it. We will discuss desensitizing more later however, it is important to realize that desensitising the horse is associated to its number one survival instinct, flight.


Domination is the need a horse has to place itself somewhere in the hierarchy of the herd. This survival instinct is the one we deal with most often when working with the domestic horse. Mainly because the domestic horse usually doesn’t (or shouldn’t) fear us, so the flight instinct does not get triggered, leaving us to deal with the second survival instinct, domination.

A horse’s need to dominate comes from his need to work his way up the social scale in the horse herd. Every society whether it be horses, chickens or man has a social structure. It is this social structure enables the herd or society to survive.

If there is a mob of ten horses in a pasture, there will be a lead horse, this horse we will call horse number one. Horse number one dominates all the other horses right through to horse number ten. Horse number two respects and is dominated by horse number one but dominates all those horses beneath it right through to horse number ten. This pattern continues right through to poor old horse number ten who gets pushed around by all the other nine horses above it in the pecking order. However, horse number ten sees his human come to the gate and thinks to himself “aha here comes horse number eleven!!”

Our horse is going to pigeon hole us either above or below him in his social structure. We humans cannot afford to be below the horse in this social structure. The horse has a kick more powerful than our best boxers can punch and the horse’s reaction times are much quicker than the best of our athletes. We cannot compete one on one in a physical sparring match with the horse. We must use our intelligence to ensure we stay above the horse in the domination stakes or within the horses social structure.