There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that out of every 1,000 horses, 999 are smarter than the person riding them.

    We give the horse credit for having the mentality of a three-year-old child.  We don’t give them enough credit for being “consistent and reasonable”.

    Genuine communication with the horse is possible only through knowledge of the horse’s mental processes which are: herd instinct, need for security, and the following instinct; the love of routine, excitability and nervousness; sensitivity, memory and courage.  

    Even though most horses don’t run in a herd today, it is the companionship instinct which is the strongest. Untrained and young horses are most reluctant to leave a group.  When the training process begins, they are frequently forced to do just that and the trouble begins.

    The herd instinct, however, can be exploited, and is by the intelligent trainer. Young horses are often accompanied by older, trained horses.  Training areas by design are close enough to the familiar stall or corral, with equine friends nearby.  Young horses are often first exposed to unfamiliar obstacles – such as crossing water, by watching an older companion navigate the challenge.  Young horses being schooled are worked “toward” their friends, rather away from the group.

    The need for security is reinforced as the horse learns to respect and trust the trainer.  The horse becomes secure, and therefore calm – a prerequisite to training.

    The “following instinct” is of great advantage to the trainer. Once the horse respects and trusts the trainer, the natural instinct to obey and follow the leader helps the horse learn.  The horse looks to the trainer for guidance and responds.

    The love of routine supports the horse’s need for security.  Good trainers develop a training program that follows a routine, repeating basic steps and building upon them.  The poor horseman jumps from one exercise to another, never establishing any foundation.  An erratic training schedule leads to frustration and confusion to the horse, and a loss of security and trust.

    Horses are by nature excitable and nervous, both required by animals viewed as prey.  The horse’s nervous system is highly tuned, and a loud, impatient trainer will make things worse.

    Linked to excitability and nervousness is the great sensitivity of the horse, without which it would be impossible to achieve subtle aids.  Watching a well-trained horse perform with undetectable cues is a testament to their sensitivity.

    The most useful attribute of the horse’s mind is his extraordinary memory. Put in the correct things, and the trainer will get the correct response.  Put in anything else, and that’s what the trainer will get back.  It is hard to undo undesirable learned behavior in the horse.  For the memory to work well the horse must be praised or corrected without delay.

    The horse’s great courage is demonstrated by his repeated and often thwarted attempts to trust man. Despite failure to provide a horse with opportunities to trust and follow us he will still attempt to do so.  

    W.C. Fields said, “Horse sense is the thing a horse has that keeps it from betting on people.”  I agree. It’s knowing that a horse has sense that has me betting on the horse 999 times out of 1,000.  


Visit to earn certification as a horse trainer, riding instructor or stable manager, or work toward a Bachelor of Science degree in Equine Studies.  All courses online.