When it comes to horses, there is no shortage of myths, lore, and home remedies, both among equestrians and non-equestrians alike. Some of these stand the test of time, some have been disproven in recent years, and some have been so misinterpreted and taken out of context that it’s laughable.
Horse Myths That are Definitely Not True
Horses Can’t See Color
Horses see color, they just see it differently than we do. Humans have three different types of retinal cells which allow them to see four basic unique hues (blue, green, red, and yellow), and about a hundred intermediate colors that are blends of these four unique colors. Horses, however, have two-color, or dichromatic vision. This means that they have only two unique hues (thought to be blue and yellow), and no intermediate colors. Objects of other colors either appear as white/grey or a desaturated version of one of the basic hues.
Hot and Cold-Blooded Horses Have a Difference in Body Temperature
Like all mammals, horses are warm-blooded, so the informal terms hot-blooded and cold-blooded are not descriptions of a horse’s internal body temperature at all, but of their personality and body type. Light horse breeds meant for riding, like Arabians and Thoroughbreds, are referred to as hot-blooded, and are usually more spirited and energetic, while draft breeds meant for heavy pulling, like Percherons, Clydesdales, and Belgians, are referred to as cold-blooded and known for their calm temperaments.
Horses Only Sleep Standing Up
Horses can sleep standing up, and they often do, but occasionally they need to sleep lying down to get the proper amount of REM sleep. Since horses only lay down when they are very comfortable in their surroundings, it’s a good thing they don’t need as much REM sleep as humans.
You Should Walk or Stand Behind a Horse
While this is good basic advice for new horse people, it might be the most inaccurate blanket statement ever made. There are many reasons to walk or stand behind a horse, and if done correctly, it poses no more threat than any other interaction with these thousand-pound creatures. If you’re braiding a horse’s tail or ground driving or working a horse in long lines, you will have to stand or walk behind your horse. And, when it comes to horses that like to bite, if done correctly sometimes walking behind them is safer than walking in front of them.
You Should Never Let a Colicking Horse Lay Down
This age-old advice has been proven false in recent years. Today’s veterinarians agree that if the horse is laying quietly, he can be left alone to rest. If he begins to roll violently it is still best to walk him, as rolling could cause the horse to injure himself, or go into shock faster. However, there is little chance that rolling will twist the intestines, as previously thought. Horses have been our partners for thousands of years, so we’ve had time to create a lot of myths about them. Next time think twice before repeating an old equestrian platitude, it may not be as true as you think.
Domestic Horses Don’t Self-Regulate
For many years there have been romanticized articles published claiming that horses will only eat what they need. It is important that this should be addressed once and for all, as it can cause harm to horses when owners believe inapplicable information. As the truth is this just doesn’t happen in domestic equines. This is because when we have domesticated animals of any kind, they stay in a permanent adolescence status and never fully develop an adult mindset, despite being fully grown physically. This behavior happens because domestication changes an animal’s development primarily because humans take care of their needs. So, to understand this behavior in human terms it would be like asking a 5-year-old child to self-regulate between eating candy or broccoli. You don’t have to guess which one they would choose, and our domestic horses are no different. As they will go for sweet over healthy foodstuffs every time. It’s easy to prove this behavior, as unfortunately we see thousands of horses all over the world eating foods that are bad for them, including sugary lush grasses and high calorie concentrates, that cause our horses to develop deathly conditions such as Laminitis and other food related issues, (obesity) all brought about by gorging on these unsuitable foodstuffs. It’s also why if you were to take the lid off your food bin and offer it to your horse that they would eat the whole lot of it. He or she would not self-regulate in any way, shape, or form, hence where the saying comes from of “eating like a horse”
Another myth in association with this that we also need to debunk is that horses know how much of say a mineral they need to eat to balance their nutritional needs. Again this is not true of domestic horses, who rarely ingest the right amount of nutrients for health, especially if for example these items are left as free choice minerals or licks in the paddock, which is why they don’t work efficiently to meet all of your horse’s nutritional needs. There is no doubt that some horses enjoy licking at a mineral block, while other horses will eat a whole lick overnight and gorge on it like it’s a lollipop, and yet others won’t ever touch it, yet we have seen veterinary blood studies showing these same mineral deficient horses to be lacking in the very minerals on offer in these licks, but the horses don’t eat it, which again clearly shows these stories of self-regulation cannot be relied upon for our equines health.
A lot of these myths were born from the witnessed behavior of people studying feral/ wild/ undomesticated horses and then others misinterpretation of that being thought to be the same for our paddocked horses, which as we can see is not the case. So it’s only self reliant feral/ wild/ undomesticated horses, that have had no human contact, that develop a genuine wild animal “self regulation” which comes about through their previous experiences causing problems caused by over-eating or from eating the wrong foods etc., that threatens their very survival, which maps memory to make a permanent behavior to avoid doing that again, hence why this group of horses develops the ability to self regulate. Obviously this is very different to the upbringing that the majority of the horses any of us have in our paddocks have experienced, who are rarely left foraging on 100+ acres with their families for several years while they grow and learn. Therefore I would calculate that it’s this mix up between wild and domestic behavior that causes some to erroneously believe that self-regulation happens in domestic horses.
Some may see the occasional rare domestic horse displaying natural self-regulating behaviors like this, often if they have come from wild/feral stock such as with Mustangs/Kaimanawas/ Brumbies or their immediate descendants etc., but for the most part for 99.9% of us that is not going to happen. So the best way to address your domestic horse’s nutritional needs is to offer a species appropriate balanced diet including low sugar grasses, and hay, while providing a synergistically blended multi mineral and vitamin formula in a daily bucket feed to make sure you regulate your horse’s diet rather than relying on this mythic self-regulation.
Leading Your Horse
Leading a horse is not pulling it around by the lead rope. You should lead your horses on a slack rope. The harder you pull the harder you will have to pull. Light touches and request will teach your horse to follow you and respond to you rather than to feel he is always in a tug of war with you. Soft hands make soft horses, hard hands make hard horses. A lead rope should be used as a suggestion cue and not as a pull rope. Many people feel the need to hang on the area where the lead rope attaches to the halter. This is annoying to a horse and will cause him to ignore pulls and changes in pressure to his halter. The less you move, pull or hang on the halter, the more the horse will pay attention when you use it as a cue.
Don’t hang, pull, tug, fiddle, swing or mess with your lead rope or reins. These are used to give a cue not for you to annoy the horse or occupy your idol or nervous hands. When leading your horse try and lead it with no rope. Try and put your hand under the chin and on the opposite cheek of the horse. If you lead your horse like this with a rope, soon you will not need a rope. Another way is to place your hand on the withers while leading your horse on a lead rope, soon your horse will learn to walk with you if you place your hand on his withers. You should also try and lead your horse with other things. Try and lead with your belt or shirt around his neck, a hay string or other string. Never pull a horse straight, you can’t do it, he will learn to pull and you will lose. Always pull and release at an angle so you take away the horse’s ability to pull straight back. You can tell someone who does not understand a horse when they continue to pull straight on a horse until they cause the horse to rear and they say their horse needs a stud chain. Leading is about getting a horse to follow you without pulling it. Less is more.
Clinton Anderson is the owner of Downunder Horsemanship.