The Psychology of Equus: An HHC Student’s Investigation


How do horses interact with novel stimuli, and does personality play a role?

By Asila Bergman
2017 HHC Student

This topic was explored with the help of three horses with previously unknown histories at Drifter’s Hearts of Hope rescue facility in Franktown, CO. The main goals of this project were to learn how horses in general use their body language and energy to communicate how they experience, feel, and learn about new things in their environments, as well as how each individual horse interacts with novel stimuli, and what this can tell us about his/her personality. Another goal was to explore these exercises as possible enrichment activities that could be used by the rescue
to encourage exploration, curiosity, and creativity in horses that may benefit from environmental stimulation.
The horses that participated in this project were Captain (12 yrs), Jack Sparrow ( 13 yrs), and Rosy (20 yrs). Since little was known about their origins, their ages were estimated. All three horses were rescued from a feedlot, and were together at a quarantine facility prior to arriving at the rescue. This project began within a few days following their arrival. They were all healthy and sound, and cleared by a vet to participate in this project.
Each horse participated in three exercises: obstacle course at liberty; obstacle course in-hand; and scent enrichment. The obstacle course consisted of nine obstacles made with a variety of different objects, and was designed for the horses to either walk across, through, over, or under, and was set up in an indoor arena. Some examples of the obstacles include: plastic chairs in two rows creating a lane to walk through; a tarp covered with swim noodles to walk over; car wash strips hanging down to walk through; wooden teeter totter to step onto and walk across. The horses were encouraged to explore the obstacle course at liberty with handlers applying pressure/release
using body language and line, and in-hand with handlers applying pressure/release with the Dually Halter.

For the scent enrichment activity, the horses were given the opportunity to explore four scents (rosemary, lavender, peppermint, and eucalyptus) in 5 min, using free choice. Each scent box was made by putting 5 drops of the designated oil onto a paper towel and placing it inside of a plastic Tupperware container with several holes in the lid. The scent boxes were presented by sliding them under the gate, and placing them on the ground in each of the horse’s run area.
During the obstacle course at liberty, Captain approached and investigated several of the obstacles almost immediately, and was exhibiting curious and relatively confident behavior. Within a few minutes of being in the arena he walked up to one of the chairs and picked it up. His level of confidence and comfort could be due to the fact that he was not alone, and also had a familiar horse, Rubicon, in the arena with him. While working their way through the obstacle course with handlers, it became apparent that when Captain was given clear instructions through body language, he was able to follow them without much hesitation or fear. He was comfortable with objects touching him on the sides, as well as stepping up and over objects. He did not require a large amount of pressure from his handler (via body language/distance) in order to work up the
courage to cross any of the obstacles that he was presented with, and appeared to enjoy taking the lead. From observing him, it appeared that the value for him in the obstacle course at liberty was exploration, being allowed to influence his environment, and showing Rubicon where to go.

Captain exhibited similar behavior during the obstacle course in-hand. His handler noted that when she allowed him to make the decisions about which path to take, he often was seeking out and investigating obstacles on his own. She described him as being very keen, intelligent, and independent. He was also engaged with her during the obstacle course, and not afraid to have a voice in the process. He had many moments when he wanted to speed the process up, and sometimes got bored relatively quickly depending on the obstacle, where as during other more difficult obstacles (e.g. teeter totter), he needed some shaping, as well as more clarity and confidence in order to get through the entire obstacle. The value for Captain during this exercise was working through the difficult obstacles with his handler as a partner—because he is so
independent, it takes practice for him to take direction and leadership from others.

When the scent boxes were placed in Captain’s run, he immediately approached them to
investigate. He used his mouth and lips to touch each box as he sniffed them, and although he moved from one box to another pretty quickly, he spent the most time near lavender and peppermint. Captain spent approximately 30 seconds investigating the scent boxes, and then turned his back to them and walked to the other end of the run. Captain was inquisitive and interested by this exercise, but once he had taken a whiff of each of the boxes, he lost interest relatively quickly.

Jack Sparrow
During the obstacle course at liberty, Jack spent the first several minutes in the corner of the arena near the mirrors, showing that he was fearful in the new environment and was seeking safety with other horses, so he remained near his reflection. Once he was asked by his handler to move through the course at liberty, he was able to complete several of the obstacles. Through observations of Jack during the obstacle course, his behavior was somewhat distrusting, as if he was preparing for things to get uncomfortable, or go wrong. He was not completely checked out, but did show a fear of engaging and a lack of confidence. His behavior showed his need for security and comfort. As the session continued and he received clear communication from his
handler, he showed more of a willingness to connect. The value for Jack during this exercise was being challenged, and gaining confidence by being thrown out of his comfort bubble, and in doing so, learning that not all experiences with new environments/objects/people have to be negative.

Jack’s sensitive side came out even more during the obstacle course in-hand. He was extremely tentative going through all of the obstacles that were asked of him. Although he didn’t spook or start, it was still very apparent that he was fearful, and told his handler this by planting his feet at the edge of each obstacle and resisting forward movement. He only moved forward off of very light and gentle pressure on the halter, and needed lots of shaping and repetition in order to feel comfortable completing an obstacle. He also needed lots of praise, extra care, and encouragement during this process. In watching Jack move through the obstacle course in-hand, it seemed that the
value for him came from learning to trust, and that by being willing to try, he learned he could rely on his handler to not put him in harm’s way.

Jack was eager to approach the scent boxes as soon as they were placed in his run. He was very curious and engaged during this exercise, and showed a side of his personality that we had not seen in either of the obstacle course sessions. He began exploring the eucalyptus scent first, and spent the most time with this box. He first sniffed it, then picked it up in his teeth, then pawed at it until it opened, at which point he briefly explored the scented paper towel. He then moved on to the other boxes, one by one, and tried to open them as well. He picked up the peppermint and swung it around in his mouth. He spent a total of 1 min, 30 sec with the boxes, and although he investigated all of them thoroughly, he spent the most time with eucalyptus and peppermint. After
investigating all of the boxes multiple times, he lost interest and moved toward the other end of the run.

Rosy was a very interesting horse to observe during the obstacle course at liberty. Prior to this, when she was observed in her paddock where she was living with several other horses, she appeared to be depressed and withdrawn. It was quite a surprise when she was released into the arena and completely lit up with positive energy, and was behaving as if it were an opportunity to show everyone what she could do. She immediately began running around the arena and investigating all of the obstacles in her path. She looked overjoyed to be there in that space, and was behaving like a completely different horse, exhibiting confidence, comfort and courage. When her handler attempted to drive Rosy away from her (towards an object), she became confused and a little anxious. Once she began running away, it was difficult to get her to slow down, and she began to glaze over. It became very apparent that Rosy is very sensitive to energy, and when her handler began to over-think things, Rosy disconnected. However, as soon as her handler put out a
clear intention of love, Rosy became completely engaged and followed her throughout the entire course. She was willing to move through the obstacles as long as she had that partnership, leadership and guidance. Once she felt that this was attained, she was amicable and giving. The value that Rosy gained from the liberty exercise was excitement, mental stimulation and activity, a platform to express herself, and human connection and loving energy.

During the in-hand obstacle course, Rosy explored her environment in a similar manner. She was a willing partner that moved through most obstacles with ease and fearlessness, accepting her handler as a leader. She needed some shaping during the car wash strip obstacle, which proved to be more difficult for her, but once this was provided, she willingly moved under it, and later through it, without any hesitation. Her value in this exercise was being able to deepen her connection with a human, and gain affection, leadership and confidence.

Rosy did not approach the scent boxes for over a minute after they were placed in her run. When she decided to investigate them, she used her nose and her tongue. She briefly sniffed the boxes one at a time while she was licking her lips, and did not show any preference for a particular scent. She only spent about 5 seconds with the boxes, and then raised her head to watch some people who were walking off in the distance. This was more interesting to her than the scent enrichment. Once she was finished watching the humans, she turned around and left the area where the boxes were to go to the opposite end of her run, and did not return.

Each of the three horses that participated in this project responded to, and interacted with, the exercises in different ways, and this was very apparent through my observations and those of their handlers. The body language and energy that they displayed and exuded during each of the new environments/situations that they were presented with told a very clear story about what they were thinking and feeling. Some examples of body language indicators that I used to interpret the messages that each horse was conveying include: posture and movements of the entire body, appearance of eyes and ears, how tense/stiff their muscles were, how quickly/slowly they approached an object, whether they actively avoided an object, how much distance they kept between themselves and the object, and themselves and their handler, the amount of time they spent near something, whether they darted through an obstacle or walked slowly, how much time/shaping/repetition was required to get comfortable with an obstacle, which objects were more difficult, which parts of their body they used to explore an object, etc. There are likely an infinite number of examples of this (subtle and dramatic) but these were just a few that I understood, and used to interpret what the horses were thinking and feeling during my observations.

In observing Captain, Jack, and Rosy during the exercises, they began to show us what their individual personality traits were, that each of them was unique, and definitely affected how they interacted with new objects/stimulation, and how they responded to their handlers in both of the obstacle courses. The most interesting part of this project for me, was that we were able to see different parts of their personalities come out depending on the exercise, showing the depth and complexity of each individual. If we had only observed Jack in the context of the two obstacle course exercises, we would characterize him simply as a sensitive, but willing horse who was lacking in confidence and in need of security and a light touch. However, the scent enrichment exercise showed very clearly that he also has a playful, creative, and inquisitive side to him.
Another example of this would be Rosy, and how she behaved during the obstacle course at liberty. When simply observed in her paddock, she appeared very withdrawn, and her behavior completely changed when she was given the opportunity to express herself in the arena and obstacle course. However, she was not particularly moved by the scent enrichment, and was much more drawn to the human activity nearby. Prior to starting the scent enrichment with Captain, I predicted that he would be highly engaged and curious during that exercise, based on his behavior in the obstacle course, and although he did spend some time exploring the scent boxes, he was not nearly as enthusiastic about them as Jack was.

In completing this project, I learned the incredible value in exposing horses to novel stimuli, whether this may be objects, situations, environments, or stimuli targeting a particular sensory modality, as long as it is done in a way that is safe for the horse and handlers. Doing so will not only allow a horse to express themselves and grow as individuals, so that we can learn about their personality and what motivates them as intelligent beings, but also allows us to provide them with optimal care, with consideration for each of them as an individual. I see this as being of great value
to any rescue facility because it could provide important information about the horse that could aid handlers in providing adequate care, and potentially rehabilitation for certain horses with behavioral problems, as well as in matching each horse with the right person for them during the process of adoption.


Does Equine Psychology intrigue you? Us too!  If you couldn’t join us for this year’s HHC but want to learn more, sign up for Anna’s newsletter, Diary of a Horse Whisperer, and get access to the insights and tips she shares about the psychology of Equus delivered conveniently to your inbox!

Sign up here!