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Horse psychology – Senses, instinct and learning abilities

 Knowing the psychology of the horse helps you to understand his behavior and also allows you to maximize his capabilities. Anyone who wants to enter the world of horses must learn the way they think, the way they mix with people and other animals, the functioning of their basic organs and the nature of their instincts. Horse psychic activity is the result of the interaction of three aspects: a) perception of external phenomena and relationships between objects, b) instinct and c) ability to learn.


– Vision

Their eyesight is not very sharp, having their eyes placed on both sides of the head; this allows them a very large view but at the expense of having less accuracy in the vision of images located at a medium distance.

In regards to color perception there´s still much controversy, but what´s known for sure is that they can perceive green, gray and yellow, while unable to distinguish blue and red.

– Hearing

Their hearing is very good, been able to perceive sounds not heard by the human ear. With this capability, horses can detect the arrival of a storm before humans do. Since the human ear doesn´t perceive these sounds, we tend to think the animal is nervous, when in fact he´s aware of the intense vibrations from the wind.

Likewise they have a great ability to perceive other dangers that may endanger their lives and react quickly to them.

– Smell

Smell plays a vital role in the communication of the horse, especially for eating, marking territory (when relieving himself), social conduct and analyzing new situations. 

Here´s some other uses for smell in horses:

  • Distinguishing their mother, friends and enemies. 

Mare and foal

  • Locating food.
  • Keeping track of a lost animal.
  • Their sex life: the horse stud is able to smell a mare in heat at an approximate distance of one kilometer. 
  • For their survival: they escape whenever they perceive dangerous smells.

– Taste

It allows them to sense the four basic flavors: sweet, salty (both nice for them), bitter and acid (very unpleasant). Taste is also important for their everyday survival. Thanks to this they´re able to know if water is in good or bad conditions, which allows to avoid diseases or poisoning.

They really like the carrot, pear and apple due to their sweet flavor and therefore is one of the best rewards one can give to them after a hard day of work. 




Instinct determines the existence of living beings from their first moment of life, but some attitudes acquired in ancient times and in completely different environments still persist, even though circumstances have changed. A well known example is the ability of the horse to sleep and rest while standing up; this is made for escaping in case of an attack by predators. Even in stables, where there is no danger of attack, it is common to see some horses sleeping standing up:

Sleeping PonyImage / Erich Ferdinand.

Curiosity is another feature that´s part of his nature; this can be appreciated easily when he approximates a total stranger that arrives to the stable and calls him up. But in unfamiliar environments he acts very differently, in a distrustful and insecure manner.

Another highlight is their instinct of emulation. The best way to convince a horse to do something that scares him is showing him that other horses do this, since this animal is gregarious by nature. Wild horses are careful in not separating themselves from the pack, and when in captivity they prefer to be accompanied by other animals, even if they belong to another breed.

Learning capacity

His memory is very good, easily recognizing sounds and voices. He shows affection to people who treat him well; if you want to get his obedience and willingness, the relationship with your horse should be based on love and not imposition. 

Fear and coercion won´t have a positive effect, but will give you a nervous, suspicious and rebellious horse.


A horse is able to apply a thought process that goes by the name of “generalization”: that is, when a given situation is repeated many times, it ends up as a conditioned reflex. For example, if a horse is continuously hit with a walking stick, a time will come when the mere presence of the stick causes physical pain on the horse and he´ll try to escape in order to avoid the blows; when feeling much fear, he´s a very dangerous animal, with unpredictable and uncontrollable reactions.

Instructions by riders

A well-trained horse isn´t comfortable with inexperienced riders. Here are some basic principles for you to consider:

  • Be simple, direct, gradual and iterative.
  • Gain his trust.
  • Base the relationship on persuasion rather than imposition or fear.
  • Be aware that experience will allow the horse to correct mistakes, but he will never have the ability to reason and synthesize in the way human beings do.