We’ve all been told never to walk behind a horse. Is that really the rule? What is its purpose? What is the best way to work around a horse and why?
Well, horses have two blind spots. They have excellent peripheral vision- that means, they can see almost all the way around them. Here’s a trick to find your own peripheral vision: hold your arms straight out in front of your nose and look at your pointer fingers sticking out. Now, keep your head straight and your eyes ahead of you, and open your arms out to the sides. Keep looking at your pointer fingers, from the corners of your eyes. The point at which they disappear is the extent of your peripheral vision. Your arms are probably almost straight out to either side. If you were a horse, you would still be able to see for another quarter or third of a circle. There is a pie-wedge from their hip around the back of them, up to about a horse’s length back, which they cannot see.
So when you pass behind a horse, you suddenly disappear, then reappear and can startle them. There is a risk that they will kick when startled. So- if you want to walk behind a horse, you have two good options. One is to go at least a horse length back, so that they can see you and you are out of range. The more practical solution is to touch the horse while still in their line of sight, in front of the point of their hip, and talk to them. Keep touching them and speaking to them as you pass behind, until you arrive at the other hip. In addition, I generally keep a hand on the tail. That way, if something startles the horse a fly bites them so that they do want to kick, I have a point of balance and the leverage to push them forward away from me. Moreover, that close to the horse, there is no force behind an accidental kick.
The other blind spot is just in front of their nose, for about two feet. The result is that a jumping horse actually can’t see the obstacle as they clear it- that’s pretty brave of them! But it also means that they feel rather vulnerable around their faces. So when you meet a new horse, don’t reach right up to pet their nose, however soft. Touch the shoulder or neck first, that is a fairly neutral place for strangers to greet one another. Move from there to the cheek before offering your hand.
Another reason not to offer your hand to a horse you don’t know well is that there are some individuals who have learned to bite or nip, either from over feeding of treats, or because someone thought it was cute when they were babies. Be clear about what mouths are for, and do not invite a horse to misuse it by nipping or nibbling.
In addition to horse vision, what do we need to know about moving and working around them? Remember that horses are prey animals—they absolutely know that everything is out to eat them.
So what predators do they fear? Think about mountain lions, alligators, big snakes, or even giant eagles. So when you are deciding how to behave around a horse- don’t be a predator.
How do predators move? They have claws that slash and rake and wave madly in the air on the way to their target. They run and leap and pounce from behind or above, and they roar or screech with high, loud, sudden voices. Their eyes, with binocular vision- that is, two eyes in front of their faces, can stare with great focus on what they are about to attack.
So how can you not be a predator? Walk quietly, talk quietly, don’t jump or run, don’t appear suddenly from behind. Be clear in your arm movements- don’t flail about. Don’t shout or scream, even when you are scared or excited. Don’t stare your horse fixedly in the eye.
If you want to walk up to a horse who is a bit scared or shy, walk toward their shoulder- not their face or rump, come at a diagonal, look a bit ahead of them or softly down. Don’t be hesitant or sneaky, just walk quietly in their direction, be patient and soft in your manner.
When should you be a predator? If a horse is being aggressive or pushy, trying to run through you while you handle them, or if the herd is thundering toward you when you are in the pasture. If you want an ill-behaved horse to respect your space, raise a hand in front of their eye with a clear gesture, and speak loudly and aggressively while you move in toward their shoulder. Then stop as soon as they move away. You are disciplining them as a more dominant horse would, but not completely driving them away from the “herd”, which in this case is you.
If you want to drive the horses away from you, be a predator- wave your hands with very big gestures, holler loudly and sharply, make your body big and scary, with very large movements, look at them like your eyes are going to poke them, and move toward them like you are going to beat them all up. They will tend to run away. But it’s always better not to be out in a herd of horses with whose behavior you are not familiar.