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Have you ever wondered what your horse thinks and feels? How do they experience emotion?
How should their emotion affect our work with them?

We will never be able to truly understand what a horse feels, we are, after all, a very different species with minds that work differently.

But despite our differences, we have many similarities and scientists study not only the bodies, but also the minds, of animals to better understand people.

In today’s video, we will look at the simple structural differences between the horse and human brain and I’ll explain how while these structural differences show how horses and humans think differently, we may experience similar emotions.

I will also share what science does know about animal emotion and how we can improve our interactions with our horse by becoming better observers of their emotional state.

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55 Responses

  1. I posted this earlier in the training FB page,
    but it fits here too. Was thinking about the earlier clip you sent out regarding emotion, as I tried to sort my way through:
    So Chance had a terrible attitude this
    morning. Actually a little scary. All high and tight and snorty. I was just leading him, going for a slow, short walk to hang out and graze (he lost a shoe and is slightly sore) and he was so… anxious, pinny ear, nippy, pushy and uncooperative that it was, needless to say, a short session. He ended up calmer than when we started, but whew, it was not fun.
    I think it’s several things:
    #1 he doesn’t feel 100%
    #2 it turned cool
    #3 I’ve really been requesting him stay out of my space, especially as I open gates, give feed, etc., and some resistance is being worked through.
    But again, un-fun. Glad he ended up calmer though, so perhaps still a good morning, but it can be scary when they try to push you away with blowing, stomping and such. He’s not so foot sore that it would account for all this, he trots and canters when he wants to, out in the field. Not lame. So, I believe it’s a combo of those things listed above.
    Update: Followed up later in the day. He is back to his usual, calm self. So grateful I didn’t over react to his behavior. It would have been easy to do, because it felt like aggression, though it was likely anxiety.

  2. I have been watching my horses emotions for a while now during our interactions, she is often up tight after being caught & removed from her favourite place. But I can now calm her, to a point that she wants to interact, is receptive to my calm,minimal directions , you just need more time & work slower, rather than rushing to do what you want to achieve for the day. Not always easy with my limited available time, but controlling your own emotions & carefully watching your horses emotions definitely leads to a lot more happy experiences

  3. well done Gaylelynn, so good not to over react!!!!! So much to consider, it all takes time.
    THANK YOU Callie, as always a wonderful lesson, I’m so grateful, you help keep me keen and on track. I have a pony a bit like yours Gaylelynn, those pinny ears are no fun. However I have 3 others, and I’ve come a LONG way. From totally fearful and frustrated, to fairly handy!! Still working on this pinny earred fella. Am taking a slowly slowly approach, b4 I go to moving him around a heap. They are all soooooo different!!

  4. Hi Callie. I have been watching your videos for some time now and really enjoy them. I have now subscribed to learn more. I live in the UK and have 2 horses. I do hack out when I can, not as often as I used too though. This is due to not always having a riding partner and the problem of my nervousness. I had a fall and hurt my back 2 years ago and it has made me lose my confidence. I was hoping you can help with getting my confidence back. I am not young person and I think being older has made me less confident as well. Keep up the good work. Thank you.

  5. My horse is just 4 years old but when she works in the arena she is so tense and anxious that she cant concentrate on what I want to teach her this manifests itself in tight upward posture with the head and neck and then really chomping incessantly on the bit when the head and neck position becomes more to the contact – it this just a baby thing that she loses concentration and time will help or do I need specific exercises to get her to concentrate on me? I have only had her 8 weeks and am struggling to keep her relaxed?

    1. Hi Gerry, young horses do have shorter attention spans and do better with shorter sessions. I would do as much ground work and liberty training as you can instead of all ridden work. Alternating deep concentrating work with thing that she seems to enjoy can also help keep her engaged in the training!

      -Julia Burdy, CRK Training Community Manager

  6. Hi my horse has started to do big bunny jumps when I take him out I’ve had everything checked Saddle fitting teeth physio and they say he’s fine must just be a naughty horse. He’s good in the school the stable What started it I think was we met a horse whilst out riding and this horse was on his toes so Bailey starts as if he wants to go with this horse. I’ve had this training lady to ride him and he’s doing the same with her He was great when I first bought him I’ve had him about 10 weeks. He’s a Palamino looks like Haflinger Maybe he’s just stubborn the trainer said she would get him out of it but is not coming this week and time goes on he might forget what he’s being taught what do you think Callie? Thanks for your great videos xx

    1. Veronica, have you found any pattern to the behavior? Does he exhibit it all the time? Is it only when the weather is cool and winder? Does he do this for other handlers?

      -Julia Burdy, CRK Training Community Manager

      1. Yes he’s doing the bunny jumps for the trainer, but I darnt take him out yet because he only does it when he’s out on the lanes or roads. He doesn’t do it in the school, so I’m thinking he wants to be in front or he wants to race another horse. He used to be a driving pony, then the lady I got him off broke him to ride. Don’t think she’s done a good job. I lunge him and long rein him and he’s good at all that. Maybe he is just naughty, so how would I get him out of the bunny jumps? If I wanted to train him myself? I do let him go in front at first he sets off good but soon slows down, he goes behind and doesn’t bother. Just can’t find what the trigger is. Any ideas please?

        1. He does these bunny jumps I think he gets excited. But they’re so quick, it’s over before I have chance to chastise him. And random, so can’t be ready for it, but it’s scary, im 66 yrs old. If I was 30 it would be a challenge and wouldn’t be scared. It can’t be that he senses my being scared because I’m not before he does it. And like I said he does it for the trainer. But she’s not been back yet so don’t know how she would chastise him. Thanks very much for all your help xx

        2. Veronica, I would go back to the ring work for a bit and teach him a really solid halt and half halt!

          -Julia Burdy, CRK Training Community Manager

  7. My horse lost his companion of the last 17 years recently. Very sad for all of us, and even though he isn’t outrightly panicking, he seems subdued and does not want to go forward, especially in canter. There are no other horses around. I’ve decided to back off and go slowly until I figure out what to do about putting him in livery, getting another companion, or whatever. Vet said some horses do ok on their own, but I think it’s better if they can at least see other horses.

    1. Excellent decision you made to back off and go more slowly while your horse deals with his own confusion. Please consider getting him a friendly new companion. Doesn’t have to be a horse; it could be a mini-donkey, a goat, etc. After 17 years with a good buddy, he likely needs physical proximity, not just visual. Yes, some horses (but not a lot) do OK on their own but not after losing such a close companion.

    2. I found myself and my gelding in a similar situation about ten years ago when my friend’s elderly horse passed. In reality, the companion horse had been aggressive and not very social, but my horse was obviously lonely without him. I tried to spend more time with Shamal while I looked for a boarder–he followed me around like a puppy (which was a bit seductive because he had always been somewhat aloof). I was careful about choosing a new boarder, and living in a remote area, I gave up after a few months. Instead, I acquired a goat. With his new pet, Shamal was immediately relieved of his loneliness. This has worked out well and is less demanding of my time and pocketbook than taking on a second horse. However, the companion goat would complain mightily when Shamal and I went out without her. So I opted to give her a couple laying hens as pets. All is peaceful ever since, and I appreciate the eggs.

      1. Susan, what a great solution you have found for your situation!

        -Julia Burdy, CRK Training Community Manager

    3. Because horses are such social animals they definitely I believe do prefer a companion…have you found a solution? I think they can also respond well to non-equid companionship in other livestock varieties!

      -Julia Burdy, CRK Training Community Manager

    4. While you consider your options for a companion, you might explore the research showing that horses may be calmed or comforted by a mirror. You can search the Web for related articles and for vendors of unbreakable stable mirrors. From what I’ve read, many horse show a positive response immediately, while some take a bit longer. (A few don’t respond well, but most often these are poorly socialized). I wouldn’t regard this as a substitute for a companion, but I wonder if it could help your horse while you’re in transition?

  8. I really enjoyed the video on emotions and would like to know more about the more negative emotions like panic and rage. I have a deep rooted belief that no one, animal or human, can learn while experiencing fear or anger, but I sometimes observe what I believe to be fear in horses when people are trying to train them. I would really appreciate guidance in this area.

    1. I think your position on emotions in training is a very important and correct way to view training principles. To complement Callie’s excellent work, the equitation scientists Dr Andrew McLean, Equitation Science International, and Dr David Fairclough have both written about fear in training. The set of ten first principles of the international society for equitation science outlines the importance of not triggering or utilising fear in training.

  9. While anthropomorphism is real obstacle in the study of animal behavior it is an unfortunate trapping in one’s assessment of our horse’ emotions. Some of the comments may exhibit this.
    Yes, a horse that is annoyed (a human perception) by flies is less likely to be peeked in a canter transition.

  10. Hello Callie, I was wondering if you ever give out riding lesson and clinics because I would be very interested in attending . I love your videos and have learn a lot from them.

    Jessika Ordosgoiti

  11. Great video! Timely as last night was a fun demo of seeking and playing when I had some arena time last night. His favorite “ game” is to go push a ball. He will trot over to the ball about 20 ft away and give it a hard push, then trot back to me for praise, cookie or a scratch. He’s 27, a rescue from the kill pen two years ago, didn’t know much and probably just ridden on trails. I’m learning Parelli technique with him and it’s an amazing journey.

  12. Helpful information. We have a rescued 13-yr-old QH who needs a lot of reassurance. I have to feel he was abused by a former owner, certain things make him very worried. We are learning to pick up on the cues and not just barge forward as we humans are fond of doing. I’m also watching Warwick Schiller videos on his website and he is lately talking quite a bit about simply WAITING. Waiting to allow the horse to figure us out and vice versa. He sees amazing unexpected results.

  13. hi, could you please spell the author’s names that you referred to in your super informative video. any other science based reading recommendations are much appreciated.

  14. Thank you for this informative video! We have six horses, all with different personalities, and it is easy to tell what kind of emotions they are feeling by looking at their faces (especially around their eyes). I am an empathetic kind of person, so I think identifying emotions comes easy for me. I don’t always know how to handle things like frustration or fear….but I my best to get them calm and relaxed so we can go forward. I find this topic fascinating and am eager to learn more about the way horses think and feel. Thank you again for this wonderful video!

    1. Being an empath I think definitely sets you up to be more observant of the emotions the horse is experiencing!

      -Julia Burdy, CRK Training Community Manager

  15. I am afraid I have been negligent in this whole area but watching today I can see that this is so important. My ten year old TB mare was abused as a weanling (starved) and also came to me at 18months of age with healed broken ribs (I don’t think from human hands as she showed absolutely no fear of people). She was a gentle mare with no ‘dirt’ at all, backed as a late 3yo and a gem for this older, mid 60s, rider who rode her occasionally, she also had one prep for the track but as she was small and slow she came back to me and we continued with occasional rides. About two years ago she began to show annoyance at being handled, unhappy with work in the round yard, going down hill etc. she became difficult to saddle, attempting to bite and generally appearing sour. She also became hard to catch even at feed time, she would not eat rather than allow herself to be caught (and this is a mare who absolutely lived for food!). It suddenly hit me that, at 10 years of age perhaps she had developed arthritis due to the broken ribs (sorry, so obvious – why did I not think of it before?) so I retired her from what had been the occasional ride and once she realised that I would no longer be wanting to ride her she reverted to her easy going attitude to being caught, coming for feed etc. she is still, and always has been, not too happy to be groomed but is much more sociable and ‘user friendly’. I will be definitely looking for clues to my other horses emotions from now on. Thank you

    1. Hi Robyn, I would definitely look into possible physical issues with her behaviors – for example what first comes to mind absolutely is saddle fit or possible issues with her teeth..were they ever evaluated?

      -Julia Burdy, CRK Training Community Manager

      1. Have brilliant barefoot trimmer and dentist so no issues there. Friend who rode her often (a very experienced rider) was convinced that her shoulder on the same side as the ribs was bothering her – could all be connected with the old injury. All in all I just feel that if she is happy in the paddock, and she has no probs hooning around, bucking, turning etc, then it is not important that she be ridden if it gives her grief. She has a home for life as long as she is happy!

  16. Thank you very much for your insightful lesson, as usual.
    I have a question regarding the relaxation and the cautiousness. Michelle, my horse, doesn’t like me to wipe her face. I have taken a small step by step approach to let her relax more and let me wipe her face with a soft dampen towel.
    Recently Michelle started to wipe her face partially, and more noticeable, started yawning. I think she is now more relaxed during my effort to clean her face, but still when I try to wipe the rest of her face, she suddenly raise her face and show her cautiousness. Is my interpretation of her relaxation associated with her yawning wrong?

      1. Thank you, Julia. According to the article, yawning is not necessarily a sign of relaxation. Michelle yawn a little, but I notice her yawn when I try to wipe her face recently. I continue observing her new behaviors and reactions.

      2. This article on yawning is very interesting. While I have little experience with horses yet, yawning in dogs is definitely a sign of confusion, and possibly stress in given situations. A good example is a dog being cuddled by a toddler unknown to it. It will often yawn as it is confused by the signals given in the room. The toddler might be fine, but perhaps the parents or owner of the dog are unsure and of course, the dog picks up these mixed signals, as subtle as they may be. We often associate yawning in humans as a manifestation of fatigue in humans. But frequent yawning, as well as sighing, is also recognised in humans as a sign of depression. So, it’s interesting to think about what yawning in horses might mean. My guess is it’s at very least a bit of confusion and maybe some stress. We’re all still mammals after all.

  17. Trail riding, my horse gets anxious when behind the other horses, tho he walks very slow so then he feels like he has to catch up, not alot of fun for me because he has a very nice rocking horse trot, but when he gets anxious it turns into a hollowed out bumpy ride, head up, tail up and off we go. He doesn’t have a lot of confidence when working by himself. He goes from being very lazy to being very up. Could be in my trying to get more energy into his feet, I am pushing, pushing, then it just becomes too much for him. Thank you for your video I will be looking for more on this subject.

    1. Hi Linda! Have you tried putting him more towards the front but still behind another horse so he doesn’t get too forward?

      -Julia Burdy, CRK Training Community Manager

  18. Callie, I love your posts and teaching! The other rider for my horse had taken a trail ride earlier in the day. When I went to see my horse, an hour or so later, he was still visibly tired. My horse let me “love on him” more than usual–wanted to be close to me, let me curry him, took the supplement and treats with ease, allowed me to hug him and stroke him more than usual. It was very sweet and special.

  19. As usual Callie you’ve chosen a topic of interest to almost all riders that gets very little attention. I would also like to thank who ever does your internet because the quality of the connection has significantly improved; no more herkey-jerkey.

    For some reason this video reminded me of a discussion going around the barn concerning noseband tightness. Many trainers and riders who have participated for a long time subscribe to tight nosebands, not necessarily “crank” type but pulled so tight it limits jaw movement. But recent studies seem to indicate that tight nosebands lead to stress and most probably discomfort that can affect performance. While many horses become habituated to tight nosebands, they are never comfortable. Recent trends, particularly in Europe where countries such as Denmark have passed regulations requiring “two fingers” between the nose and the nose band, seem to be firmly against tight nosebands. I, for one, would really appreciate your opinion and if you have the time a review of recent studies on this issue.

    1. Jack, if click here you’ll see a video we did on the blog just a few weeks ago interview a researcher whose focus was this very issue!

      -Julia Burdy, CRK Training Community Manager

  20. Hello Callie,

    I’ve watched a number of your videos since I started riding lessons two months ago. I’m a 64 year old woman who had never been on a horse before. I won’t go into detail about how I started riding but will say it has been a lovely experience. I’m not sure that it is the riding I like or just being around the horses.

    Your video about the emotions of horses is very interesting. A number of years ago I had a rescue dog that was quite difficult to sort and sought the help of a dog trainer. He was not your every day trainer but had been a RAF dog trainer for years and then worked as a trainer privately, he had a masters degree in canine phsycology. It was amazing to learn how to try and understand the thought processes of a dog. He gave me a book ( among many others about the psycology of dogs) that was full of photos of dogs in different situations and how to read what they were feeling based on their body language. I’ve now spent the last five years watching a dogs body language and learning so much. And I’ve tried to use this when I deal with the horse I ride. It’s taking time, because horses seem to be different in how they talk with their body ( they don’t wag their tails for one) but there are similarities. The horse I have been learning on is a pretty old girl, (about my age in horse years) a cob with a bit of a history. Sweet, soft and a bit stubborn . As patient as can be imagined. When I was learning how to dress her ( I know you call it tack but I always feel a bit pretentious when I use the proper horse words) it could take me half an hour to get her bridle on. Not because she didn’t want it on, she was just to busy eating from her hay bag. I finally realised if I bribed her with apples she would stop eating the hay long enough to get the bit in her mouth.

    I’ve noticed her eyes change a little depending on her mood. She has soft eyes and more alert eyes. He ears are supposed to be an indicator but she’s such a soft thing that they don’t tell the story. It’s her eyes. It’s quite subtle. One day when they were bringing her in from the field she actually came towards me. And had these lovely soft eyes. The person bringing her in said to take her, that she was actually coming to me. It was a lovely experience.

    Anyway, just to say I love the idea of trying to understand the body language of an animal without anthropomorphising. Love your videos.

    1. Thank you for sharing Kath! Welcome to riding and thank you for joining our community here on the blog!

      -Julia Burdy, CRK Training Community Manager

  21. Callie,
    I have been working with horses for only 5-6 years and am 62 years old. I have been through your balanced riding course once and attended one of your weekend seminars two years ago.
    After that seminar, I acquired a 4 year old TWH gelding named Johnny. I know nothing of his past, except for the three months he spent with some friends (and trainers) before I purchased him. During the past 6 months he has been treated for a stifle problem and had little time under saddle. Subsequently, I have started reconditioning him, but found that he has grown quite barn sour, making trail work extremely trying and dangerous as he refuses to “HALT” and takes every opportunity to turn around and dart home. My response is always to go back to ground work

    He is a curious and intelligent gelding, follows me around the property and loves to be groomed, however, when I take him into the round pen he goes immediately into a fearful state of mind and “floods” (ears back, eyes wide and tense, nostril’s flared). I love doing ground work with my horses, but Johnny immediately pulls away from me and tears around the pen maniacally for 10-15 minutes or so, often with lead dragging behind. Eventually he will stop and allow me to catch him up and transfer him to a lunge line . He then becomes obstinate and crowds me . It is as though he does not respect me or trust me at all. If I pick up a dressage whip, or lunge whip, he goes absolutely berserk cantering madly around in circles. I have worked at desensitizing him to the whips in and out of the round pen, but then see him go nuts like this, worked up to a state where he cannot learn anything?
    Should I carry a dressage whip around with me at all times to better acclimate him to it, should I lunge him outside the round pen to see if it is the context or the “lunging” or the actual whip which causes him to become so fearful. I cannot train if I cannot get him into a calm state of mind.
    I want to get him in with a trainer (I live in Virginia), but wait times are long and I want to work with him in the interim.

    Any advice would be appreciated

    1. Brooks, I’m sorry to hear that you are having these challenges! He may have some negative associates with the round pen, is there another place you could work on the ground work with him that might have less of a fear response from him? It sounds like he may have had some negative round penning experience and he is just doing what he thinks you are looking for. Is there another setting you can work in?

      -Julia Burdy, CRK Training Community Manager

      1. Yes, Julia there is. I confess that I am somewhat reluctant only because I paid a bunch to put the round pen in (leveling by excavator, etc) . Ironic, is it not, that I pay for a round pen then purchase a horse that is afraid to work in it? Oh well. I’ll give it a try.


        1. Brooks, my horse had a negative association with round pens as well. We began doing some light work in other areas, then resting near the round pen at the end of our sessions. I use the term “work” very loosely LoL! Our release and petting time each day was in an area near the round pen that he wasn’t too afraid of, where he could begin to relax. Continued this day after day, getting nearer and nearer to the round pen, and eventually inside of it. Now he enters it with no problem and associates it with treats at the end of a work session, or the place where I dismount if we’ve been riding. I used the same technique to train him to trailer load, and he now loads himself! 🙂 I found he could read my “Intention”, so I didn’t do it as training. I did it as: this is where we hang out when we’re done. As if to say, “Isn’t this is a great place to relax and recoup before I return you to your barn-mates?” Eventually, he thought, “Yeah, this is a great place”. With that said, I’m still very careful to promote relaxation in the round pen. At the FIRST sign of flooding, I pull out every relax exercise I know. We aren’t 100% yet, but very far from where we started.

  22. Great topic and another great video — thank you Callie!

    I am getting used to a new horse since my previous trail buddy had to be euthanized this past summer after a severe choke. My new horse was depressed–mourning his previous owner who had to go into a nursing home … so we have been quite a pair! The new boy is much quieter and more introverted than my last several horses who have been high energy and reactive, so I am having to learn a new set of skills in drawing him out. I would love more videos on this topic.

  23. I think my horse is actually training me. My first trainer had me stand by Peppermint with a hand on her back and do nothing. I thought she was nuts. Turns out my drive and energy was too high and my horse was afraid of my energy. This resulted in her moving away showing me her but when I came to her stall. Now the minute I hit the barn I drop my energy automatically before I get to the stall. I am happy to report my relationship with my horse and humans is much better. I also have learned to take cues. Yesterday horses were out and Pep wanted out so I did a brief training did not ride cause she wanted out. I look st it this way, if I was watching my favorite t v show and she said I want to ride now I wouldn’t like it and if I did it might be kinda of annoyed. I board in a show barn and a lot of people still think Got a make them so they don’t get me.Can be the difference of a good or bad ride. Thank you again Callie. Do you have any ideas on how I can promote my horses play side of her brain. Would love ideas.

    1. Hi Charlotte, thank you for sharing! I’m glad to hear things are going better 🙂 I would recommend doing a little positive reinforcement with clicker training and some liberty work for him!

      -Julia Burdy, CRK Training Community Manager

  24. Callie,
    Thanks so much for your videos. They are interesting and informative. I could sure use your insights on what I believe to be an emotional problem with my new horse. He is an 11 y.o. percheron/arab cross that I have owned for just two months. He is great on the trail–moves out with energy, is not spooky, listens well (although he has no idea about leg aids!) — and seems happy.

    My problem is that he doesn’t seem to have any understanding of groundwork, or perhaps has had bad experiences with it, since he shuts down as soon as I put a halter on him. Even leading from his paddock he walks as slow as possible. If I just touch his hind quarters with a crop to get him to move forward, he wants to back up. I need to do some basic groundwork to get him to use his body more effectively, i.e. bending–but am struggling. If I do get him to move forward he crowds me with his shoulder and if I tap his shoulder with the crop to get him to stay over, he backs up!

    I have tried clicker training with treats just to get a better bond with him, since he is food oriented, but as long as he has a halter on he is very disinterested.

    Here is the strange part: I tried having him loose in the indoor arena and he is a different horse, energetic and playful. He will stick right by my side and follow me around the arena. He will even do some of the clicker training fun things I have tried to teach him in the past. He does not seem to be afraid of the crop when he is loose–but the times I can have him loose are limited since the arena has frequent riders and it’s not safe to have him unrestrained.

    Do you have any suggestions about how can I get past his negative association with the halter?

  25. Callie,
    The last ride I took with Mocha in the late fall was a trail ride, solo as usual.
    He spooked many times, as he always does. I circled him and got him past the obstacles he was experiencing.
    On the way home he tensed up so intensely and I was so sensitive to it, that it felt like we had been struck by lightning. I was unable to turn that energy around and it was very hard to release the tension in my body that I felt was a direct current from his body.
    I realize how connected we are when I am on his back, for better and for worse.
    Practise, practise, practise….


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