Grit Blogs > Mental Morsels With Dr. Cearley

Horse Down! Panicked or Pleased?

Jamie Cearley, PhDPoncho, my gruella Appaloosa, likes lying down. Actually all of the horses here on the farm like lying down. It is fascinating how often visitors to our farm see one or more of them sprawled out and are stunned. Some even panic, just sure they are ailing or dead.

We occasionally go to a local indoor arena in the winter months to ride. Poncho is in love with the soft dirt inside and generally only makes it about 10 feet inside the door before he sinks to the ground and rolls around like a 1,200-pound Labrador. After we are finished riding and I remove his saddle, he often takes a second plunge down into the dirt and lies there, calmly watching the other horses from his resting spot.

Jamie and Poncho
Jamie and Poncho hanging out at the local arena.

One night at the arena, when Poncho did his ceremonial dirt dive, a naïve gentlemen proclaimed, “Does that thing have colic?”

“He’s fine,” I replied, as I happily knelt beside him.

What this gentlemen and many others don’t know is that horses must reach a high level of trust and confidence in their human partner in order to lie down in their presence. He thought something was dreadfully wrong, I knew something was fantastically right. I was being honored as a trustworthy leader by Poncho’s behavior. 

Horses are the ultimate prey animal. They are keenly aware of vulnerability. Their main mechanism of defense is to run, fast and hard. Their survival motto is run first, analyze later. Nothing could possibly make them more vulnerable toward you, the ultimate predator, than to lie down in your presence. To do so, in their eyes, is suicide. Unless they trust you, deeply trust you. In which case, the position that once would have caused great fear, is now seen as an opportunity to unwind, relax, and let someone else take over the lead.

It has taken an attitude of patience, respect, and justice coupled with time, sacrifice, and a lot of hard work for me to earn Poncho’s trust. Not too different from humans is it?

Like humans, there is the tendency for some horses to reach this level of trust sooner than others. Depending on our history, personalities and personal experiences, we may grow to trust others more or less easily. Horses are no different in this regard.

Twister, my husband’s chestnut Appaloosa, had never lain down with him, in spite of their marvelous relationship. Twister needed to achieve an even higher level of trust in order to feel comfortable making himself that vulnerable. Then one day, after a training session, it happened in dramatic fashion. Twister let loose of his inhibitions, sighed, and sank to the ground. He lay flat out and chilled out. A new, higher level of trust had been achieved.

Curt and Twister
Curt and Twister captured in their special moment.

As you seek to build a trusting relationship, be it with a horse or a human, remember that it takes patience, respect, and, in some cases, a lot of time to develop. Stick with it, foster the bond, and good things will happen.

Would you like to read more stories like this? Please visit my website for more Mental Morsels With Dr. Cearley. Learning life principles from the farm.

8/20/2014 8:21:56 PM

Thank you Dave for sharing your experience. Horses are indeed magnificent and have some great personalities too! Looks like you came upon some good horse humor. Glad you enjoyed the story - Jamie

8/20/2014 12:48:05 PM

Jamie, I've never heard that explained before. I always believed the myth that horses never laid down except during giving birth. If they did they were either sick or dying. Then my friend with Arabian horses wanted me to what his herd for a week while he took one of his horses to a show in Colorado. The first day I came to take care of them, one was laying down flat on the ground. I thought for sure it was dead and how would I explain it to my friend that one of his horses had died while in my care. The horse never moved or flinched a muscle until I got to about 10 feet away. Then it jumped up and trotted off as if to say, "Ha ha, got you that time." Horses are magnificent creatures aren't they? ***** Have a great horse relationship day.