The Equine Mind Map


The stable had been prepared for the new livery with a thick bed of fresh straw and a hay net hung in the corner. The horse came off the lorry and walked into the barn filled with anxiety, he was head-high with flaring nostrils and eyes as round as dinner plates. Even after a good 45 minutes the horse was still extremely anxious. The once neat bed of straw was tossed to the side of the stable walls as the horse frantically circled the stable, the circuit was only broken when he rushed to the stable door to whinny and rear. Sweat made his bay coat glisten as steam started to rise from him.

On enquiring where the owner was, we were informed she had gone home.

The stable was one of many in the American style barn, the stable walls were constructed out of breeze blocks with a door. The bottom of the door was made from wood while the upper half had metal bars. In front of this horses stable was the back of another stable, which meant all the horse could see was a brick wall in front of him. The horse had no idea where he was, what was to the left, right, behind or even in front of him.

This was a large yard, so the horse would have been able to hear people, tractors, wheel barrows being used, running children, stable doors opening and shutting, and of course other horses. The horse could not perceive he was not in danger from hearing alone. People may assume a horse will settle because they are obviously safe. The human knows they are safe and while horses may be able to read your body language, they cannot read your thoughts.

I strive to maintain a trusting relationship with my own horse, so in times of stress or anxiety I know she can feel safe to a large degree just because I am with her. I have never taken my horse to a new yard and then promptly left. There are still signs of distress for up to 4 days when we have gone somewhere new. The biggest sign is the over the topwhinny I receive when walking onto the yard in the morning. My mare does not normally scream that loud when she is settled and feels safe.

All horses have different personalities, some are more slightly chilled out, some are more highly strung and I would say mine falls into the latter category…and the afore mentioned bay gelding. My method for settling a horse when going to a new yard, or somewhere new is simple, and something the owner of the bay gelding should have done.

On leaving the ramp of the lorry the horse would have benefited greatly by just being able to stand still while he assessed his environment. He could have been given time to see, hear and sniff the air of his new surroundings. No matter how large or small a yard is, take the horse for a tour of the place. There will be things he sees that are already familiar to him, like an arena, jumps, paddocks, wheel-barrows, straw and hay bales. The next step would be to take him to his stable, stay with him while he sniffs around, show him his hay net and water. Give him a carrot or an apple in there, offer him reassurance that everything is safe. Then take him back out of the stable, and for another tour of the yard.

Showing him the yard first, then his stable and then the yard again will give him knowledge of his surroundings. He will be building a mental map of where his stable is, what’s behind, to the side, and in front of him when he is in there, he will also associate the stable as a food and water source.

Those unseen sounds behind his stable wont terrify him as much because he now knows it’s just a pony having a roll, or a child running past. On his tour of the yard he would have seen horses calmly grazing in the paddocks, or chewing on a hay-net in a stable. There are no lions, tigers and bears as he has seen the other horses are relaxed. He would have seen people riding their horses, the farrier, feed buckets…these are more things he is already familiar with from his last home.

Preparation is key also, take the entire day to spend with the horse as opposed to popping him in a stable and leaving. The tour of the yard could be repeated in the evening, and again in the morning. I walk my horse in-hand in the arena in preparation for when I am going to ride in there. On my tour I actively encourage my horse to sniff stable doors, equipment, rugs, the ground, and let her graze on any grass that might be growing close by.

At minimum, it would take only 10 to 15 minutes for a horse to create a mind map of its surroundings, and to understand the environment has some similarities to the one he just left. This could all be done to help settle an anxious horse. His mind-map will show him the location of his stable and its proximity to other horses, the paddocks, the car park and the arena. The noises he hears from any of these locations will help him understand the noise he hears is a car, another horse or someone making up feeds.

He needs this knowledge to help him feel safe. The more knowledge he has of his surrounding the quicker he will settle.

The owner of the bay gelding was called because the yard owners were worried about her horse. The lady in question marched onto the establishment furious and had something of an adult-tantrum. It took me many years to understand the quote ‘we are a reflection of our horse’ but this day I fully understood the meaning. She accused the yard of being useless and that her horse was behaving this way because he didn’t like it there.

I wonder if this particular lady is still touring Britain for a yard her horse might like?

Deborah Jane Nicholas has been around horses for nearly 40 years and has worked within the horse industry in a number of roles. Deborah’s other passions are her 2 dogs, countryside walks and writing, which she does here.