Giddyup! The Differences Between Horses and Dogs

Tanque Verde Ranch is located in southern Arizona, close to the border of Mexico, and is surrounded by beautiful desert landscape right next to the Saguaro National Park.  Here, the unique and strange Saguaro cacti grow into odd alien-like shapes that populate the landscape. They have spikes so large that falling onto or against one would certainly mean a trip to the hospital.  I think about this as I ride past them in 95 degrees of heat on my western horse.  I feel like a cowboy in a western movie, riding through the hot desert on my trusty steed.

Victoria horseback as a 4 year old.

4-year old Victoria riding one of her favorite horses on Welsh farm, Pantyderi.

I rode a lot as a child.  At six years old I was taught to ride by a welsh farmer called Max Jones who was my hero.  My family couldn’t afford fancy vacations to foreign lands when I was young, but I didn’t care because the only place I wanted to go in the school holidays was Max’s farm in Wales.  His farm, Pantyderi, was vast, supporting thousands of sheep and hundreds of cattle that grazed on thousands of acres of rugged but beautiful Welsh countryside.  His business also included a flourishing bed and breakfast in the country house in which he lived with his wife Janet.  Families from all over the UK converged on Pantyderi at Easter and summertime, and while the adults relaxed, the kids played around the farm and rode the horses.  I had been riding since I was three, so by the time I was six years old I was riding unaided.  My first welsh pony was Goblin, a skittish gelding that had a habit of throwing everyone who rode him, so of course the first time Max led the guests on a trail ride, I fell off and cried.  My concerned mother said that maybe I should go back to the stables to nurse my wounds, but Max told my mother to be quiet and told me in no uncertain times me to get off my $%[email protected]$ backside and get back on my pony.  By the end of that week I was riding as if I had been born on a horse.  By the age of nine I was herding sheep on horseback, and by eleven I was entering competitions. I spent nearly every Easter and summer at Max’s farm for thirteen years, perfecting my riding skills, herding sheep, helping with lambing season, taking the sheep and cattle to market, driving the farm trucks and working the sheep dogs.  It was absolute heaven.

More than twenty years later I thought of Max and how he would have love to have ridden western style through this harsh but beautiful Arizona landscape.  What would he think of me loping on my trusted horse like John Wayne, with one hand on my reins and the other by my side?  Western style riding is quite different from the English style and I certainly prefer it – it just feels more relaxed.


The Sonoran desert view from our hacienda at Tanque Verde ranch.

Even though I spent a good portion of my younger years around horses, I don’t know them as well as I know dogs.  Dogs have been my life’s work, while horses were my hobby, but while I was out west spending so much time on horseback, I found myself wondering how the relationship between human and horse differs to that of a human and domestic dog, if at all.  I am not a horse expert by any stretch of the imagination, but in speaking to people who have spent their whole lives around horses it was interesting to see how different yet also how similar it was to the world of dog training and human/dog relationships.

Horses are prey animals with a deep herding instinct.  They are highly sensitive to their environment, hyper aware and ready to take flight if needed.  Just like dogs, some horses are more confident than others, but just like dogs, all need a confident handler to teach them what to do.  Some horses are highly reactive and can be spooked by the smallest things as are dogs, while others are more able to deal with change and novelty.

The fact that dogs are predators and horses are prey should not define how we treat them.  For far too long, horses have been trained using harsh methods and unfortunately the trend still continues (as it does in the dog training world.)  These days, however, there are more and more people training horses with less punishment and producing more successful, confident and predictable animals as a result.  There are horse people who believe you have to be leader of the herd and others who say you don’t. Sound familiar? How many dog trainers still spout outdated and flawed pack leader theory? Being a pack or herd leader seems to suggest that these animals view us as their own kind rather than some strange, confusing two legged species. I think both dogs and horses are much smarter than people give them credit. I do believe we have to be leaders but that means we should not place ourselves as part of their herds or packs but rather as humans that teach and guide these animals while they navigate the challenges they face living so closely alongside us.

Victoria on horseback in Arizona.

Victoria on horseback in Arizona.

Another distinction between horses and dogs that became clear to me once again was that while dogs have been domesticated, horses have been tamed. This is an important element to consider when comparing our relationships with each species, because the difference between domestication and taming is profound. As I wound my way up a steep and rocky path past rattlesnakes and prickly cacti, I had to work hard to convince my horse to keep moving at a decent pace and keep up with our guide. As far as Uno the horse was concerned, there was nothing particularly beneficial for him to do what I was asking him to do – it was all for me. Coming from the dog world where we strive to make our dogs’ lives better for their sake as well as our own through daily decisions both big and small, it was somewhat conflicting to realize that most of what I was asking the horse to do was mostly for my own benefit. Sure, the horses on the Tanque Verde ranch and countless others just like it love to run, they relish and need the exercise we gave them and they’re far better off than their equine predecessors of just a generation or two ago. But if he had had his own choice, I’m pretty sure Uno would have preferred to avoid the trails I was asking him to traverse.

Compare this to a similarly common dog activity: the daily walk. There are plenty of similarities (giving mental and physical stimulation, etc) but there’s also an element of relationship-based bonding that goes on during a good walk with your dog where it’s time equally well-spent for both parties. We get a lot out of it, but we also want the dog to have the ability to make her own (ideally correct) choices. In general, horses have less of a say in what they want to do and must follow our wishes pretty closely, while more of the choices we make with our dogs seem to be based on what’s best for them. Obviously we still develop relationships with our horses and develop deep understandings of one another despite our differences as species, but I think it’s fair to say that on average, dog owners have ‘closer relationships’ with their dogs than horse owners might with their horses. I’m not saying either of these approaches is better than the other. Indeed, when you consider the difference between domesticating dogs as our companions (and that the species slowly continues to move away from its original intention as working animals) and taming horses so that they can help us work and play, we’re probably more or less on target with what should be expected.


The Tanque Verde corral surrounded by beautiful desert mountains.

Like dogs, each horse is unique – an individual with its own personality.  Each horse needs a confident and fair handler, one that can be assertive without being overly harsh and can guide and direct the horse into doing what is needed of it.  Like dogs, horses have had a profound influence on humankind, and without the horse, the struggle for human survival would have been a lot harder.  It’s interesting to me that man owes much of his success to both species.  Without horses, plowing our fields, traveling from place to place, conquering new lands and fighting our wars would have been much harder.  Without dogs, protecting our homes, livestock and our fields would have been impossible.  Both species have influenced our culture more than any other species on the planet and both, regardless of what humans believe, deserve the utmost respect for surviving alongside humans, the most dangerous, complex and inconsistent species on earth.

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17 thoughts on “Giddyup! The Differences Between Horses and Dogs

  1. kirsty edmunds

    This is so true!!! I also believe it goes further than just dogs and horse, but im glad to see im not the only one who believes this =D

  2. tina

    Thought provoking read! It paired nicely with my morning coffee & new pup playing at my feet in the sunshine. I have been reflecting on how I was taught punishment for results with dogs. Thankfully, it never set well in my soul & the information on positive methods abundant. Thanks! I love both animals dearly too.

  3. Al Larese

    Beautiful story, Victoria! As a city boy, I've never had the opportunity,, nor honestly, the inclination to go horseback riding. After reading your posts from Arizona, this newsletter, and checking out some Tanque Verde Ranch videos, I am ready to try it! Thanks!

  4. Kandy Kay Scaramuzzo

    Hey There!
    I have been a fan of yours for a very long time. I love your show and your techniques. I had no idea that you were even vaguely interested in horses. Since you are I would like to send you a copy of my book about an old rescued ranch horseand all the amazing things he has done since he was rescued. It is written in his voice and is similar to Black Beauty. You can check it out at my blog /website at It opens to my blog but you can reach my website by using the buttons on the left.. I know you are very busy, but I think you will like it.. The best part is that it has a happy ending. He is still with us at the ripe old age of 38!
    I would thank you in advance for any time spent in this endeavor You may contact me at the above email address. Thank you for your time.
    Happy Trails To You!
    Kandy Kay Scaramuzzo

  5. Tim Munro

    Great article and was interesting you noting about horses being prey and dogs being predators. Yet these are not the labels that defines how an individual will behave (fearful or confident). I have found using the labels of predator/prey somewhat similar to the old dominance label. Yes it may be a reality of a label, but it does not define the best way to interact with that individual. Horses can in actual fact be aggressive, so would this be labelled as predator behaviour? I've had the same discussion with some parrot experts recently and was asked what do I say instead. For me it is simply is the animal struggling or thriving with the relationship that I have with it "at this point in time" and we interact with each depending on what they show us, not what we pre-label - basically what you said at the end of the article 😉

  6. Monika

    Very interesting, Victoria! You're absolutely right about the profound differences between horses and dogs. I think the herd/pack theory is something more heavily prominent in the horse world then the dog world and it's something that probably won't change in a hurry. Most trainers and general dog owners I've met strive to train their dogs with positive reinforcement, however I have never met someone who has even considered reward-based training with horses. I've recently started clicker training a 12 year old mare, green from her 5 month spell in the paddock, and she absolutely loves it! I love seeing her try out different behaviours and seeing what "clicks". I've taught her to touch a target, put her head down, back up and paw the ground in only a few short sessions! Horses are very food motivated, so it really helps build a special bond with them when they realise that work isn't so bad because there is something in it for them!

    It's a real shame that it hasn't been picked up more by others but there may be hope for positive horse training yet!

    Hope you're having fun!

  7. Laurie

    I have had both horse and dogs. While different in that my dogs are in the house and the horse was at a private ranch, my horse always welcomed me, knew exactly my moods, always gave me 100+% of herself on trail and in the arena, and would actually snuggle my neck and rest her head on my shoulder. I always rode with a bareback pad. She knew my body movement perfectly.

    There is a bit of a difference from working horses on cattle ranches to the pleasure trail horse. The working horses don't always have the privilege of developing that deep personal bond. However, they are still very capable of expressing that love, yes I said love. You see some hard and fast cowboys don't believe horses can love you.

    My horse has passed on and my love and business for the past 15 years has been pet sitting, walking dogs and training them. I will forever remember by beautiful Cindy, an Arab horse who gave me her all.

  8. hannah a.

    I live in Tucson, so i was excited to hear she was here. too bad she didn't do a public appearance, i would have LOVED to meet her! 🙂

  9. Mary Mudge

    I agree with everything. You have great observation skills. I think the relationship we have with both is 100% dependent on what we put into it, I have had Cats, dogs, birds, rabbits, fish and horses. Each relationship is different. They must be because they each have different roles. I wish for ever creature living with a human to have someone that understands that positivity is the answer.

  10. lydia horton

    Beautiful essay, I like the picture you paint of your early years on the Welsh farms. I am a lover of dogs and horses. I'm not a trainer, but both these animals respond well to me and I to them. I've ridden, English saddle, since my teens. Right or wrong, I've always viewed horses as great big dogs. Both animals like a soft, affectionate word.. Both love a scratch behind the ears. And they both love treats. Like dogs, each horse has it's own personality. I knew a horse who liked to nibble gently on my fingers, even without food. I read the signs of a fearful horse: you can see it in her eyes, or feel it if she cow punches me as I clean her shoes. Both dogs and horses deserve our respect and our gentle affection. To sum up the way I see our interactions with a dog or a horse is that we "ask" them to do something, we don't order them, and never with a harsh word. I "ask" a horse to break into a trot, the same way I "ask" a dog to sit and stay. I "ask" a horse to come to a stop, with a soft "whoa." In fact, the reins on a horse are like a leash on a dog. The horse and human communicate and bond through these simple but loving connections.

  11. Jennifer Cattet

    I've been through similar experiences as I've been a horse lover all my life. A turning moment in my life was when I bought my first horse, an half arabian pinto mare. Boy was she a good teacher! I thought I knew about horses until my own horse, rightfully named Sissy by her previous owner, challenged me and forced me to really learn about horse psychology. I spent hours researching and learning and finally, through Parelli techniques, but also using clicker training, I discovered a way to relate and work with her that I could not imagine. My biggest joy was no longer to ride her but to play with her on the ground. I learned how to get her to synchronize with me and actually collaborate willingly. Most of all, I learned how to help her work through her fear issues which has also helped me in the way I understand dogs. The bond her and I developed went beyond what I had ever imagined.

    But your right, horses and dogs are still very different. I think two factors come into play: the fact that our dogs live with us and the fact that we cater to everyone of their basic needs. Horses can usually access grass or eat most of the time when we're not really around, so they might not develop the same need towards us. I also think that many of the same misconceptions about how to work with these animals runs in the horse world, just as it does in the dog world.

  12. Louise

    I have just started working to retrain 4 horses with positive methods and in some ways they are very like dogs but in other ways totally different. It has stretched me as a positive trainer and enhanced my skills as a dog trainer. Horses are far more intolerant of change and really teach you patience. They like a shorter session and a higher rate of reward. I think every dog trainer should go out and work occasionally with other species such as horses and chickens. It also teaches you to not stick to a set formula and to think about what you are doing and observe the results to achieve the outcomes you require. Not to mention horses are great for lowering blood pressure and centering you. I am videoing and blogging my journey.

  13. Diana

    Nice essay and it is good to step outside the species box. However I think your view of horses as tamed & not domesticated does them a disservice. They are very much domesticated and feral horses (like mustangs) can be trained to work with humans and taught to trust people just as feral dogs can. This is not something that is easily done with truly wild equines that might be tamed for movie work like zebra or Przewalski's or cats for that matter. The relationships between rental horses and riders is nothing like that between owners who work every day with the same horses for decades. In the US we have no equivalent dog rental system, but if we did I expect many utility/working breed dogs would give a similar impression of their character. Heck even with a single owner some terriers daily ask "What's my motivation?" There is also a different dynamic in how horses and dogs are raised. Dogs are taken from their original family unit shortly after weaning and humans put themselves in the parent role. Horses spend more time with their moms before weaning and when taken at or after weaning are put with other horses (yearlings). We don't place ourselves into a parent offspring relationship with horses (probably in part because true horse-horse play is hard for us to mimic and could be dangerous to the human due to size differences). Both training cultures could definitely benefit from a stop to interpreting horse and dog through a human primate lens and an increase in positive training methods. So keep up the good work!

  14. Danielle D'Auria

    "I think it’s fair to say that on average, dog owners have ‘closer relationships’ with their dogs than horse owners might with their horses." - I'm going to have to disagree with you on that (otherwise, a lovely article!). As you said, you have been away from the equine world a bit. If you have your own horse, one you train and work and feed and groom every day, year after year, you develop a bond so close that it is soul deep. I lost my equine partner, Gibson, this past year after 15 years together. He travelled with me to college, several jobs, and was my oldest friend. I often said he was a golden retriever in equine clothing. He followed me around the farm, always tried his hardest for me, and in return I provided the best possible care I could for him in sickness and in health. When he developed a breathing problem in college, I ate ramon noodles in order to afford his medication. Gibson didn't work for me, he worked with me. Did we have disagreements? Of course we did, as any partnership will. But when we did, I would take a step back and figure out what I was asking incorrectly, just as I do when training my dogs. A relationship with a horse is different from that with a dog or a cat, as it should be. For most people, a dog is a friend and companion. A horse is your friend, companion, team mate, co-worker, partner, and all that must be accomplished at an unconscious level. I could look at Gibson and see if he felt well, or if he was upset, or happy, and he always knew how I felt. Some of my favorite memories of him are simply sitting on his back while he ate grass, both of us soaking in the sun. Or sitting in his stall while he munched hay, reading a book and listening to him. So while the relationships are different, that does not in any way mean they do not run just as deep.

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