Horses, like all prey animals, have a “flight zone”. This area around the horse is their personal bubble. We have trained this out of horses for the most part. If they still had a big personal bubble we would not be riding them or driving them as we wouldn’t even be able to touch them. The flight zone is used in farming to move untrained animals to a different location.
Yes, you will go to a county fair and see a cow being lead around but in large herds that is not practical and animals are “driven” using the understanding of flight zones. Imagine a horse cut down the middle then cut across right behind the shoulders.
These are the fight zones of a horse and are almost the same for every prey animal. If a wolf comes up from behind on the left-hand side of the horse they will escape to the front right-hand side. This goes for all zone, the horse will try and escape to the complete opposite to create as much room between itself and a predator as possible. We have trained horses to allow humans to approach from most directions calmly but if startled or approached by a running, screaming child then will try to flee.
With these flight instincts now explained you can now understand the best way to approach a horse. We have to keep in mind what type of horse we are walking up to. A carriage horse cannot see you if you cannot see his eyeball so walk up from a front angle. A horse with a rider can usually see around them, pending the training accessories attached to their bridle, so approaching from the side, preferably from the front of their shoulders, is ideal.
Always ask the handler if the horse is okay to touch. Some horses are “head-shy” and will panic if touched on the head. This tends to come from mistreatment in the past, injury, neurological problems or from unfinished training. The safest place to touch a horse is on the neck; it keeps you out of a direct horse escape route (forward) and keeps small children safe from an accidental head bob from an animal whose head is the size of their torso.
Understanding the prey instinct of a horse will help anyone around horses. It helps trainers use these instincts to help horses understand what is being asked of them, it helps emergency workers to control loose animals in times of disaster and it helps the general public stay safe around them.