Horses are two things. They are the way they are and they are the way we think they are or want them to be. Many of the struggles we have with horses stem from those two things being very different. Only occasionally are those two things the same thing.
I believe that most people want more from a horse than just a working relationship. It certainly seems to be true of almost everyone who reads this page and comes to my clinics. Most people want to have a good relationship with the horse(s) that extends more into being a member of the family than just a utility to be used when needed. People take their responsibility to the emotional and psychological welfare of their horse very seriously. And I am happy to help anybody who cares about this aspect of owning a horse.
But I am sometimes bothered when I hear of people who anoint a horse with altruistic motives. It’s not unheard of for owners and teachers to prescribe virtues to horses that I truly don’t believe they have, but which people want to believe they have. I think of it as the Black Beauty syndrome. It works great as a piece of romantic fiction, but it is still fiction.
There is no question that horses are amazing. Their nature allows us to do all sorts of unpleasant things to them from being thrown to the ground to being charged (and sometimes gorged) by bulls, yet they don’t plot their revenge. They allow us to use tortuous devices, work them when they are sore, separate them from the safe haven of a herd, transport them in tin cans on wheels etc and all because we can. Their nature lets us, and we exploit that.
However, let’s be honest here. Horses are not altruistic. They don’t live to please us or to get along with us. If they knew what was ahead, no horse would volunteer to go into a training program. But when the choice is taken away from them they mostly submit to the role we choose for them. This is the true nature of a horse and it is why we train, ride and drive them.
In horsemanship, we are always talking about ways to make our idea the horse’s idea. When a horse has an idea to do something it takes almost nothing for it to happen. So the easiest way to get a horse to do something is to implant the idea to do it in its mind. Simple!
However, a horse does not set out to please people. Its mind is constantly occupied with ideas on how to make its own life better and often that those ideas conflict with our ideas.
A horse is not sitting around waiting for us to issue a command. Their minds are always busy thinking about something. All the real estate in the thinking part of a horse’s brain is constantly occupied. For a horse to have a new thought requires the elimination of a thought that is already occupying space in the brain. Therefore, for us to implant a new idea means we are in competition with the thought that has already set up house in the horse’s mind. This is always true. Anytime we want to change a horse’s thought, we are in competition with the rest of world that is bombarding our horse with new things to focus on.
In time and with good training, a horse can learn that people offer a good deal and life is okay when they let the primates run the show. But it takes a lot of good work before that becomes a way of life in a horse’s thinking. And even when we get to that stage of our relationship, it only takes a time or two of letting the horse down that things return to a conflict of ideas between human and horse.
There is a lot more I could say on this subject, but it would almost certainly land me in a serious conflict of ideas with some of you and I’m not feeling particularly feisty today.
Our role as horse trainers is to find a way that a horse is comfortable with placing the human at the top of ideas list. People and the tasks we present should ideally occupy the most important place in a horse’s thoughts. We should not have to topple every other thought to be important to a horse. Instead the world should have to topple us out of first place for the horse to give it much concern.
To end on a very minor feisty note let me say that this does not happen because we shy away from creating a little trouble in our horses in times when it is needed to unseat one idea and replace it with another. The non-altruistic and submissive nature of a horse that allows us to do what we do is also the nature that requires a ruffling of horse feathers from time to time.
Photo: My wife, Michèle riding Callum. We are always competing with outside influences for a horse to be able to hear us.