It has become a cliche to say that we want a relationship based on mutual understanding and trust with our horses. It’s all over the web, social media, clinics, you name it. Why am I discussing it here today? Because I think we’ve misjudged the skill both humans and horses possess to understand and communicate with one another.
Let me start by identifying the difference between horse and human modes of communication:
This difference can be imagined when thinking of adults vs. children. Children take what is offered to them without question, whether it be good or bad. Adults have to decide whether or not to accept something being offered to them.
What about horses? Horses react to whatever they’ve been told. Sometimes, if they’ve had enough pressure and release training, they are able to ignore signals that they would otherwise react to, turning off their natural instincts (but generally that’s not a matter of decision but conditioning). Humans, on the other hand, have left behind much of their instinctual practices, and even pride themselves in their ability to react strictly rationally. Much of our instinctual behaviour has even been labeled dysfunctional.
So what’s the problem?
We have found ourselves in a position where horses are the more vulnerable in the relationship because of their instincts. In this way, we treat them like children who have no capabilities of correctly utilizing their instincts.
In my opinion, this idealization of the human’s place as a caretaker and rational being is completely warped. This is where the analogy of children vs. adults ends.
Unlike children, the horse has had thousands of years in experience cohabiting with other species. Domestication may have bred out some of this skill, but horses still carry that natural instinct with them out of necessity.
As the world is changed by ‘horse whisperers’ and natural horsemen, our empathy levels for horses have shot through the roof. This is a good thing. However, we are not the only animals created to communicate. Why should one animal on this planet be less capable of communication with other species than others?
There was an orphaned bear cub that lived with our horses for a few summers. We called him Kevin. A hunter had evidently shot his mother, and he was left to fend for himself in the wild. Normally, horses become very edgy when there are wild predators lurking near them. But Kevin weaselled his way into the herd’s everyday life. Not only did Kevin seem to take comfort from the horses, but the horses didn’t mind Kevin! They seemed to have a mutual understanding.
What does this mean for us as humans and caretakers?
This simple example proves that animals of all natures are able to cohabitant harmoniously. Even though bears and horses don’t have the same body language, they were capable of learning one another’s energy and intentions.
Humans and horses, like everything else in this universe, were designed to understand one another. Learning new ‘languages’ is just as much the horse’s gift as it is the human’s. Understanding how this mutual communication works is an act of letting go for human beings, who so love to be unique in their abilities.
My pride was torn to pieces when I first discovered that Storm was equally as capable of reading me as I was of him; because it meant that I didn’t need to create a system with which to communicate. Why do we need a system to replace what naturally happens in the wild, like what Kevin the bear cub did with the herd of horses.
As caretakers, this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be aware of how our body language is affecting the horses. This realization calls for you to be confident in your communication skills, and in turn respect your horse’s mode of communication as well.