It has become a cliche to say that we want a relationship based on mutual understanding and trust with our horses. It’s a methodology that is thrown around like it’s a definition in itself, with no real meaning attached to it.
Why am I discussing it here today? Because I hope to bring some meaning back into it, and debunk the aura of self-explanatoryness it so often comes with.
In its beginning stages, this idea of mutual communication was more one-sided – on the side of the human – than mutual. Some horsemen are still practicing this way of ‘communication’, claiming that the horse has a fair say in the goings on, but they are fooling themselves. On the other hand, many people are turning to the side of extreme empathy, where they assume how horses feel and communicate. This attitude, however, results in a misdirection of love and understanding, where the horse becomes more confused by our signals and energy than anything.
So how do we find a balance? Why is it even important that there is total and mutual communication? And what exactly is this notion of ‘mutual communication’ in a horse/human relationship?
Let me start by identifying the difference between the way horses and humans communicate with each other:
Think of the difference between adults and children.
Children take what is offered to them without question, whether it be good or bad. They don’t yet have a strong set of moral values to gauge what they should or should not do. They follow their feelings and when consequences occur, they don’t equate their previous actions to what is happening to them.
Adults, however, decide whether or not to accept something being offered to them. They envision the future and consider the different paths they could take. It’s instinct, and just as the child cannot plan for the future, adults can’t not plan.
What about horses?
Horses are reactionary. This is because their frontal lobe is smaller than a humans’ (the front part of the brain is what controls logical thinking and problem solving). Some horses have larger frontal lobes than others, but the main part of a horse’s brain controls reactions and muscle movements. It is sometimes said that a horse has the learning capacity of a four-year-old human. This may be true, but horses have other faculties that far surpass human children.
Horses learn from rewards and consequences, but cannot follow the complex series of problems humans lay out before them. It may appear that the horse is ‘problem solving’, but it is more probable that they are just acting upon an instinct that promises comfort. Sometimes, if they’ve had enough negative reinforcement training they are able to ignore their natural instincts and follow a better of two evils a human is presenting to them. But generally that’s not a matter of free choice, but conditioning.
Those who practice positive reinforcement may find their horses becoming more interested in a relationship with humans. Because the negative reinforcement (or consequences) have been removed from the equation, there is no reason to be afraid and they can continue to pick the most desirable path.
So what’s the problem?
Horses are vulnerable. Vulnerable to humans’ decisions. As much as some people claim to give their horses ‘full free choice’, the human is still the ‘God’ figure giving the horse a spectrum of choices. If a horse had full free choice, they would probably not be anywhere near human beings.
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 cynical and skeptical about our own abilities to communicate. We know in theory that horses are vulnerable, and try to give them so much freedom, but it doesn’t always work.
We really need to realize that it’s not possible to give the horse his full freedom. However, it is possible to coexist with him and make his confinement bearable and even pleasurable.
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. And this happened without any human intervention.
What does this mean for us as humans and caretakers?
This simple example proves that animals of all species 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. Letting go of control; letting go of fear; letting go of obsessive behaviour.
My pride was torn to pieces when I first discovered that Storm was equal (and almost better) at reading me than I was of him! It meant that I didn’t need to create a system with which to communicate to him. It meant that I wasn’t nearly as responsible for our relationship as I wanted to be. Yes, I’m his caretaker and responsible for his needs, but I’m not responsible for teaching him to understand me. He does that all on his own. Why do we need a system to replace what naturally happens in the wild?
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.
Sometimes, a cue you thought meant one thing really means another to your horse. If it’s something you can change, then change it. Your turn to learn. If it’s a problem for you, then your horse will change. No problem! Be patient and teach him what your ‘words’ mean and he will do the same for you.
This post was edited in April 2018.