Some of us value horses for their physical working ability on ranches, we “use ’em hard.” Decent care, no frills. Some of us think horses were put on the earth to be spiritual healers and therapists; we use them emotionally. Some of us commit to a lifestyle, we call ourselves horsewomen and horsemen, with the accent on the first syllable. We are evolving.
Horse thought balloon: (they’re confusing. they’re confused. about who they are. who I am. some leaders are too hard. some frail, almost invisible. some are all noise. some just crowd me. some hold fear close, others anger. some have peace. some listen. some accept me. most want to change me. feeling their expectations. anxiety. emotions. good intentions. confusion. loud. shut down or explode. it’s too much busy. just a horse. always be just a horse
Opinion: I believe with every fiber that horses were created to be a part of the natural world, and like all animals, express their lives in their unique way, for their own reasons. If we manage to learn from them, it’s our luck and not their job. They owe us nothing.
We do owe horses a debt historically. The distance we’ve traveled using of horse-power would have been so much slower on our own feet, with our own muscles. Horses have been a part of the human story for centuries and as civilization has brought benefits to us, domestication has been a challenge for horses.
In the U.K., researchers have recently identified four primary areas of horse welfare issues:
Unresolved stress and/or pain;
Inappropriate stabling/turnout; and
Delayed death (i.e., not euthanizing when appropriate).
I agree with this list; it looks about right. When I ask vets and equine professionals what percentage of horses are sound, the optimistic answer is 20%. Most say lower. Your vet might say he didn’t find anything wrong with your horse, but those are carefully chosen words. The nutrition issues are obesity-related mostly, along with a list of related chronic illnesses. With more urban sprawl, ranches get sold for housing developments. The less grazing and turn out for boarded horses, the more horses live in stalls and runs, for our convenience. And that last one on the list; we struggle talking about it, much less doing it.
Notice the problems are all related to living with humans. Depressing, isn’t it?
Horses carry more of our baggage than we admit. The weight of our emotions, past and present, our daily stress outside the barn, are as heavy as our physical bodies, whether we’re old cowboys or horse-crazy girls. Horses don’t have a choice but to notice, being prey animals with keen senses. It’s written all over us.
It’s up to us to learn their language, the calming signals that tell us how they feel. After that, it’s up to us to make it better.
Notice the difference between what he thinks and what you want him to think.
When riders ask me about a training issue, my first question is about the horse’s soundness. A change in behavior is usually pain and an unwilling attitude is a dead giveaway. We can’t discipline the pain away, and for a species like us, brought to our knees by a paper cut, you’d think we’d understand.
Consider building a bubble. It’s a safe place for you and your horse where breathing happens with a life-affirming regularity. It’s a place where leadership means safety and peace, where we abide in the present moment.
In this series of articles, I’ve described a bubble as a place that we find connection while riding but it’s more than that. It’s the place we live with horses. It’s their safe haven, even more than ours.
Horses need a home as close to natural as possible, rather than trying to fit into ours. For the handful of us who don’t own two thousand acres of forest and meadows, we do the best we can. Horses are social, they need friends. They need to graze, free choice hay even if it’s a dry lot. They need space to move around, take dirt baths, and see the natural world. It means we commit to the constant challenge to do better with their care. It will be ironically inconvenient and expensive to do the natural thing.
We need to let them be horses. No more or less.
Humans tend to define equine relationships by work under saddle, but horses see the whole picture. Sometimes doctoring an injury and changing bandages can do more to bring a horse to you than any training method. And for all the right reasons.
Maybe if we paid more attention to the quality of our own feelings and behaviors, horses could deal with their stress better.
If harsh training can cause injuries and ulcers, then positive training can heal.
Their calming signals are telling us they’re not a threat. Can we let go of our predator ways and listen? Can we raise the quality of conversation with horses beyond punishment, proving we can become trustworthy?
Rather than asking horses to fit into our world, we’ll build the bubble by pretending to be horses ourselves. No, as much as we might try, horses never mistake us for herd members, but we can gain more situational awareness around horses and learn to see the world as they do. We can shift our perspective to caring more about what we give them than what they give us.
Breathe. No, I mean it. Match your breath to his, deep and slow. Clear your mind. That’s the bubble, now make it as big as the barn. Listen to the words you use, be honest about your intention, do you need him to listen or are you offering? Don’t say what he always does, notice who he is today. Be fresh. Now, be the leader that you always wanted. Say thank you. Acknowledgment is all any of us wants.
Train less, “relationship” more.
It takes no special skill to fall in love with horses. Standing next to a horse and feeling their breath is wildly intoxicating thing. Every single time. But don’t confuse that with having some mystical bond. That’s just them being ordinary, everyday horses. We have to work for a true connection, over time and through honest effort.
It’s mucking, doctoring, and laying down our worst instincts and lower selves that earn us a place in the saddle, and the right to share their bubble.
This is the last of the series. Recapping: