Every week new research comes out, some more ethically tabulated than others, about science proving horses are intelligent; an article about horses reading our facial expressions, or responding differently to human emotion by changing their own facial expressions, or a million other things that come as no surprise to equine long-timers. I think chickens are probably capable of telling if we are happy or mad, but still, we get excited because science is lining up behind us, almost against its will, and supporting our quiet, affirmative methods. We used our own compassion to figure out how to train horses and it works. Yay, Science. Yay, Riders Against Bullies.
Do horses understand laughter? Of course. That’s not the problem.
Horses and humans live in a chaotic world and I define anxiety as being alive. Here is one way to think about it: There is peace and there is anxiety. Peace is white and anxiety comes in all kinds of colors because feelings come in all kinds of emotions. Red anxiety isn’t better or worse than green anxiety. We don’t judge good and bad, so much as notice behaviors. It isn’t even that simple; red comes in burgundy and scarlet, tomato and barn red. Each shade is as different as each horse or rider’s perception of a situation. One’s perfect dream is another’s nightmare. What does red mean? Love. Anger or rage. Blood. Describing colors is as complicated as understanding emotions or reading calming signals. Good.
Horses are constantly aware of their environment, their senses each so keen that nothing escapes their attention. An elite sense of smell, acute vision for movement, with all their senses working for their safety. Human body language might as well be on a jumbotron for as subtle as we are comparatively. Horses don’t need to read our minds because everything is literally written all over us in nuance. Horses and humans have autonomic nervous systems. Imagine the parasympathetic (restive or restorative) system like those all-white “heaven” scenes in movies. In the perfect world, we would all project peace, pearlescent white and safe, but that is an acquired skill. Perhaps not realistic for a prey animal or an over-thinking human for long. Being alive means joy, pain, good, bad, and every other colored thing.
The sympathetic nervous system, where the flight, fight, or freeze instinct resides, is all rainbow colors. Heart-pounding blue anxiety might be wild dogs or a flapping tarp. They might rear and bite in a fight for chartreuse dominance or a play-fight for fun. On those days when there is a fifty-degree change in temperature, barometric changes might cause a sick-orange colic, although the vet will tell you there is no science behind that old wives’ tale. Unless he’s already out on other colic calls.
One of the first things we learn is horses read our fear, but truly, they read a range of anxiety in us, both positive and negative, and probably not all that specific. Can they tell if we are mad at them or our boss, if we are impatient with them or the clock, if we are listening to them or if we’re stalking them in a creepy coyote way? All shades of red, if that makes sense, but not necessarily as easy to understand as we wish. Meaning we may love a horse profoundly, but how does that red-hot passion feel to a horse coming from a predator? Horses might prefer us to tone it down to a sun-bleached red so they can breathe.
What color is a laugh? Could it be a rosy-pink or pale lavender? Not so fast, it’s predators who laugh. Not horses; they have no close equivalent.
It’s a scientific fact: The act of laughing increases circulation and blood oxygenation which in turn relaxes muscles, relieves stress, and stimulates endorphins producing happiness. Humor and laughter are believed to facilitate learning. Not that horses care much for science but our best horsemanship will happen when we are laughing sunny-yellow.
Now think about being tickled. It’s someone you like, but they grab you and hold tight. Fingers push hard into your armpits as you clamp your arms tight. Do you enjoy it? Most of us go dark and tense at the thought. We hate being tickled, but we choke out laughter. We drown in a wave of anxiety, give conflicting cues, and are left with an emotional mark. What color is that? When is laughter not happy? Are tears always sad?
Here’s where calming signals become a path to understanding for humans and horses. Frequently, a calming signal is displayed when a horse has a mental conflict about how to proceed. Maybe he’s curious about an obstacle you are showing him, but he doesn’t want to be away from the herd. He just needs a moment to think. Maybe he has been corrected so much in the past that he doesn’t trust humans now; he doesn’t have the confidence to try. He’ll give a calming signal to remind us that he’s no threat. If we slow and breathe right about then, cooling the anxiety like a spring shower, he has a chance to choose a better answer.
On our side, we want to let the horse make a choice to work with us, but we are impatient, and we doubt him. So, we escalate the cue before we know it and the horse feels threatened, hurried. Maybe he was thinking and just about to try, but interrupted, he feels punished or shut down. If we slow down and breathe, we will seem less predatory. In affirmative training, we are always trying to prove to horses that we are a paler color than they expect us to be. That we are safe, not aggressive.
I was an artist in my first career, playing with colors at work and riding horses the rest of the time. By the time I got around to turning pro, it was because training horses was the most creative thing I could imagine. A horse and rider are a work of art and seeing colors was a natural way to understand it. But how to let work feel like the light emerald color of spring grass while training and avoid the dark navy-blue fear and intense purple fighting colors?
Science says horses can’t learn when afraid; dark anxiety pushes them into their sympathetic nervous system. Affirmative training says let their curiosity take a step over the line of their parasympathetic system, challenge them with pastel colors. Let the horse think about it. Then anxiety fades to white and it’s as if his safe area has grown. The other word for that is confidence.
Affirmative training means that we just say yes, with amber warmth, knowing that horses will choose a clear turquoise sky over dark storm clouds; safety over warfare. Start with yourself. Do your colors ring true? Your anxieties run clean? It isn’t fair to expect more from your horse than you can maintain in yourself. You might need to tidy up for him. Especially those reds.
Finally, don’t underestimate horses. There’s a silly game I’ve played with them forever; I give him a hard squinty eye when he’s running in the arena, and then howl and jump suddenly. I pretend to scare him so he can pretend to be afraid and flag his tail at a full gallop, maybe a buck and kick out, followed by a fire-breathing snort. We both fall in love with him being a horse all over again. Strength, beauty, and intellect. Gold, ruby, and silver. Then, he trots over, head low for his halter, and we shuffle back to the barn, savoring our wildness from a place of transparent peace.
Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
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