No other animal is quite like a horse; never fully wild and never quite domesticated. Engaged with us but never ours entirely. Some see horses as simple creatures and others of us hold them as a mystery we will never completely solve and we like it that way.
In 2012, a group of prestigious scientists including Stephen Hawking signed the Cambridge Declaration of Consciousness. It was a result of a wide range of varied research on mammals of all sorts, peer-reviewed findings, using among other things, special MRI machines massive enough to fit large mammals, like horses, inside. Scientists had proven that animals, including horses, have consciousness. Good, that means they have an awareness that they are alive, but more than that, they found that animals have emotions “not unlike our own.”
[To clarify, before you install a TV so the herd can watch the World Cup or Yellowstone, it isn’t that horses have the same emotions as us in the same situations. They still don’t have a prefrontal cortex capable of what we refer to as executive functions. “Executive” is an interesting word choice, but it sounds like something a human would come up with.]
Horse people cock a hip and sneer at the announcement. We don’t need scientists to tell us that! We rave about our horse’s emotions, we brag about their sensitivity, we think they love us, that they mourn our absence, that they stand waiting at the gate for us to give their life meaning. It’s human nature to think we are the navel of the universe.
But then we try to train horses out of emotions that are a problem to us. First on the list, they are too sensitive, spooky, stubborn, and opinionated. We want calm, sweet, submissive horses. Sometimes dumbing them down even appears to work. For a while. Kind of like strong women, we like horses until they become inconvenient.
Maybe training a horse to be withdrawn in fear, or even shut down, would make us feel more comfortable but some of us truly do want a relationship with horses, which is a challenging enough goal with our own species but our passion for these beautiful elusive animals is deep and true. And for no scientific reason I know, horses continue to volunteer, so here we are, forging our way together.
Over centuries, horses have carried us far, but times have changed. Try as we do, it gets harder to create an environment for them to thrive in as cities expand, we try to cope with the prices of feed and the endless list of health concerns. As hay fields give way to housing developments, it isn’t just the expense and logistics that change. Global warming impacts the land and we have to constantly reinvent our management. Everywhere, it’s too hot or too wet, or catastrophic droughts. And on top, we seem to have less time and new ideas are hard to come by, but we have to find ways to support our horse’s healthy expression of who they are in this new world. We don’t use them for work as we once did, we have blurred the line. Are they pets now? Have we given them office jobs, keeping them in cubicles? Pretending we live in the old west isn’t working.
As we mold horses to our contemporary lives, do we also expect their nature to evolve to fit? Knowing they have emotions, are we training in a way that supports their mental health, asks the trainer who spends most of her time working with horses damaged by training?
The true nature of horses is energy, curiosity, and flight but our expectation of training is to change that to them into something tamer and more sedate, and in the process, I wonder if we pressure horses to be different so much that they struggle with confidence more than before.
Some of us work our horses harder, ignoring their emotions in favor of pushing them physically. We reason that they live shorter lives and it seems to make us hurry them before they are emotionally mature enough to train, as well as dealing with the anxiety we feel wanting good results quickly. The speed our human world spins doesn’t give us much practice at being patient. Can horses tell the difference between physical exhaustion from dull repetitive work and our displaced struggles with our own feelings, perhaps not feeling good enough as we seek acknowledgment for who we are as individuals in a fast food world? Do they come to embody the worst of our insecurities?
Some of us don’t ride often, instead letting our horses live mainly as pasture ornaments, but at the same time, calling them our therapists, being our sounding boards for our emotions while not giving them the space and autonomy to escape the mental constraint. In other words, do horses get compassion fatigue from carrying our emotional burdens for us, as well as managing their own?
Horse people are tough and capable. We were taught to ride them through difficult things and glorify suffering as if the one who hurts the most wins. We are wracked that we don’t do enough for our horses, that we aren’t good enough. We drink more coffee and try too hard and still come away trying to balance our love with our anxiety. We hold our failures larger and closer than our successes because we are still humans and, thanks to all that executive function, we feel heavy lethargic guilt. Do we notice the impact on our horses?
Asking too much from a horse, mentally or physically, doesn’t make them stronger, it wears them out. Immune systems get weaker, calming signals get louder. Their resilience wears thin and horses feel more pressured than supported. We resist recognizing it in horses as much as we resist seeing it in ourselves.
Conversely, being generous every ride means horses are more likely to have reserve effort for when you need it.
We’ve just completed a July-hot four-day clinic at my favorite barn in Wyoming. The organizer shares her herd and I come often enough to know the horses. Participants fly in for a different sort of experience. We have short rides focusing on one thing at a time. We learn to release our personal agendas and noisy desires. We practice the profound strength it takes to do less and notice their emotional experience, sometimes above our own. On each day, with each horse, we try to be the human they need us to be.
In return for acceptance of their nature and emotions, the horses gave us more than we asked for. Each day, progress was compounded. At the end, the young mare who we all loved for her feisty nature, stood still with soft eyes, positively glowing with pride. It bathed us in joy.
When horses and humans accept and negotiate their individual emotional stumbling blocks instead of fighting about them, there is a release of dread on both sides. In the practice of humans doing less, our horses were able to express more. In giving them more autonomy, we found more within ourselves. And the circle is complete.
Anna Blake, Relaxed & Forward. Scheduling clinics for the fall in the Midwest and Eastern states now.
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Affirmative training is the fine art of saying yes.