Reverse Anthropormophism: Building A Better Relationship

Do you ever go to the barn and pretend to be a cowboy? You’d wear the shirt that matched your saddle pad and put on a Hell Hat. You’d take a deep seat and a faraway look, you’d make out over the land for the herd, whether you have one or not. Horses can like a stoic rider; not so much moony-eyed grooming and more ground-covering action.

Maybe you pretend or an Olympic rider? You’d wear britches, a stock tie if it’s a show day, and always a helmet. You’d sit tall, quelling the noise of the crowd, and move forward confidently to the task ahead, feeling lucky to ride. Horses read our intention, we know they sense fear, but also confidence. They appreciate our consistency and focus. If all it took was the right outfit and striking a pose, anyone could ride. 

But it isn’t that simple and it takes no skill to recognize a dominating rider on a stressed-out horse. It’s more difficult to see what the best riders do to create that sweet connection that makes it all seem like a dance of equals, whether moving cattle, clearing an oxer, or negotiating the horse trailer. 

Isn’t that the thing most visible in the ride, either painful domination or peaceful partnership? And so we think we listen but soon, the rider gives a cue but instead, the horse tells us something about himself, maybe his back is sore. It seems like disobedience, especially if the horse knows the task. Too often, there is only one answer acceptable to us.

When I ask riders what they want to work on, most often they say a better relationship with their horse. It sounds pleasant and positive, but in truth what we want is for the horse to take our cues quickly, do exactly what we want, and look calm in the process. It could be complicated movement under saddle or “simply” standing for the farrier, but we know it should look. Getting the horse on board is another thing. 

Do you ever pretend to be Jane Goodall? Do you remember how she started? In the beginning, she had no special training. She went into the African bush and followed a family group of chimpanzees at a time when scientists generally didn’t study in natural environments. She gave the chimps names instead of numbers, affirming their existence as individuals. Then for the next sixty years, she watched them without correction. She learned their language and came to understand their culture. And she was roundly dismissed by the scientific community early on, accused of anthropomorphizing. She was doing the exact opposite.

“Anthropomorphism is the attribution of human traits, emotions, or intentions to non-human entities. It is considered to be an innate tendency of human psychology.”  ~Wikipedia (an iffy source, but that second part!)

Jane Goodall didn’t see chimps as tiny humans. Instead shifted her perspective to see the chimp species as whole and perfect in their environment. She saw herself in their world rather than bringing them into hers. I’m calling it reverse anthropomorphism.

It sounds deceptively simple but as a human, we naturally hold the “Navel of the Universe” position. Some would say humans are arrogant but horses feel the same way about their perspective. Don’t all species have a survival instinct? We are all equals in this place until someone decides they are superior and all other species should bow down. That’s arrogance (unless it’s a cat and then it’s nothing out of the ordinary.)

It’s the second part of this definition that is important to understand. Putting horses into the human construct, seeing them as loving or lazy or belligerent or distracted is our natural instinct. From a young age, we do the same thing with inanimate objects like dolls and stuffed animals. Adults call dogs furkids and we refer to ourselves as our horse’s moms. Animals are at the center of our lives and it’s fine to make up stories, but for all the challenges that animals face living with us, aren’t we being a bit dismissive? Horses have a rich culture. We won’t understand them by seeing them as a combination of human traits. 

Even more challenging, we only have our language and experience to describe what we see in other species. It’s anthropomorphic by default, so we must stay doubly cognizant that behaviors that we recognize as similar to ours aren’t necessarily the same experience for another species.

In the important study of calming signals, there is a bittersweet initial disappointment in learning that what we saw as harmless play were messages of anxiety or pain. At the same time, we have to be careful to not take one instance out of context and then draw conclusions from that. Humans love to draw conclusions because it lets us feel superior to use human reason. And that’s the moment we lose connection with animals.

Now most researchers believe studies on horses must be done in the wild (thanks, Jane) to know what their genuine baseline normal behavior is. That a horse in captivity has had to acclimate to an unnatural life, and as such, will give unnatural results. 

Horse owners know that, and of course we all want five thousand acres. We do the best we can, feel guilty, and then do a little more. It’s an imperfect world but our passion drives us. We’re working to find balance. 

Here is an example of misunderstanding: We are aware of the danger around horses, and that we might be hurt in an accident. We expect horses to fear death as much as we do but they don’t think in the future. They don’t know the difference between spring shots and a syringe for euthanizing, other than our anxiety at the time. Horses have an overwhelming instinct to survive but that isn’t the same thing as fearing death. 

Conversely, horses believe they are prey and must remain constantly aware of the environment.  Everything they perceive is a question of life or death, their survival dependent on constantly scanning the environment for trouble. But we have the ability to focus on one small detail and block the rest out, so it seems horses are distracted when they’re literally hyper-focused.

I confess that I constantly pretend to be Jane Goodall, minimizing my human inclinations and trying to truly see the world through equine eyes. To love them enough to let it be less about me and more about their true nature. It’s brought their calming signals to the forefront of training. To see horses more from a standpoint of behavioral research, rather than labeling them by our worst, or best, human traits, helps me resolve training issues. It’s more than paying attention; it’s radical listening. I changed sides, I’m on their team now.

Try this: For the next hour, notice everything in your environment. Use each of your senses, take notes, “be horse” and feel honest prey anxiety. Can you hold that kind of focus? Are you exhausted from trying? Notice how many potential threats to survival you dismiss as mere background noise.

To improve a relationship with a horse, we must maturely and selflessly be on their side. We must be an oasis of yes. 

Anna Blake, Relaxed & Forward, now scheduling 2022 clinics and barn visits. Information here.

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Affirmative training is the fine art of saying yes.

Anna Blake

23 thoughts on “Reverse Anthropormophism: Building A Better Relationship”

      • Enjoyed reading this. Dr. Jane Goodall is a hero of mine. I am a songbird rehabilitator and I can relate to Jane in many ways. Observing wildlife in their own world. She was way ahead in time when it came to conservation.They have come out with a Jane Goodall Barbie doll. I bought one. Lol…I am 65 yrs old and just just had to have it. Finally, I thought,a Barbie made for me!!! Love your writting!

    • Hi, I have really enjoyed your article as it is in line with how I interact with horses. When I go into the field, my horse, Sandy, always comes up to say hi… he has now trained me to bring him a carrot to say thank you – but he was greeting me like another horse way before I started giving him carrots!!!

  1. Anna,
    An especially wonderful article. I sent this to my good friend, anthropologist Barbara J. King, Ph.D., who taught at the College of William and Mary, and is now a public speaker, Barbara worked with Jane Goodall in the past, and focuses on primates. However, she writes about other species. Her latest book, Animals’ Best Friends, (University of Chicago Press). You might like it.
    Best wishes,

  2. Who’s the cutie with the curly forelock? 😉 I thought Jane was the coolest. I was always concerned a bit for her safety out there, for some reason. I believe that I may have a very high flight response. I often scan my environment for “bad things”. I jump to the sky when startled by something I am unsure of, or that came out of nowhere. I wonder if a lot of us horse lovers are like that. Do we find a common bond in that characteristic? Are some of us more prey-animal-like than others? I suspect the dominant types are not. Thanks for the article, as usual. It always gets me thinking and these thoughts may be stranger than others, but between you and Jane I can’t help myself! The Peaceful Partnership is indeed the goal and it comes for me when my mare and I are both in that calm, safe place, aware of everything, but not negatively reacting (until, of course, the scary thing jumps out of the bushes, but the great part is we both come back to earth and to that peaceful place quicker and quicker now.) Thanks, Anna.

    • I was spooky when I was younger but I had to give it up. That quicker come back time is a big deal, well done. Thanks Kathy

  3. Forgive me for being dark – but haven’t many (most?) women had experiences which compel us to be hyper-aware of our environments for our own safety… to avoid being prey? Not 24-7, or our natural state, but one we often must adopt? Maybe that’s why so many women gravitate to horses?

    On a lighter note – another contribution to the respect the non-human animals file. I’ve been contemplating rescuing a companion bird. Just doing research at the moment. Fun facts: (some) birds absolutely use language – understanding context and creating novel phrases – not just mimicry. They manufacture and utilize tools, and can solve multi-step puzzles. Identify and remember (human) faces. Probably repeating myself, but having opposable thumbs isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. If we embrace the fact that we are all animals – anthropomorphism is unnecessary…

    • Oh, I hope you do. I’ve had birds most of my life and they are wild fun… and I agree that we women have that dual experience of being both predator by nature and prey by culture… but my conclusion is a bit different. I think it’s why we are so good with horses… Thanks Christian. See you soon.

  4. I’m not sure if I truly “rescued” Pookie (wild bird) by finding her under a plant & bringing her inside. I worry now that shes been with me for a year that maybe – possibly – if I had left her, her folks would have done the rescuing. But she seems to have matured & appears to be content in her flight cage – not a lot of interest in the birds outside her window. She seems to enjoy attention from me and others, and wasnt the least bit intimidated by Juliette (cat) before.
    Off the main focus here, but my only animals have been dog, cat & bird for some time. This blog is one of my ways to somewhat stay close to horses & horsepeople! Thanks to Anna & everyone here.

    • We always count you in our herd, Maggie. Who knows about the bird, but it sounds nice for all of you. This life, that bird will be part of your life. Then maybe we all get stirred up and land in a different sort of life to learn what there is to know there. Right now, I know you were kind to the bird and it lived. That’s what we know and that counts. Thanks for being along for the ride, Maggie.

    • IMHO, Maggie, you are Pookie’s shero!
      Also, IMHO, wherever you go, you will always be a part of the horse world…just sayin’

  5. Cheering us on from the sidelines, Anna. The woman (it takes a woman!) who ran the rescue facility that we adopted our horses from, would always say the first thing her team did when they went on a rescue was give the horses that came into their care a new name. For some it was for their own safety; for most it was to give them a new beginning.
    As with all your essays, I will be reflecting on this one for a while and then hopefully when the situation presents itself be reminded of what you’ve said. As well, the comments from the rest of us will add to the lessons I learn here.

    • Thanks, Lynell. The names we call, the words we use. So important. In rescue especially, but not just there, the horses with the worst names often have the biggest challenges. New start, indeed.

  6. Anna, a question came to mind as I was reading this piece. While observing behavior and calming signals, how does one set limits to stay safe while respecting what the horse is communicating? A specific example is when I go to the barn in order to let my horses out to pasture. Two of my horses wait politely out in the paddock while the other two crowd me in the alleyway and walk so close to me that they kick sand into my shoes! And yes, the King of Crowding is Ferdinand. I feel so conflicted when I set limits because I feel like I’m dismissing their anxiety. Thoughts?

    • Well, Let me give it a rip without seeing and just guessing. ONLY GUESSING! Two aren’t polite, that’s a human construct. They are not worried or they are shut down, meaning stoic. The other two, my friend Ferdinand included, are more external in their expression. Bottom line? What if The King of Crowding is asking you to get out of his space, as you are telling him to get out of yours, who’s space is it? Upping the anxiety by engaging him doesn’t work. And if you demonstrated giving distance by removing yourself, you staying at a distance, he might take that cue. I would move away, I’d ignore them, do my business. Time for a different approach?? (Hope I get to meet him one of these days, and I know he’s a challenge.)

      • Thank you Anna! Your perspectives refresh and inspire me to TRY and think differently. By chance, I tried something yesterday morning. I imagined that I was being shot at and zigzagged all the way across the paddock making it hard for Ferd and Noche to keep pace, and making it easier for me have have a little more breathing room. One thing is for certain; horses are never boring!


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