Horses, humans, and the way they interact

Today I failed my horse. Because I failed to apply the first and foremost horsemanship principle that I preach : considering the horse’s thought as valid. Because of that, I set up both for failure, instead of success. That was stupid, unfair, frustrating and improductive. A year ago, I would have beaten myself up to death, probably even have cried about it. Today I’ve moved along in this journey enough to simply be grateful I realized how I failed, and that this tolerance we have for the horse’s mistakes, we must extend to our own, because no horse, nor human, is perfect and has it all figured out.

My young horse has been scared of some places in the arena we work in. Several of them. Some we have conquered, but one particular zone remains a dreaded area that has him ranging from raised awareness to sheer panic, and all the shades of scare and fright in between. Today, he started with significant concern and marked avoidance, and worked, thanks to my stubborness and lack of effiency to full blown defensiveness. We had a bit of a wrestle, it was a rather ugly. When he switched from a bucking thought to a rearing thought, I knew I had crossed a threshold of my own stupidity and I needed to get us both ouf of this mess I had created (which, thankfully, I was able to do without any real harm done to either of us). Later I realized the empathetic and well known horsemanship techniques that consists of working the horse a little harder going away from a scary object, and offering quiet and peace going towards it, was miserably failing because I had totally fucked up in implementing it. First I had kept him way too close from the scary zone for comfort, and second, I had still imposed a course of direction before he could turn around and face his fear on his own volition. Double fuck up.

Andrea Fappani, whom I consider the greatest artist in the modern reining industry says something like “If you don’t have the tools to fix something, don’t even try to. With some luck your horse won’t notice”. Knowing that no amount of coaxing, or, if it came to that, coercition, would get my horse to get into that zone, the stupid, stupid thing, was trying in the first place. To my credit though, he’s been quite inconsistent about it. The only given is that it’s an raised awareness place, but some days only mild persuasion and timely release will get him comfortable with it by mid-session. He’s even been known to stop along that very gate, and go half to sleep while munching on the wood rail…. So while today he started out quite concerned about it, it wasn’t too hard to be fooled into thinking I could fix it. Turned out, I couldn’t. I guess I should be happy I found a place to quite maybe 0.5% better than where we started. And that, aside from that particular incident, we had a nice session including a wonderful ride over a freshly cut wheat field. Loping towards an outstretched horizon, with floppy reins, and breeze in one’s face, on a horse who’s mane is nearly as blond as the field, sure is a great way to spend a Saturday morning. On another good note, our forward is slowly but surely coming back, AND I’ve been able to ride with spurs again without any big protest about it (aside from the ugly little fight about the scary fence). To top it all, my colt let me pick and handle all four feet perfectly for the second time in a row.

If I sit calmly and weight all the things that horse is trusting me with and trying hard for, versus the few things he’s resistant about or has trouble with, I’m blessed, and immensely grateful. Each time I walk down to his (large) pasture and don’t have him in sight, I just whistle (feebly, I’ve never been a sharp whistler) and a few seconds later he’s coming at a gallop and stopped resfectfully on the edge of my “bubble” then greets me by putting his velvety nose in my hand and softly licking my palm. In other words, I’m blessed.


On another note, yesterday a lady came to the barn to board her horse, and the plan is he could be pastured with mine. Dandy has been pretty naughty with horses he’s been put with so far, and only two could safely be his neighbors. I was inquiring a bit about the new horse when the owner conversationally said “Oh he’s dumb as fuck”. I’m a writer, and convinced words matter, so I didn’t favor her choice of, but I silently winced, and changed the subject. When later she mentioned her dog and said “He’s an asshole”, I became convinced she either had a really bad case of foul mouth, or was highly unlucky with her animals. I could not but make notice of what she’d said about both, so she clarified her thought. “The dog is actually mean, she said, but horse is only really dumb”. That really got me thinking. My opinion about horse intelligence have varied greatly over time. As I kid I guess I found them mysterious and intriguing, maybe erring on the dumb side. As a young adult I would probably have said that they were shitdumb, but having been and worked with them much more in the past years, I have totally revised that opinion.

The problem with horses is that we try to judge their intelligence by our own, and that plain does NOT work. Because horses and humans operate on a totally different level, by a very different set of standards, that can actually not be compared. Einstein used to say that you cannot judge a fish by its ability to climb trees. This quote is often used in reference to our school system that wants every  single kids to shine at maths and physics. I had crazy high grades in biology as a senior but couldn’t dream to go into vet school because I was poor at maths, and the prerequisites are engineer level. We tend to think that a person cannot pursue advanced academics if they’re not good at maths. That is thorgouhly fucked up, and set a lot of people on the road to a life of shitty jobs, me included. Back to horses vs. humans operation. Humans have the luxury of spoken language, and though our communication is not free of traps and pitfalls, if we’re in a neutral enough state of mind, we can usually reasonably convey what we need to say (don’t get me started on man/woman dialogue though…). Horses, on the other hand, have no articulate spoken language, but are absolute artists at body language and posturing, and, as many other animals, they are keenly aware of the -obviously- unsaid. I mean by that they are brilliantly observant. When I used to train dogs for a living, I would tell my customers their dog’s only job was to observe them all day, so it was all too easy for the pooch to jump in any breech in timing or consistency, and use it to its advantage. Make sure horses are the same. Tom Dorrance’s motto was “Observe, remember, and compare”, while Ray Hunt’s was “Feel, timing and balance”. If I could pick just one from both of those geniuses, I’d go with observe, and timing.

Observing is the one thing I’m pretty good about, probably because I have trainerd dogs professionally in an earlier life. When you train animals, not letting any little tidbit of an expression of piece of body language is an absolute must. Think of it as data collection. How do you want to successfully read and interpret your horse’s behavior if you’re not keeping laser focus attention to it ?? I often innerly shake my head at people doing menial stuff around their horses and chatting their head off, not paying attention to what the horse does, or sometimes more importantly doesn’t do, and then are genuinely surprised when an issue pops up “out of the blue”. I recently quoted Buck Brannaman saying “There’s no all the sudden, you’re oblivious, is all”. Indeed. Another priceless Ray Hunt quote “The ride begins when the horse sees you”. You bet. And he went on to mention “What happened before what happened happened”. Bill Dorrance, who seemed to have not only a formidable understanding of horses, but an equally infinite tolerance for human imperfection, would more mildly put it and say that “Before a horse does anything, he gets ready to do it”. And he’d encourage riders to be “really attentive” to what the horse does, how he “arranges” his body, whether his eyes, mouth, nostrils, are soft or “hard”, tight, etc…

Timing is the second quality that I find paramount to working with horses, and this one is a little more elusive to me. I usually get it right after a while, but I’m not immune to some mistakes here and there. And timing is everything ! So again, pitching human smarts again horse smarts is a losing proposition, for both species. Horses not only read body language, but operate on emotions and in instant time, while humans are planners able to suppress or override their current feelings to build strategies for the future. Dubbing a horse “dumb” because he doesn’t think the way we do, doesn’t make for a very smart human, either… Horses, until they have been trained into hiding their emotions are and effectively “shutdown” (and that comes quicker than we think, especially in the desensitizing work), are extremely honest. Buck Brannaman often says that the horses are great equalizers, because they only react to you in relation to how you make them feel, in the moment. That’s why we need to leave our egos at the barn gate and not take a horse’s reaction personally. Horses are just acting the way they think they need to. And regarding timing, most “bad” behaviors are taught…. Taught by US. Yeah, you read that right. Ever thought about how your horse pulling away and raisin its head until you can’t spray in his face anymore ? How you bring him back to you and once his head is lowered you start spraying, and KEEP on spraying until he fidgets again and pulls high and away and is released from that annoying spray ? Good job, you’ve just taught your horse to avoid spraying. And that bucking, or rearing, or bolting horse has probably be “trained” into those vices by unknowing riders and handlers, as well.

So at the start of the post I said that I had failed at my most precious horsemanship principle : giving the horse the right to think, and having consideration for his thought, even when, yes, it doesn’t coincide with our idea. My colt thinks he’s in danger at the short end of the arena. I, as human, know for a fact there is zero real world danger to him there. But he, has a horse, has a different opinion, an opinion he’s ready to go through pretty unpleasant events to defend and uphold. And I should definitely have had respect for that, for his horse thought, for the threat that he perceives there, and that feels very real to him. I dumbly chose to, as my trainer later put it, “focus on the tree rather than the forest”, and obsess about bringing him into his no-go zone, rather than being grateful of and appreciative for all the good things we did together today. Not a huge deal. He has Sunday off, but on Monday morning, high water or well, I’ll be picking him up from his pasture to continue our common journey. And that makes me very, very happy 🙂



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