More than once you might have found yourself thinking about how lucky your horse is. They are loved, fed, kept and are only expected to put in a little bit of effort in return. But do they see it that way?
The problem is that this view is very human. Our logical human brain has a concept of time, of past present and future, of debt and repayment, of obligation and gratitude. This is so natural to our way of thinking that it is common to simply assume our animals should see it the same way. But they don’t. And when we think about it it is laughable that they would.
Horses live in the present. They have different priorities to humans and this comes from their evolution as the ultimate prey animal versus our own as the ultimate predator.
So how can we look at things from our horse’s point of view, surely it’s such a huge gap? Well fortunately that amazing brain we’re so proud of is capable of abstract thought, languages and imagination, so we are born equipped with the tools to be great not only with people but with all animals if we take the time and make the effort.
Now imagine you are your horse. You have food, water and herd mates, you have a routine and pretty much do as you like. And then the human arrives. And they take you from your friends and food and water and expect you to work.
Horses are not being deliberately ungrateful, they have no idea about the stress you put up with at work or the juggling you have to do with your family and friends to ensure that your horse is cared for every day. These concepts are just so foreign to them they can’t understand it. And it’s this difference in thinking that leads to horses running off in the field when they see someone approach with the head collar, or putting their head up to avoid the bridle, or biting when they are girthed, or refusing to stand at the mounting block. Go to any stables and the likeliness is that these behaviours are so common it’s viewed as a normal part of life with horses.
But it doesn’t have to be this way.
There are a number of things we can do to learn more about what our own horses really like, what makes them tick, and how to make those precious moments we do get to spend with them as fun and productive for them as for us.
What’s the difference between a boss and a friend? You might have the nicest boss in the world, one who pays you well and recognises your hard work and gives you all the training you need to do your job the best you can but they are still your boss. You know that if you stopped putting in your part in the relationship by not working you would very quickly be fired and replaced. Your friends, however, spend time with you because they enjoy your company, you enjoy doing activities together, perhaps you have mutual hobbies, or are on a team together, but the real pleasure of what you do together comes from the relationship you share with each other.
These days it is more and more common for horse owners to be more interested in the relationship they have with their horse than competition. Even those that own horses purely to compete can see the benefit of having a willing partner that enjoys their job and puts effort into doing things with their rider.
So take a little time now and then to hang out with your horse, enjoy their company just for being who they are, not for what they do for you. The benefits will be well worth it.
Show you understand
The best relationships are the ones where you intuitively know what the other person needs, what they’re thinking. It’s so true that it’s all the little things that count. Lead your horse to water, swat that biting midge, scratch that itch, but most of all learn when they need you to stop. Horses seek safety and comfort before reward and play so when they feel unsure or uncertain or just plain confused show you understand by pausing and giving them the time to process and get their emotions under control. Finally, when your horse is in the mood to connect and engage with you don’t ignore them, make the most of the moment. There’s nothing worse than the people you love being too busy to be with you and our horses need to socialise as much as we do, it’s in their nature.
Listen to their ideas
Horses are intelligent inquisitive animals and when they feel safe and trusting their curious and playful natures begin to show. Just like a child, if this natural curiosity is reprimanded or curtailed the horse can lose confidence, or withdraw from interaction, or rebel and make games of a less positive nature.
Some horses are naturally more exuberant and playful than others and having the opportunity to let their energy out and show their creativity makes them feel extra clever. This has been acknowledged for years and I believe it is the reason why so many people lunge horses before they ride, but lunging can turn into a battle and how boring must it be to have so many creative ideas and be limited to just running in circles. These horses really benefit from groundwork sessions, both in hand and at liberty, in order to develop their relationship with their human on a level playing field. When you both have your feet on the ground and can be eye to eye the pathway to communication opens up. Your horse is free to express himself and, with appropriate techniques, you can not only be safe when your horse opts to display their physical, exuberant prowess but learn to shape their ideas to create an improved partnership and create a happy, willing equine athlete.
Today I got to see the benefit of having put these guidelines in practice. Today I had a groundwork session with my thoroughbred, Paris. He hasn’t done much at all over the winter and was looking bored. I went into the field and caught his attention and invited him to come over to me. This is how I always “catch” my horses, as if they don’t come to me willingly I do not believe I have their permission to continue. It is feedback on our relationship and how I ended our last session. I wouldn’t want to have to trap my human friends to make them hang out with me so why is it acceptable to do it to a horse? Paris came over and I slid my hand into his rug and scratched his withers. He really enjoyed having a scratch where he could not get to himself and started mutual grooming with me. I then held out his halter for him to put his head into. This is another opportunity for feedback. He nibbled the lead rope and then put his nose into the halter and followed me as I lead him from the field. I took his rug off and scratched him all over but I know Paris doesn’t like grooming as much as our other horses. He can be a bit like a young boy not wanting his mother fussing over him. Knowing he had a lot of energy to burn and that it had been a while since we had done anything I decided to stick to groundwork just for today. Paris is getting to that age when a little more effort is needed to help him stay supple and athletic and I have seen the benefit of groundwork for his physical carriage and movement as well as his state of mind. I ran through a series of activities with us interacting with obstacles and having him perform circles and turns and changes of gait. I set him free and told him he could run and buck and do whatever he wanted and gave a high energy “send”. He leapt into the air and arched his neck and headed off in an elevated trot and began circling me. I stood and did nothing. I didn’t turn and watch, I just waited to see what he would do. After several perfect circles I ran backwards and he came trotting straight to me, ears up, eyes bright and stopped in front of me. At that moment I realised what a gift that horse is to me. We have come such a long way and it is thanks to all I have learned about how to communicate with him and what is important to him that I have been able to build this incredible relationship. I’m not ashamed to say I shed a tear of happiness knowing that I had not asked him to do this, I had not made him do anything and he chose to circle and interact with me because he wanted to.
The sky really is the limit when you take the time to walk in their shoes and learn to look at life from your horse’s perspective.