Maybe because of their size, horse-behavior that is very normal can seem incomprehensible to some. It was not so many days ago that a curious incident brought to my awareness how mysterious horses are to some people. Strange since the horse has been domesticated for thousands of years and nearly as long as dogs!
A mother walks into the barn with her 8 year old daughter to take their first riding lesson. The little girl is excited and thrilled to see a beautiful white pony standing in the cross ties waiting for her. She skips over to the pony and throws her arms around its neck and talks to the pony in a gentle soft voice. The pony reacts by lowering his head and letting his ears droop contentedly. A clear indication of submisive horse-behavior. The mother on the other hand gasps, runs over to the daughter and dragging her away demands: “ Don’t do that! Aren’t you frightened? ” The pony, responding to the fear and aggressive movement of the mother, perks its ears, raises its head and steps back a step. The little girl furrows her eye brows and thinking about it, frowns and hides behind her mother deciding that maybe she “is” afraid since her mother obviously thinks she should be. The mother then turns to me and asks “ is that pony nervous? He looks spooked.”
When people are presented with the unfamiliar it is easier to see the differences rather than the similarities between them . By understanding some of the similarities we share with the horse we might further our efforts to demystify horse behavior and communication.
Horse Behavior … Similarities between horses and humans.
- Horses are social animals, very much like humans. Their peer structure is observable and identifiable.
- Horses react to pressure. Humans under pressure react first and then think.
- Humans and horses both react well to positive reinforcement. We both like stroking whether verbal or physical.
- We both react negatively to aggression and pain.
- All horses and most humans have a keenly developed sense of fairness. If I step on your toe accidently and you react by punching me in the nose, that is not fair.
- Humans and horses benefit from early nurturing experiences that later on translate to an ability to learn new things.
- Horses and humans are both very inquisitive, some more than others. It is this curiosity that make men want to learn and makes horses teachable.
- Both humans and horses benefit immensely from imprinting.*
*Imprinting is the term used in psychology to describe any kind of phase-sensitive learning (learning occurring at a particular age or a particular life stage) that is rapid and apparently independent of the consequences of behavior. The best known form of imprinting is filial imprinting, in which a young animal learns the characteristics of its parent.”
Horse-Behavior … Anthropomorphism.
Respecting one another’s innate characteristics is very different from anthropomorphizing the horse.
Anthropomorphism is the attribution of uniquely human characteristics to non-human creatures, objects and beings.
Humans love to project human characteristics in this way. For instance at it relates to horses:
- baby talking to a horse…. 😡
- “my horse is in a bad mood” 😡
- Maintaining a constant loud jabber of words directed at the horse and then expecting him to obey a verbal command.
- Putting a carrot in your mouth to feed your horse and being crushed when he bites your nose instead!
- Thinking that the horse should be eternally grateful to you 😥
- Expecting respect
- Expecting a horse to understand your frustration – anger – bad mood.
Here’s one I particularly enjoy:
- Thinking a horse is performing better because you are sitting in the audience watching!
- Thinking that a horse didn’t put in his best performance because he disliked the color of his polo wraps!
No doubt it is fun and funny to fool around giving our horses human characteristics. As long as we realize that it does not belong as part of a riding, training or handling program for the horse.