Your horse is a horse, not a human. Obvious? Yes of course! Horses don’t remember things like humans do, they don’t think logically to assess a situation before they react, they rely heavily on flight/fight/freeze to keep themselves safe etc. So it clearly is important to treat horses as horses, they don’t think like humans, they don’t behave like humans, and nor should we expect them to.
Yet how many times do you hear anthropomorphic descriptions of horses and/or their behaviour? Horses simply don’t have the cognitive ability to consider themselves as lazy, stubborn or naughty. They just behave in a way that makes sense to them and often their primary desire is simply to keep themselves safe from what they perceive to be a danger or threat. I myself have been guilty of describing my horses as ‘opinionated’ so I am not preaching here, but by adding human characteristics to horses it makes the true assessment of their behaviour and why they are behaving in a certain way harder to understand.
Having said all of the above, there are some similarities in how we can work with horses that have parallels in working with people, specifically kids. Now full disclosure here, I don’t have children so I am clearly no expert. I do however have small nieces and nephews and many friends with children and through spending time with them there are some similarities in some ways to training a horse (I really hope my friends/siblings don’t take offence to this comparison!). Also, I was a kid myself once (yes I can remember back that far!) and can remember calculating how to make a scenario work in my favour, attempting to manipulate my parents into getting me what I wanted. Most of the time my aim was to get candy, more time to play, not have to go to school or to bed, or not eating my veggies at dinner time.
The desire to play is something that until now I have really overlooked as a need in horses. Sometimes that need to play comes out as what looks like ‘naughty’ behaviour and therefore can be alarming. But now I am getting side tracked and that is an idea for a different article...
Back to horses and their cognitive abilities. How we perceive them and how they think can help our riding, especially if you put yourself in their shoes. Recently my trainer, Patricia Lincourt, pointed out to me that horses don’t have the ability to behave with the emotions of an adult human and suggested instead to think of them as being like a 6 year old child. There are similarities for sure, horses have the ability to test boundaries and manipulate us to their benefit, similar to children. They need guidance as to making the right choices, as do children, and they can be very easily frightened, as can children. This means that as the rider/trainer we have the responsibility to guide them, coach them and reward them, the same way you would a child. So, much as it would sometimes be helpful, I can’t expect the horses I ride to behave like an adult would. They don’t think logically enough and you can’t reason with them as you could most adults. They also don’t get to decide to be ridden, they are at the mercy of what we dictate we want them to do, so it is totally my responsibility to make sure they have a good experience every time I decide to ride and I decide what we do during that ride.
Reminding myself of this as I am riding is helping me have a more flexible agenda for my riding. These horses don’t understand or share my expectations, they don’t know or care that there might be a dressage show on the horizon or a hunter class to jump, they would rather be in a field with their mates. I want to achieve the best in my riding, always have, likely always will. BUT I think sometimes that (personally) comes as a detriment to what is happening ‘in the moment’, and now I think I am beginning to realise that just having a flexible attitude and ability to change expectations as I ride is valuable and should result in a better time had by all.
I have found this idea of a 6 year old personally very helpful, I am starting to lose some of the sky high expectations I have of both myself and the horse to be the very best AT ALL TIMES and rather work in simplifying my time in the saddle. With many horses afterall it is more important that they remain calm and stress free during a training session than it is to perform an elevated trot or jump a three foot fence. If I get to those fancy things in the future then great. For now I’m going to work on just having a good ride with whatever equine buddy I am lucky enough to ride.
Picture of my small nephew on his first time sitting on a pony for the cuteness factor, please note this is the UK in winter, not California in fall therefore absolutely freezing :)
If you are looking for help understanding the behaviour of your horse please contact us.