By Kathie Gregory
Many of us who share our lives with horses spend a lot of time and thought thinking about how to approach our training exercises and management practices. As such, our thoughts tend to focus on what we want to do and how we are going to achieve it. As a result, we often decide on a course of action from our perspective, i.e. what we have to do to get the desired response from our horse.
But if we look at it from the horse’s perspective, will he see what we are doing in the same way? Or will he interpret it as something else?
If we only interact with our horse when we want him to do something, then we are missing a significant part of what the horse-human relationship should be.
If there is no mutual friendship and affection, our horse’s perception of our interactions risks being based solely on his having to cooperate with us without any benefit to him, which can lead to disagreements as to whether he will comply with our wishes.
As time goes on, the entire situation may become more and more aversive for him, resulting in a breakdown in our relationship.
Fortunately, there is another way. The best friendships are built on feeling a connection with someone, and then nurturing it. But how much time do we spend thinking about the connection we have with our horse?
I propose that, rather than immediately thinking about what we want to achieve and how we expect our horse to respond, we shift that focus to the partnership we have with him. After all, when we meet a friend to do something together, we don’t go straight into the purpose of why we are meeting. Usually, we spend time reacquainting ourselves, each asking how the other is doing and taking note of their mood.
After this initial greeting, we know how our friend is feeling and we then take that knowledge into account so it informs what we say and how we act. We do this naturally with friends and colleagues. It means we avoid misunderstandings and don’t just plow in doing what we want to, only caring about our side of things without concern for the person who forms the other half of the partnership.
This is good manners and showing our concern for the other person. We may or may not develop or further a friendship with every individual we encounter, but when we are mindful and considerate, we do set things up for a more successful collaboration.
If we did not go through this ritual, we may come across as self-absorbed, rude, and uncaring of the other person’s feelings, leading to frustration, inefficiency, miscommunication, resentment, and a lack of success.
Essentially, we need to acknowledge and understand that whilst we are working on something together and therefore forming a partnership, there are actually two sets of needs that, if understood and encompassed, come together for a harmonious relationship.
Understanding Body Language
If we use this same approach with our horse, we can really develop and enhance our relationship with him. Although our horse cannot verbalize, he speaks through his body language and the sounds he makes with his voice.
When we first go to see him on any given day, we can greet him just as we would greet a friend. We are relaxed and not in a rush to move on. We are open to his reply as we watch and listen to him. What is he saying about how he is feeling that particular day? Is there anything specific that he is alerting us to?
Horses are very good at telling us when something is going on, when something has worried them, and when they are relaxed and chilled out.
This first part of our greeting tells us how we need to adjust for where our horse’s attention is. Next, we ask him if he is ready to work together. Again, this is the same as being with a friend. We’ve said hello, understood our friend’s mood, and then said, right, let’s get started.
This question gives the other party, whether it is our friend or our horse, the option to say, Yes, I’m ready, or No, not quite, give me a minute. It creates an equal partnership that is based on mutual respect. It shows our horse that he has a voice and that we are listening.
It also means that when we do start our joint activity, our horse is a much more willing partner. His attention is likely to be with us and we can communicate far more effectively, ensuring we remain in synch and together throughout the activity.
Learning to work with our horse’s personality and mood, rather than just going ahead with whatever it is we want to achieve for our own success, can take time. It can be difficult to keep this in mind when we need to get something done, we have deadlines to meet, or we don’t have much time to spare.
But we still have to remember that our horse is a sentient living being who feels a range of emotions, just as we do. And just like us, our horses are aware of their surroundings, what is being asked of them, and what happens to them.
We should respect their right to be treated as we would like to be treated, with respect, and consideration for them as an individual. Taking the time to greet our horse, understand how he is feeling, and adjust how we interact with him, brings huge rewards to both us and our horse.
Being aware means we can ask questions such as ‘How does my horse feel in this situation?’, ‘Is there another way of approaching this aspect of what we are doing?’, and ‘What can I do to change things for the better for my horse and therefore myself?’
As we think through what we are doing, we are better able to see how we can adjust to make improvements to our activity and reach our goal, whilst always keeping our horse’s welfare at the forefront of our mind.
This paves the way towards a successful partnership where we both know the goals and actively work towards achieving them. Far from being more time-consuming, once we start working this way, we realize it is more efficient and effective.
Interacting with our horse like this will promote a content, happy state of mind, and that positively affects his physical health. Meanwhile, we are creating the best emotional environment for our horse to ensure his happiness and longevity.
Just Part of the Family
In addition to this, we also need to create a friendship that is not dependent on our horse doing something for us but is simply, and importantly, just about being together and enjoying each other’s company. We need to get to know our horse, just as we get to know someone as they become a friend. And that means spending time together when we are not trying to achieve anything, but are just happy being together.
Having said that, many of us are busy and have limited time, so we focus on the things we need to do. We may see just spending time with our horses as an indulgence, and something we feel we can’t justify the time for. Or, we may think that it doesn’t serve a purpose, we are not doing anything, and so what is the benefit?
As well as forming emotional bonds with other horses, horses also form bonds with those who care for them. Even though we are a different species, we still represent a reassuring presence, someone who engages with them, and this creates an emotional bond – with many horses regarding us as part of their family.
The same thing happens if we have a dog or a cat who is part of the interactions with our horse. They also become part of the family, alongside our horse’s equid family. We can also represent safety, and give our horses confidence with our presence.
This time we invest gives us insight into aspects of our horse’s personality that we don’t always see when we are working together. We get to know how our horse likes to interact with us, and where he prefers to be when he is with us. He may also choose to engage us in some way.
We may think that if our horse is trying to interact with us, then he must want something. Our human nature usually interprets this as something tangible, such as food, grooming, or starting an activity, i.e. something we provide for him.
But what is often overlooked is that our horse’s motivation may simply be to have a conversation with us, to interact for the sake of sharing company and communication because he wants to be with us. This aspect of a relationship is so important to developing our friendship. It flows into, and enhances our whole relationship with our horse.
We can build up our relationship and friendship with our horse with the tangible elements of providing him with pleasant and rewarding experiences when we need to look after his health and when we ask him to do the activities that are our goals.
But we also strengthen and deepen that relationship with the intangible aspect of just being with him, giving him time, affection, and a comfortable space to hang out with us.
If we keep these goals in mind whenever we are with our horse, over a period of time, we will surely develop a strong friendship and emotional bond with him that ensures happiness and contentment for us both.
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