Your horse is a young horse or a rescue horse or the heart-horse of your life. A mare or a gelding or something else entirely. He comes in a plain brown wrapper or loud spots. He’s fresh as rain or he’s an elder with high withers and a slow stride. You stay on the ground, immersed in a simple love of horse breath and mucking. Or he has a canter that makes you feel the way babies feel when their father gently tosses them to the sky, provides a soft landing, and then lobs them up again.
(I stipulate that your horse is beautiful and perfect and the very best horse ever. Just like mine.)
It doesn’t matter if you’ve only just begun with horses or you’ve been riding forever. If it’s an ordinary day or a special day. It’s something beyond your riding discipline or breed or training method. It’s so deep in a horse’s very fiber that a hundred years after his death it will stay in his distilled essence…
In an instant of overwhelming surprise, he thinks the absolute worst will happen every time. Instinct rules. Fear makes his eyes wide and his poll freezes. His jaw turns to stone and he bolts. You might see it coming or it might hit both of you from behind in a hot blow of furious anxiety. It isn’t that he thinks the spooky thing is a matter of life or death. It’s just death.
Horses are born pessimists.
Of course, they are. Horses are flight animals, first and foremost. It’s an instinct woven into muscle and bone. Bolting away is their best natural defense. Add to that the power of natural selection, at least historically, and the horses here today are the winners of a literal race for survival; the ones who think the worst the quickest and act on it.
Dawdling through a chat with the herd about the spooky thing would be crazy. An extra moment spent wondering if the shadow was a plant or a predator could easily be the end.
In this light, we should be almost grateful for their pessimism instead of correcting them, thinking spooking is a disobedience within their control. We ask so very much from horses and it’s easy to get complacent about what we are asking means to them.
Seen from this perspective, fear-based training seems like riding on thin ice. To some of us. Kind, confidence-building training can encourage a horse to trust his rider with what his instinct tells him is potential death. Shouldn’t we humans find that humbling?
Empathy is the word that comes up in quotes from ancient dressage masters and wise old cowboys. Can we try to understand how horses feel without being overly sentimental or overly harsh?
Humans are works in progress, too. Some of us spook every time our horse does. Some of us get mad or frustrated by what we see as their shortcoming. Stoic humans might just get a little tighter deep inside. So, our insecurity shows as timidity or false bravado or perhaps an un-natural stillness, more obvious to our horses sometimes than it is to us. It isn’t just that they read our emotions; they’re impacted profoundly, even the stoic horses.
In a passive laziness, humans can fall into pessimism quite easily. It’s natural for us in a different way; we think too much, so it can feel like common sense in a resting state. No is the easy answer. It’s almost sensible to not try rather than make ourselves vulnerable and face failure. Is it just less disappointing to be negative? Ack.
Optimism does take more energy. If the mere idea makes you tired, you might be not just having a rough patch, you might be truly depressed. Give your horse a break, be kind to yourself, and get treatment, please.
If you’ve just landed in a resting state of pessimism, if you are protecting yourself with cynicism, that’s a reasonable behavior. It just doesn’t help your horse. Humans are theoretically an advanced animal because we have self-awareness; we think about our thoughts. Positive thought can be as hard to ride as a spooky horse, but we could pick up a good mental trot and head to the barn. Energy spent in positive thought returns at a gallop. Optimism is addictive. What if positive thinking in our own lives was the cue that most helped our horses in theirs?
Let the naysayers make excuses; horses respond to optimism as the confidence-building missing link that bridges the gap between instinct and training. If we want a horse to offer us behavior they’ve chosen above their natural instinct, then we have to push our own instincts first. Toy with the idea that vulnerability is actually a strength.
Feel your heart soften to empathy. Say the word good with an exhale of warm breath. Let yes be your answer to every question. Remember to say thank you. Practice until praise is your most natural instinct.
Maybe it’s humans who need the discipline to lift our optimism to encourage horses, appreciating fully the challenge we pose when asking for their precious trust.