Horses Are Pessimists

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.

….
Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro
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39 comments

  1. So very true! When I was going through a “dark” emotional period – I stayed away from my horse. I didn’t want to “take it out on her”. She is, as you say – the best horse in the world – and she deserves my best. When I was able to get myself right, she and I reconnected – we bonded. Thank you

  2. Great post. I love this quote of yours: 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

  3. Just another perfect meditation for working with students. 🙂 Your understanding and how to express it is a gift I will never get tired of getting.

  4. If you ever get tired of training, you should do Equine Facilitated Psychotherapy. It’s what you do with us all, anyway. As always, thank you.

      • I love the honesty of that statement Anna – I never quite know where I am headed, myself! ❤
        It is difficult to explain that concept to my own self, let alone to the others that matter in my life. Your thoughts are raw, uplifting, eye opening and a pleasure to read into.

  5. I also love “positive thought can be as hard to ride as a spooky horse”! What spectacular writing that is. And such a useful turn of thought even for life (if there really is such a thing) beyond the barn. A good reminder of what I think we all know intuitively, which is that even if being with horses is the real point of living, everything we learn from being with them helps us when we have to (at least physically) leave their presence. Thanks for another fabulous essay.

  6. Once again, Anna, you put into words thoughts and feelings that are Spot On. Thank you for your wisdom and for sharing your perspective. It helps…really helps, more than you know.

  7. ♥️ Thank you. You always seem to send a message as if we had just finished a long conversation. It settles the dust in my mind like a gentle rain. 😊

    >

  8. This I definitely needed. Life is taking me on a scary path just now and I’m trying to find some optimism, but you are right, I’m the one who needs to generate that from within and not count on my horse to provide it. Thank you.

  9. So true, positive really is a miracle worker with horses, dogs, children, and even significant others! Too bad we don’t have a positive button to push when we can’t seem to muster those feelings naturally.

  10. When I was 10, someone gave me a just-turned-three-year-old who had been ridden once. Why we didn’t kill each other is a mystery, but we found a good trainer and we grew into a partnership. In my teens I was out riding the trails with two friends — in a thunderstorm. There was a huge crack of thunder and a bolt of lightning. The other two horses bolted. My mare stood still and shook. It amazed me then, and it amazes me more now — 65 years later. Since then I have had two other “perfect” horses and am about to start on another. How lucky am I — and that is my mantra.

  11. I’m going to read this lesson to my little welsh driving pony so we can both learn from it.. =-)

  12. Instinct, it’s why we roll up into a ball (often in the saddle!) when our horse bolts. It’s why a horse stabled alone doesn’t feel safe. And so often it’s why we punish our horses. My chosen breed of horse is a Spanish Mustang and these horses have instinct up with the BLM horses, the wild Brumbies, and other horses who have not had a lot of selective breeding for docility. Instinct is a huge part of who they are and the most important thing in training one is trust. Trust does not come from aggressive negative experiences!
    This post is so important as it addresses what I see as a huge flaw in most of the “natural horsemanship” movement: horses being pressured and punished for being honest and letting a person know where they are at with something. And the hurry hurry hurry to get training done. Let it take as long as it takes. Well let me get off my soapbox here and just say THANKS AGAIN!!

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