I’m now officially calling this my Loudmouth Party-Pooper Series. Today I’m writing about love and happiness, for horses, not us.
All I ever wanted was to study horses. I wanted to understand them, not just sit the saddle. I wanted to go deep to their true nature, and as much as possible, see the world through their eyes, learn to speak their language. It would be a heartfelt lifelong scientific and experiential education. And sure enough, horses communicated some very unflattering things. I decided to love them enough to listen to what I didn’t want to hear.
(I’ve been stirring things up by writing about horse’s calming signals that are commonly confused with affection. Ouch. I followed that with a reminder about how sensitive a horse’s muzzle is and suggesting that we keep our hands to ourselves. Lots of slap-back on that, like the other 99.5% of the horse wasn’t enough to touch.)
A reader asked this week how she could tell if her horse liked her. She isn’t new to horses, but she’s re-thinking old assumptions and growing into new eyes. I think it was meant to be a deeper question.
Let’s start here: How can I tell my horse is happy?
Already, I have a problem. What is happy? We humans fixate on the word. We roll it around in our self-aware mind. (Animals, humans and horses both share what science calls consciousness; we know we’re alive. Only humans have self-awareness; we think about our thoughts.) So, as we have an intellectual debate with ourselves, we’ve mentally separated from horses already. Horses live in constant situational awareness, they would have been removed from the gene pool otherwise.
There’s a great word some behaviorists use to describe what horses and other animals feel. Funktionslust is a German word meaning “the pleasure taken in what one does best.” It’s birds gotta fly, fish gotta swim, and horses gotta run. They need to feel autonomy in the glory of their own physical body. And more importantly, horses gotta hang with the herd. Horses gotta be horses.
When talking about reading calming signals, the example I use of a “happy” horse is always a photo from Proud Spirit Horse Sanctuary, one of the most successful, longest existing facilities in the US. The horses live freely, have special friendships, run and gallop, and graze the seasons away. And in all my travels, they are the most sane horses I’ve met. Each horse had a heart-wrenching rescue story when they came, not that it matters now. Mel didn’t do extreme micro-managing of care or faith healings. She did something much harder; she let them be horses. The horses healed themselves and each other.
I went with her to check the herd one night at dusk. We stopped the cart a few times and some horses kept eating, others looked at us and went back to eating. Sometimes a horse would make a choice and wander over to sniff and get a rub. Most of the time, they chewed and pooped, hung in self-chosen groups, kept an eye on each other, and this is the biggie, lived pretty-close-to-natural for domestic horses. Funktionslust.
Do the horses have a “bond” with their caretakers? Undeniably. They just don’t need to prove it constantly. The other word for that is confidence.
I think of this herd as my calming signal control group. They are what “happy” looks like.
Learn to read calming signals: Does the horse go still in his eyes, throat breathing when you’re close, almost like he’s playing dead? That’s anxiety. Does the horse act pushy, or have a trying-too-hard energy? That’s anxiety. Define anxiety as being alive, but how a horse manages anxiety has more to do with his lifestyle that we admit. Once we learn to create less anxiety for them, we can be better partners.
Party-pooper pronouncement: Horses can tell we aren’t horses. I spent half a lifetime trying but I was not once mistaken for a horse. We acknowledge that horses are sentient and then still think we can pass? No.
Do horses love us? Well, I think you know my loudmouth party-pooper answer. Love, as we understand it in our self-aware mind, no. I’m not sure we have a word for their equivalent. It might be wellbeing, as in a sense of safety/species companionship/free choice food/peace.
Does it seem like they might love us? Yes. Here’s my theory: We know horses sense our fear. Then clearly, they would feel our love, we never try to hide it. Is it possible that what we see in them is our own love reflected back? For most of us, our love is visible at fifty miles. Do they take on other emotions or insecurities of ours that create anxiety? Perhaps even parts of ourselves that we’re not proud of? Of course.
We lie down with horses, claim they kiss us, hug us. If those words were true, how do these behaviors benefit horses? Sometimes we get caught up in a narrative. It’s what we want to see and how we want to feel. We expect horses to fill our emotional needs, mitigating the things missing in our lives. We confuse our own perceptions about love and happiness with the horse’s reality, what matters to him.
Am I romantic about horses in my own mind? Yes, I’m besotted. Isn’t that just a bit selfish?
But is it possible to put that horse-crazy love into action? Possible to put their needs first? For all that horses give us, we need to be more mindful about what we give back. Perhaps not let our complacency make assumptions, think before touching, stay present in the moment and listen to them. Go so quietly, so slowly that even your old horse becomes curious, a natural state in horses.
Finally, how can you tell your horse likes you? He looks like a horse… peaceful.
I’ll give Melanie the last word:
“Horses spark our imagination and awaken the very best of who we are. They
give so much of themselves – but, aside from food and shelter, what do
they get from us? Watch your horses when there are no demands on them.
When they have the freedom to make their own decisions, to move, sleep,
eat, drink, and interact with their herdmates – this is what a happy
horse looks like. The greatest gift we can give them is to remember that
they have an intrinsic right to their own life beyond serving mankind.”
Melanie Sue Bowles
Proud Spirit Horse Sanctuary