In my experience, you can teach a horse anything if you can understand that his motivation is to stay safe and that his goal is comfort. In this series of articles, I’d like to explore this idea a bit, using a sort of short hand, or equations to express various facets of the human-horse working relationship.
Herd = Safety and (but not always) Comfort
One of the first things we learn in horsemanship is that the horse is a prey animal whose herd is its key source of safety. Let us also understand that horses are super sensitive and perceptive creatures; there are no shortcuts on the journey to trust and communication. As we begin to observe herds, we see a range of behaviors, beyond peaceful grazing, that demonstrate the herd as a safe, but not always comfortable place to be.
The jostling for leadership and maintenance of rank are not polite processes, to say the least. So the horse relies on his understanding of boundaries as a connection to the herd and safety, sometimes at the expense of comfort.
Safety = Trust
Let’s look closer at safety: As we said, a horse will put trust in its herd even if it is not comfortable. The highest ranking horse sets the boundaries that all the subordinate horses must live by. This horse will get the lion’s share while everybody else has to wait, and so on down the ranks. Yet these strict hierarchies make herd life very clear, and each horse in the herd knows its place and relies on the boundaries of herd life for security.
Fear = Resistance
In relationship to humans, if the horse does not feel safe, he can’t learn; his attention will be riveted on survival, and we will experience his fear as an unwillingness to engage, a brace, stiffness or resistance. If the relationship is not safe for the horse, he is stuck in survival mode and shut down to new ideas. However, if we take this knowledge and connect to the horse through understanding of his relationship to the herd, we can create safety in our relationship, and build trust.
Comfort = Communication
Once the horse feels safe with the human, then communication can commence through comfort and trust.
Safety + Comfort = Synchronicity
In the human-horse relationship, it is the human’s responsibility to see that the horse feels safe; force is counterproductive. We are also responsible for the course of development in the relationship. We must understand the horse’s need for safety and comfort as we set simple progressive teaching sessions. Force and fear will always end in neither party realizing their full potential.
Horses and humans have a shared responsibility in understanding the language of comfort.
- The horse seeks boundaries looking for comfort
- The human makes comfort available at the appropriate time
Horses and human share a responsibility for time, however how each uses their time is completely different.
- The horse is in control of the time it takes to find the comfort: This is out of the control of and not definable by the human; we can only wait for the horse to seek. The horse gives himself comfort. However as the horse gets accustomed to seeking comfort, the process takes less time. The human’s only way to speed the process up is to present easy progressions for the horse to look for.
- The human is in control of the amount of time that is spent in comfort: We must wait as the horse seeks comfort and then must wait again as the horse processes how he was able to find comfort. The horse must spend time in comfort if he is to seek it again. If this step is rushed, the horse may not see the value in seeking comfort and communication is lost.
Principles for practice.
As I said in my preface: you can teach a horse anything if you can understand that his motivation is to stay safe and that his goal is comfort. With this in mind, a couple of principles:
- If the horse is looking for safety we must give him safety;
- If we can set clear boundaries, the horse will seek comfort and we have a means of communication.
I decided to work one of the horses close to the herd, where the horse felt safe. We did lots of circles on line, just waiting for him to become comfortable. Once the horse relaxed on the circle, he was allowed to rest, though slightly away from the herd, about 12 feet. We repeated this exercise several times, each time resting in a different spot away from the herd. In less than an hour the horse was comfortable leaving the herd in exploration of new resting spots.
In this example, the notion of the herd, or safety, was combined with activities, setting up opportunities for the horse to seek comfort. As his sense of comfort grew, so did his curiosity and which lead to more interesting surroundings, and away from his herd.
In the next article, I’ll look at these equations and principles again, looking a bit closer at time and patience on our part, and how hurry and force can work against us.