I’ve been working a lot with rescue horses recently and I’ve been struck by how much we, as humans, seem to fixate on the past. It’s interesting to me how so many owners begin to describe their horses by explaining their background, as if it is the single most important thing that defines their horse’s character. ‘He was so mistrusting of humans when I got him, because he was abused’, ‘He hates having his ears touched, because he was twitched as a youngster’, ‘He has separation anxiety because he was once left tied to a tree’, ‘He hates jumping because his last rider pushed him too fast’. Every horse seems to have a story and it is so rarely positive.
I’m not questioning the validity of these stories or trying to make them seem unimportant – many rescue horses have suffered some unspeakable atrocities and understanding the effect that this has had can be an important part of helping the horse to move past it. But how much should we allow ourselves – the new owner, rider or trainer – to stay stuck in the horse’s past?
It is a very human thing to be attached to the past and to want to seek out a reason for every problem that arises, but I believe that most horses are capable of letting go of the past and moving on. That doesn’t mean moving on is always easy – horse’s have excellent memories, especially for painful, scary, or life-threatening experiences, and it can take many repetitions of a positive experience to replace a negative one. I have witnessed many times how the associations with pain can remain long after the pain itself has been removed, and I’ve experienced first-hand how an emotionally damaged horse can return to a state of panic when their flight response is triggered. But this blog isn’t about the actual process of retraining a remedial horse or about how successful that reconditioning can be; rather, it’s about considering how our psychological approach to it can help or hinder the horse’s recovery.
Adding Human Emotions to Horse Problems
Many of us are guilty of anthropomorphising our horses at times – that is to apply our own human feelings and emotions to explain the horse’s actions or state of mind. How many times have we seen a horse standing at a gate and assumed he wants to come in because he’s lonely/cold/hungry/misses us? Or thought that the horse was spooking ‘on purpose’ or was ‘acting up’ because they were annoyed about something we did the day before? To some extent there is no harm in this if it helps us to deal with the situation, as long as we are aware that we are doing it. But sometimes it can be detrimental – feeling sorry for a horse, avoiding things that they ‘don’t like’, or not allowing them the time to figure something out for themselves, doesn’t actually help the horse in any way. Assigning blame or feeling sympathy for a horse’s behaviour might make us feel better, but it doesn’t actually help the horse to move forward.
I also think, as humans, we like the idea of our horse ‘needing’ us. As a trainer working with a remedial horse, it’s extremely rewarding to be the one who manages to ‘fix’ the horse. It’s also tempting to be selfish about it – to secretly enjoy being the only one who can catch the horse, the only one the horse trusts enough to allow close, or the only one the horse will ‘let’ ride it. It is human nature to want to be assured of our relationship with our horse, but we need to be careful not to allow this to get in the way of the horse’s progress. Sometimes, we are doing the horse a disservice in believing that they can’t move on. And while having a horse that trusts you is a worthy goal, the greatest gift you can give your horse is the confidence to do something on his own.
Sometimes it’s as simple as our actions and thoughts not matching up. We might think we are dealing with something, when everything we are doing is keeping the horse in the past. I’ve had many such moments – a horse that always spooked in the exact same spot, but didn’t blink an eye when being ridden by a different rider; a horse that would never stand still for mounting, but quickly learnt to stand still with another rider; or a friend whose horse was a notoriously bad loader, but loaded first time for me, no questions asked.
In all these situations, it makes me wonder what changed – was it just a fresh approach? Or was it that something in our actions was keeping the horse in those bad habits. With the horse that would spook, was I unintentionally bracing or preparing for the spook, inadvertently causing the horse to spook? Did the horse just feel more spooky with me on his back because I was nervous? With the horse that wouldn’t stand still to mount, I realised that I had just accepted that it would never change, so I never even bothered to try and fix the behaviour. After all, he was an ex-racehorse who had never been taught to stand still and I used this excuse over and over again, without ever doing anything about it. It turned out that the horse that wouldn’t load had once rushed up the ramp and slipped, causing a nasty injury. The owner felt so guilty about it and was so determined to not let it happen again, that she was clinging to the lead rope and slowing down any forward movement to prevent the horse rushing – making walking up the ramp a much more difficult task.
Check your emotions at the barn door
I’m not saying all problems are this easy to solve, but these are a few small examples of how we can prolong a negative experience by not giving our horse a chance to forget or move on. It also doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t consider our horse’s past when training a horse – figuring out the roots of a problem can offer valuable information on how to move on. But we should try to avoid allowing emotions to cloud training decisions – fear, guilt, self-doubt, jealously, pride, and pity are not helpful emotions and if your horse does have a genuine problem to work though, adding these human emotions to the mix is only going to hinder your progress.
Consider this next time you start to complain about or make excuses for your horse’s behaviour. Have you really given the horse the chance to move on? Have you taken steps to rebuild their confidence, show them a better way, or teach them an alternative? Perhaps you can turn your sympathy, guilt, or concern into a positive, pro-active step that will help both of you move forward.