Why is choice important (to horses)?
Every day, I hear people anthropomorphize their horses. While I think this is totally normal behavior and do it myself on occasion, I think it is very interesting that most people don’t apply the human’s most coveted rights to their horses. Are you asking: what rights?! Well, what we humans, think separates us from the animal world – freedom of choice.
This topic is difficult to write about and even more difficult for some of us to think about. Why? We’re insecure, that’s why. If we give our horses a choice, will they choose to be with us? The easy answer – sometimes, sometimes not. When your horse says not, what do you do? Bribe him, sneak up on him (btw, its only you who thinks you’re sneaking), chase him. Why? Does it really matter that ONE time if your horse doesn’t get his lesson for the day? Is there an advantage of allowing the sometimes not? I think there most certainly is! Do you force the humans in your life to hang out with you whenever, wherever you say? Probably not. Allowing your horse choice, builds trust. Just like humans build trust with other humans by allowing them to show us their needs and wants. I know there are a lot of people who have that little voice saying, “but what if he NEVER wants to be with me”? Well, then you probably have some work to do that isn’t quite as hard as you think. This is where horse psychology gets interesting. If your horse gave you the “I don’t think I’m feeling it today nod” and you to just hang out and do what he does (you already allotted barn time anyway) he’d think that was pretty cool. Just like that time you wanted to go see that live music and you knew your friend wasn’t really into it, but they went anyway. How did that make you feel? This type of bonding is more appropriate to the horse’s way of thinking then the “come and be wrangled” scenario. Horses are not inherently codependent. They do not measure their worth based on the opinions of other horses (or humans). Horses communicate clearly their own individual boundaries. Often, in our relationships with them, we force the horse into a codependent state. This causes stress, and just like in humans, chronic stress is debilitating. You know that friend who always has a codependent relationship and complains about being unhappy and unhealthy.
Chronic stress can lead to a whole host of equine problems and domestic horse keeping is inherently stressful to horses already. Any insecure, codependent drama you bring to his life just makes it worse. One of my mentors, Karen Rohlf, always says: “Horses make us happy, but they shouldn’t have to.” I’m not really sure I understood that until I had children. Goodness knows, children can make you unhappy at times, but isn’t it our duty to make them happy? People don’t come home from work, grab up their children and say, make me happy. If you saw someone doing that you might even think that was a little creepy. Yet, it happens to horses all the time. I tell my clients, leave your drama in the car or the house or wherever you come from to meet your horse. What they start to notice is that their horses start approaching them! I have one very observant client who noticed that even though he thought he was doing his best to leave his crap in the house, some days the horses were just not interested in him. Knowing he had blocked his barn time anyway, my client went into his house and grabbed a beer. Then he went and sat in the field to watch his horses. After several minutes they started approaching him. Now, he could have gotten up, grabbed his halter and tack, and gone for a ride down the road; but he didn’t. Being mindful of the situation, this man sat and accepted his horses contact (or not) and thought about when his brain switched from work to, as he put it, “Enjoying a beer with my buds”. What became clear to him that day was that even though he thought the drama was left inside, his mind wasn’t clear and the horses knew it. Horses are amazing that way.
If this man had decided to grab up a horse and go riding as soon as one approached, would it have been a good experience? Maybe, but more likely the horse came in to ask a question. How are you feeling? What’s up? Why are you stressed? Can I help you? If the answer had been, only if I can grab ahold of you and jump on! What would the horses have thought? And if their human was still a bit prickly from work drama, would it have made the ride uneasy? I think it’s likely, and then that would cause the horse stress. Now, this happens to everyone now and again. Does it cause our horses permanent damage? Probably not, just like the occasional rejection doesn’t stop your codependent friend from going out on dates. The problem occurs when it’s the norm. We know horses are forgiving creatures, but daily stressors for them make stress a chronic problem.
At the chronic level, stress causes an inflammatory response in the body. This can make horses hurt, which might show up in a lameness or behavioral issues. So, when you’re calling the vet or the trainer next door for help, ask yourself if you might be causing your horse stress. That being said, there are different types of stress, but any stress perpetuated becomes chronic. That’s why competitive athletes take breaks and vary their training techniques. I believe we can have happy horses in training. As long as we take into account the same factors we do for human athletes like, psychology, biomechanics, and lifestyle. In my experience, horses enjoy their time with their humans, especially if a state of clear boundaries, trust, and communication exists. So, the next time you have a feeling your horse isn’t feeling it today, give him space and see what he WANTS to do. At the very least, turn around and go home or clean your tack 😉. Your horse will thank you later!