There are two animals I love a whole lot more than I should. Number 1 is Graham (aka The Apricot), my rotund ginger cat. I just can’t get enough of Graham. I love his little chin, I love his not- so -little belly, I love the way he smells like a biscuit, and I love his toes (like beans). The downside for Graham of being loved by me is that he gets picked up and kissed, A LOT. I have a song about him which I like to sing to him, and I just wish he would stay under the bed covers with me. He mostly tolerates this as in exchange he gets to live the life of Riley, although occasionally I do get scratched quite badly for my attentions
The other animal that I look at and feel like my heart might burst, is Tycoon (aka Tubby the Tuba - maybe there is a pattern here...). For whatever reason, I have fallen hard for Tycoon. I love his fluffy cream ears, I love his large neck, I love his soft breath in my ear when he rests his head on my shoulder (O.K, STOP!). The downside for Tycoon, well, I think they may be a little bit more significant than those for Graham (Graham probably disagrees , he is very self centred).
When I think about what it means to love my horses I always have Dr Deb Bennett muttering in my ear about the greatest gift you can give your horse is clarity. If you love your horse, be clear with him. I say this glibly, it is HUGE. The downside for Tycoon is that sometimes my affection for him has got in the way of my ability to be clear and very importantly for Tycoon, neutral, with him.
I think we can consider loving our horses in the same way we think about ‘unconditionally’ loving someone else. I remember once telling some life-coachy person that I loved someone unconditionally. And they asked if I really knew what this means; that you will love them regardless of what they do, and regardless of whether they love you back. Oh, no, not that kind of unconditional. ..
I believe that we are welcome to and should love our horses. We should show them compassion, affection, and understanding – but we cannot expect them to love us back. They do not owe us that. When you bought your horse you did not buy his affection. But you did commit to showing him respectful, compassionate training which understands that he is a horse, not a human in a horsey costume.
The thing is, however much we might think we understand our horses, we never truly will. They are a large quadruped flight animal for starters – a complete opposite of a human. And even where humans are concerned I am not sure whether one human can ever truly understand the experience of another human. So how someone can ever say unequivocally that they know their horse ‘loves this or that’, I don’t know. Do you ever even really, really know what your human partner thinks about life?
One of the main issue for our horses when we love them, is that it can get in the way of what THEY need, and become much more about what WE need. How often is our judgement when working with our horses clouded by what we want and expect from them? Our ‘love’ for our horses often translates into what we want from them in return; ‘ I just want him to love me’, probably being the biggest issue (who doesn’t want their horse to come galloping over to them in the field?). But just as often, ‘ I just want to go for a nice hack’, or ‘I wanted this to be an easy part of my life’, or sometimes, ‘I love this horse so much, I know we will be brilliant together...’. Well, unfortunately, your horse signed no contract guaranteeing you such a deal.
Let’s look at the ‘I just want him to like me’ element of love for our horses. This all too often translates into confusing signals for our horse. Sometimes we don’t want him pushing into our space, and sometimes we just can’t resist him nibbling softly on our clothes. We want to teach him something, but in our desire not to upset him (which is itself an admirable aspiration) we end up not being clear about what we are trying to teach and skirting around issues. And this - living in a grey area - can actually be the thing that horses find most upsetting.
In my other life I am currently delivering ‘Young People’s Mental Health’ training , and so many aspects of what helps young people become more mentally resilient resonates with me in terms of horsemanship. One of the key messages is that we as adults need to provide consistent, caring, boundaries in our relationships with young people. Which are also non-judgemental and always looking for someone’s strengths and abilities; trying to meet someone where they are, rather than where you think they should be.
And for me and Tycoon, that last point was one of the biggest issues. “But, Tycoon, you are my beloved – why aren’t things working out the way I dreamt?” It has taken me a long time to see the Tycoon might have some physical and behavioural issues which aren’t going to disappear overnight. And that all of my daydreams about what the two of us might do together might need to wait. I think the best thing I have ever done for that horse is to stop imposing my ‘dream’ version of Tycoon on to him, and to start dealing with him on a day to day basis as actually he is. A small shiny brown horse, who feels a bit creaky in his joints some days, who can be scared of the rug that just came off him, and who will NOT be forced to walk past a bin that is lying on the floor at a funny angle. Ok, I got that finally Tycoon – and I still love you. Now I might be able to help you out a bit more.
There is an incredibly sexist individual I have come across on the internet who has some interesting thoughts about how woman shouldn’t be allowed near horses...However, he has made a couple of points which have intrigued me, one being that he loves horses so much he doesn’t own one. I do actually get his point. However, I am just not that selfless. So for me the next best thing is to own as many as I can – at least that way the burden of being loved by me gets shared around.
So if you want to feel for anyone at the end of this, feel for Graham. He might be having a raspberry blown into his stomach as you read this...