Since I have shared some of the issues she Remy thrown up, a number of people have said to me ,‘She’ll be alright when she trusts you’. I have thought long and hard about what this might mean to a horse. How does a person prove their trustworthiness to a large prey animal? At what point would we say that a horse shows they trust a human?
I do have to remind myself that horses are not humans. It is easy to forget it, as the horses I hang out are so familiar and so able to communicate their wants and needs to me, that I can easily anthropomorphosise. I do get occassional reminders of quite how differently they see the world though. For instance, the herd Remy is in know her and she is a part of their dynamic. Then one day, when it was really raining and she was cold I put a rug on her and they attacked and chased her like she was a new horse all over again. How could they not recognize Remy with a rug on? I recognize my friends when they have a hat and a new coat on. Even with sunglasses. There are clearly some things which are very different for horses than they might be for us. Don’t assume that you know how horses see the world, as it is probably far more different than we will ever realize.
One way in which a person might prove their trustworthiness to me, as a human, would be that they have congruence – for instance, their behavior matches their words. The majority of the time, they do what they say they will. And through their words and behaviours I come to believe that they essentially want the best for themselves AND for me and don’t have an agenda which is about undermining others. If we were to try to extrapolate any of this to the equine relationship we would have to take out most of the language element and pretty much just rely on behaviour, and how that might show a horse that we are something they can trust. Humans might also be get on a bit better if they assessed the behavior of others and ignored their words – it might change who we voted in for instance...
When I see Remy with the herd now her behaviour indicates to me that she ‘trusts’ them. She is not anxious when she is with them. When something happens the herd assess the situation and very rarely choose to do anything which is really high energy. Human concepts of ‘getting one over’ on each other don’t exist here, and ‘being nice’ to each other is also not high on the agenda. Remy is told by the lead mare where to be and what to do and Remy appears to be safe in the knowledge that someone else has it covered.
Now, I am not a horse, so I can’t recreate herd behaviour. When the more hideous horsemanship trainers resort to grim bullying it is often justified by replicating the physical element of the way horses act together (based largely on what is seen in resource limited domesticated herds) to dominate and subdue. So, what can I learn from horses which I can usefully replicate, which might help Remy to ‘trust’ me? Here are some of my best guesses.
- I can be consistent. That is actually much, much harder work than we might imagine, and can involve sacrificing what we set out intending to do, in order to give the horse the consistency it needs. If I want a horse to learn something which is important for it to exist in a human world, then I have to be utterly consistent in the way I teach it. For example, I want to be able to mount my horse safely from any hedge, rock or mounting block in any situation. And, I want my horse to be able to stand still on a long rein in any situation. Greedy, huh? I want to teach my horse to stand still for me to mount and wait EVERYWHERE and ANYWHERE. The onus is then on me to be utterly consistent.
When Des first arrived from Portugal standing still on a long rein was an utterly unfamiliar concept to him and I spent 3 weeks, daily (I ain’t jokin’) working on this before he finally realised what I meant. These felt like long, dizzying weeks - Lusitanos are excellent at spinning, and it takes a strong stomach and a certain doggedness to stick it out to the point where the horse realizes that it ALWAYS ends in them standing still on a long rein. This behavior will show up again when Des has been out of work for a while or something very exciting happens, like he goes out for a ride with a mare. And then I have to go through the whole thing again. I don’t use force or pain, it is just a matter of persistence and always committing to seeing it through. In the early days it meant I had to forsake some of the things I actually wanted to do with Des as it just would not have been fair on him. How could Des ‘trust’ my behaviour if on some days I couldn’t be bothered to deal with this and just allowed him to roar off, shaking his mane?
- I can be clear. I can try very hard to work out how to explain what I want as quickly as possible in a way which makes sense to the horse. One of the biggest problems I see for the horses of people I teach is a lack of clarity (which is consistency’s bed mate), and I know I am far more likely to struggle with this with my own horses and hover in what Sarah would call a ‘grey area’. A lot of horses are so generous, and have become so used to the muddled signals of humans that they fill in some blanks for us. Despite conflicting, vague, inconsistent aids, a lot of horses have a punt at responding with their best guess. However, there are many horses given the label of dangerous or difficult, who are just trying to express that they have no idea what we want. Do you really know what you want your horse to understand and do you have a clear idea of how you are going to show them that? Whether that be raising the base of their neck or working with you to get around a gate – are you banking on your horse working it out, or do you have a clear means of explaining?
- I can try my best to not put my horse into situations they can’t handle. And if I do inadvertently do this, I will try my best to ask them to deal with it in a way that they can handle. I may get this wrong, as I can only learn what works with different horses through trial and error, so the important thing is that I learn from my mistakes and adapt.
In our outdoor school there is a gate that has the wrong feng shui for horses – it is dark, surrounded by trees and occasionally things go past which cannot quite be seen. It worries some horses and not others – Garbie and Tycoon don’t give it a second glance, but Des and Remy are both not sure it might not be harbouring a horse eating terror. On the days when Des tries to avoid it, I know that he is well schooled enough, experienced enough and knows me well enough that I will recognize it , but ask him to carry on working past it, on the line that I ask, at the speed that I ask. We may have to shoulder fore past it, but I don’t concede much more than that as I know he can handle that.
However, at the stage Remy is at, I have to be a lot more creative. In time, I want her to work in the school, anywhere, at any speed. But at the moment, asking her to halt within 100 yards of the gate is not within the realms of what she can handle. One day I did try to insist she worked near the gate, and even halt near it, and it blew her mind beyond being able to do anything sensible with her for the rest of the day. So, at the moment I might do work which is more challenging away from the gate and make being ‘nearer’ the gate an easy place to be. Or, I might show her ‘If you’re near the gate you can move your feet and trot, but it has to be on the line I would like and a speed of trot which is consistent the whole way around the circle.’ If anyone feels this is very easy work, please feel free to come to spend a day with Remy.
- I notice when my horse is worried and DO something about it. I think this is a big one for horses, and our response must be appropriate for each horse, on each different day, and it is not always easy to do. If Remy is in a high state of anxiety I want her to learn to trust that I won’t just ignore this and crack on and ride, that I will do something about it. Being in a high state of anxiety is not a normal state for a horse, and I want to show her, in time, that I have this thing covered and that she doesn’t need to worry. I want her to come to trust that when she is worried she can refer to me. THIS is a whole book in itself but I will have a minor go at discussing it in my next blog.
I am beginning to see signs that Remy thinks I might be worth considering. We went through a stage where she was ‘obedient’ but still anxious . Recently, there have been some signs that she is doing what I ask (massive stuff like, wait with me before going through a gate, or walk past that thing which you would like to run past) and is considering that I might be reasonable, and someone she can trust. If such a concept exists in the horse mind, which to be honest, I have absolutely no idea about. If I am someone she can find peace with, I think that might be a whole lot more useful concept for us both to work towards.
Photo kindly taken by Deborah Haynes.