Understanding Horses- The Human Emotional Filter

The Human Emotional Filter

Frequently I've had posts shared with me about how "cute" something is in a horse, mule, or donkey's behavior. Unfortunately, when folks filter their interpretation of an animal's behavior with human emotions, it clouds their judgment in learning, recognizing, or believing what the animal was experiencing and communicating.

I see it in pawing horses, ones that are difficult to catch, ones that cannot stand softly after an event, those that are fleeing through a course, horses that are defensive towards taking a soft step back, horses that cannot focus on their "job"- whether it be an approach towards the jump or turning back a cow, those that always have to be in a certain position in a group trail ride, etc.

So often owners and riders will "explain" what or why the horse is behaving as he is by interpreting the animal's behavior as an act of defiance, challenge, etc. geared towards the human. The reality is, the human's interpretation is usually inaccurate as to the originating cause (horse's defensiveness mentally,) and judgment towards what the horse is emotionally experiencing. The physical behavior of the animal reflects his current mental and emotional state.

Let me use the common scenario of a horse not wanting to be caught. This was one of the most inquired questions in my "Ask the Horse Trainer" series on my blog. There were 2,000 queries from around the world in just two years. That is a lot of horses not wanting to be caught.

Why is that? Is it the actual act of being caught? Or if we dig in deeper, perhaps it is the events that follow after the horse is caught that cause him to become defensive or fearful. So perhaps the resistance is not about the act of being caught but preventing the experiences following it.

Another question is what kind of interaction would cause a horse to not want to be around a person?

If the horse was always critiqued (i.e. reactive, critical, contained riding versus pro-active, specific, and supportive).

If the communication between horse and human is unclear, often the horse is bullied into doing things that he was fearful of (i.e. "Oh come on, just _________. Haven't we done _____ this before? Hurry up. You're just being naughty. etc.").
Or, as is often the case, what if the horse is experiencing pain or discomfort from health issues, incorrect tack fit, or severe rider aids?

There could be a multitude of reasons and usually, there's more than one contributing to unwanted behavior in the horse.

First, the human needs to eliminate the horse's potential mental and emotional stress and/or physical pain.

So how do you fix the "catching" issues? Acknowledge the horse's initial display of worry or concern, and decrease the pressure rather than increase it when he is unsure. Assess and refine the ways in which you are communicating and notice if it is improving his trust or lessening it.

These interactions need to come from a place of empathy, rather than ego-based critique. 90% of what I do is "undoing" the human student's mental approach from having been taught traditional practices such as "making the horse do __________."

This doesn't mean the rider will be "touchy-feely" or passive in what they are asking of the horse or how they are communicating. This simply means they learn to recognize and believe the feedback from the horse, they experiment in their approach to how to help the horse, and they follow through in supporting the horse until he reaches an emotionally quiet place.

There is nothing natural about people riding horses or what we ask of them. It is quite incredible how much they are willing to do, put up with, and adapt to. So rather than taking advantage of or critiquing them, let's start believing them.
Help them. Support them. But don't laugh off dramatic or flamboyant behavior. Please do not wait and see what the horse will do in his time of stress. Intervene. Try something. Stay mentally present. Notice your own triggers from your horse's behavior.

I always say the horse only has so many ways of "telling" us something. We need to listen. They are the most honest feedback "machine" humans interact with. They have no agenda or ulterior motive.

For those interested, I did a seven-horse "Reading the Horse" Equine Behavior Course. It is on my video Catalog site that offers this and many other online courses, series, and webinars.

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