Our interpretations of the horse’s nature and its actions have a profound effect on everything we do in our horsemanship. Some viewpoints can lead us to compassion and connection, while others will take us down paths where both horses and humans are likely to struggle.
Learning to spot the difference – and to make adjustments when we find ourselves drifting into muddy waters – is an important part of building a solid foundation of trust between you and your horse.
One common way of interpreting horses is what I call Emotional Horsemanship, in which we judge the horse and its actions through a distorting lens of human emotion. Operating from this perspective, we tend to take what our horses do personally and often quite negatively, overlaying their behaviors with imagined attitudes gleaned from our own emotional life. This can create a huge disconnect between what is actually happening with our horses and what we believe is happening. For example, we may feel “disrespected” or think the horse is “being a jerk” if it kicks out or twirls its head when we use some form of pressure.
This perceived slight makes us feel justified to respond emotionally and “get after” the horse, which drastically changes our energy, feel, presentation and timing.
In reality, the horse’s supposed disrespect is most often just an expression of confusion, frustration or fear in response to some lack of clarity in our use of space or pressure, and the most productive way to work with that is to take responsibility for it and make adjustments as necessary. This doesn’t mean that you allow unwanted or dangerous behaviors, only that you frame your training to fulfill the horse’s needs, rather than to gain dominance. When you work in this way, you bring clarity and peace to the horse, which is truly the best way to create a safe and willing partner.
If, however, you frame the situation emotionally and blame the horse for its “bad attitude,” you have allowed yourself to be pulled away from a stance of positive calm into one of negative emotionality. When we let the actions of the horse change our mental state like this, we create an instability in our energy that is deeply unsettling to the horse. The result is that they see us as unpredictable and untrustworthy – the opposite of what we need to be if we want to earn the position of leadership in the horse’s eyes.
Important stuff, Josh! Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this topic.
You are welcome! Definitely an important one!
Simply BRILLIANT! Thank you for bringing this beautiful message to horsemen and women. Josh Nichol you are changing the future for horses and it’s a beautiful thing!
What a great message and blog! I once read that when we place human expectations on animals, we are often disappointed because they can’t possibly live up to them. When we view them through that lens and we get disappointed or angry , we think with negative emotion which often leads to punishment first. Really, not fair at all to the horse!
Excellent insight and correlation Becky.
Couldn’t have read this at a better time as I reflect on a recent lesson on my young colt who, at times, can bring out the worse in me and diminish what we are trying to teach him. My take away from this, which may not be on point, is to NOT dwell what I think he is feeling but to stay on course and keep horse and human emotions separate.
I often listen to long tales of how horses have devised some really complicated plots to make their riders miserable. When I mention that horses do not have the required brain anatomy to think that way, it’s common to hear, “Well my horse does…”
In some cases, the way the horse has been handled has resulted in the horse actually being inadvertently taught the response, which they see as “proving “their theory. When I look back on my years of riding, I can see SO many horses I could have helped if I had known more of the real issues
Very well said and very true
This thread reminds me of one of my yearling fillies many years ago. For some reason, which to this day I have not figured out, at a year of age she decided that humans were bad things and she became terrified. Although she had been handled in the same manner as the others, was halter trained etc. she suddenly could not be caught, really acted like a wild one. I remember the weeks of working with her to try to overcome this issue, being frustrated, angry, puzzled – all of the human emotions possible. Always in my head wondering why, why why is she so different! And absolutely no progress in regaining her trust. One day it dawned on me that the “why” she had become this way did not matter, that what I needed to focus on was only what she presented. Isn’t that something that Josh had often said….. What an epiphany! From that day forward, by removing all the other thoughts from my mind and only thinking of this present moment and working with her where she was mentally, guess what happened! We began to make progress. It was only when I stopped being the “emotional” human were we able to go forward. Took a bit of time, but we overcame her anxiety, I got better at staying emotionless and she has never gone back since (this is many, many years now). I have never forgotten the lessons she taught me. And now I think I know the “why” – I needed to learn how to separate my human emotions away from the horse and to take care of their needs in the present moment.
Great insight, Linda! So glad you were able to work things out so well with your filly.
I think we as humans try to humanize the horse in an attempt to help them understand as we would process, when in reality it does not work.
This has been one of my biggest struggles with horsemanship is having the ability to separate emotional and relational energy!
We need to learn and recognize how to be there for our horses in a non emotional manner, sometimes can be very challenging but also extremely rewarding when we’re able to meet their needs.
We are fortunate to have a teacher in Josh who is able to help facilitate these principles in our horsemanship, life man ship.