We all have our histories that help make us who we are. Our stories and our past experiences shape the way that we approach relationships and how we process the world. Our fears, perceptions and misperceptions become the face of how we interact with those around us. Our horses are the same. Every horse has a reason for the way they behave and perceive the world. For many they are simply acting on the foundation of years of social evolution and the hard wiring that makes them a species described as a fight or flight. The tendency to swing more towards the flight than the fight is an individual variation that may be a product of experience but may also just be who that horse is on the inside.
As a veterinarian as well as a Cowboy Dressage instructor I encounter horses in my life daily that I do not know. Sometimes the owners are anxious to tell me every detail known or presumed about the horse to aid in my interaction with the horse, and sometimes they let me figure it out on my own. This is the same way that we as people must learn to interact with others of our species. When you meet a new person, you feel your way along with polite societal caution until you understand a little more about how that person thinks and interacts. Rarely do we receive a full history before meeting someone for the first time.
Sometimes I find a detailed history with a horse to be a detriment to furthering the relationship between horse and rider. Maybe you and the horse have shared a bad experience with an object, say an oral dosing syringe. You decide the horse has a fear or dislike of oral dosing syringes. You may wonder if the horse was abused, twitched, cowboyed or rodeoed with a dosing syringe. Due to that perception you may decide it isn’t worth the hassle to attempt to correct the problem and go to alternative routes of administration of oral medications. What tends to happen in my line of work is the owner may ask me to administer the medication in the course of my exam or treatment and then is dismayed when I didn’t have any trouble. The reason? I didn’t expect to have any trouble.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I am not saying that I can magically walk up to any horse at any time and smoothly and efficiently administer an oral medication. If I ever get to that point, I think I will be able to retire happily as the Horse Whispering Vet and sit back and let the royalties come pouring in. Sometimes those aversions take days, weeks or months of careful training or retraining until the horse can accept whatever they are averse to accept. Where I am often successful when owners are not is when they expect the horse to be difficult to deworm and the horse obliges, often resulting in a bit of a tussle and often some derogative name calling (from both parties, I am sure) and the owner and horse end the episode thankful that we no longer deworm every 8 weeks.
You see, when we have a thorough knowledge of all the mishaps of yesterday and can mentally picture all the ways that things have gone wrong in the past with whatever we are attempting to do with our horses we project that negative association onto the horse. Horses are so sensitive to our intentions and our motivations. Every horse has a doctorate in body language while we are still wallowing around in middle school (and for some new to horses in kindergarten). This is true for handling our horses on the ground as well as for events under saddle. If you see something on the trail which you assume your horse will spook at he will almost always prove you right.
While it is true that horses can carry baggage from the past into our daily interactions, they can also be taught to forget that pain or fear when it is consistently replaced with new experiences. It takes time and patience but surprisingly it doesn’t necessarily take knowledge of the inciting incident. The true horseman is the one that approaches the horse with confidence and quiet leadership remaining calm and free of crippling emotions when the horse is nervous, worried or scared.
Since the economic crash of 2007 and the end of humane equine slaughter in the United States we have seen an uptick in the equine rescue industry. Horses that were once starved or neglected have been given a second chance by horse people with large hearts. Owners of these rescued horses can be very protective of them and will be the first to inform me to be careful when dealing with the horse, “because, it’s a rescue and I don’t know what happened to him before.” I should probably tell you that hearing those words changes the way I approach a horse but it generally does not (unless the horse is overtly fearful). What I may do in those situations is to ask the owner to hand the horse over to my assistant who also has no expectations of the horse other than for it to be good during my examination. I will tell the owners (I’m letting you on trade secrets here!) that I would prefer not to have them associated with anything “bad” the horse is experiencing so the horse doesn’t blame them later. Many owners are more than ready to step aside because they have been afraid of just that very thing! Then my assistant and I go about business as usual and the horse doesn’t know any different.
Another projection we will see from owners onto their horses is to create a trauma for anything for which the horse is unaccepting. For example, it is quite common for many horses to have trouble with their ears being handled. An owner new to a horse that dislikes his ears being handled will often tell me, “Somebody must have ‘eared this horse down’ because you can’t touch his ears.” Maybe, they have sensitive ears. Maybe, they experienced a bad bug season causing aural plaques that can be quite sensitive. Maybe, they just never had their ears handled before and learned that raising the head prevents them being handled. And, yes, maybe, they were roughly handled at some point. All those things cause the same problem requiring the same response. Careful, consistent, polite handling of the ears until the aversion, bad memory or previous pain is forgotten and replaced with good memories corrects the problem regardless of the cause. It simply doesn’t matter how the problem got there. What matters is how we help the horse to get through that problem to a better place.
We all would like to be taken at face value, for the person that we are in that moment in time and not judged for our past deeds. Our horses are the same. They would like us to politely and confidently approach them with an open heart one step at a time assessing their reactions, fears, and sensitivities as they occur and only as they occur. We can raise our expectations for our horses when we forgive them and forget their past and invite them to forget the past as well. Ultimately, yes, horses can carry baggage with them into their new lives. Every horse and every person are a product of their experiences. It is up to us, as their leaders and partners to either choose to forgive and forget that baggage or pick it up and carry it with us for the rest of our lives together. Every day is a brand-new day to the horse. It is a chance to begin anew and it is that resurgent feeling of hope that brings us addicts back again and again. We are endlessly addicted to the potential in the horse for improvement in our partnership. Work the horse you have in front of you, no matter what happened yesterday, last week, or 3 years ago. Your horse will go forward faster without the heavy bags of the past.