Myths of the horse world
Humans tend to avoid change. That’s just in our DNA. Its useful and safe to take over what people did and believed before us - that’s why we’re still here as a species. It ensures survival of the individual and the group.
So change is risk. Risk is potential danger.
But once in a while nature needs change. And we need to change and adapt to that. This is how evolution works. We should evolve - not only physically but also mentally, emotionally, spiritually.
To do so we need to question the status quo from time to time and clean up with old non fitting believes to the new standards of evolution (or knowledge, or empathy).
A lot has change since our forefather tamed wild horses and domesticated them. A lot has changed since they found out how to ride and train them for transport and combat. Unfortunately, not much has changed for the horses when it comes to training and housing.
Once ‘convenience’ for the human was the center of keeping animals, that had its points. But now we evolve to a more ‘animal welfare’ centred view, don’t we?
So let’s clear up some myths that need to evolve, too.
Horses sleep standing up
Ahh, what we learned in biology class or in riding schools. Crazy thought back then,.. Cool they can sleep standing! I wish I could do that! Well, that’s not entirely correct. Horses can ‘slumber’ when they’re standing, which is an efficient and predator proof way to ‘power nap’ and safe energy throughout the day. But that’s not sleeping. Imagine you only get to power nap and never lie down to really fall asleep deeply. Not even at night. Fact: All mammals need deep sleep (REM sleep) to fully rest and restore. Also horses. And to do so, they need to lie down, flat. Yes, with their head on the ground, too. The problem with this myth is: Horses need to feel safe and comfortable enough to lie down! In a housing where there’s no dry and comfortable place that also feels safe (think of being out of the wind or rain, having reliable herd members to keep watch) horses won’t do so - until they are exhausted. Especially paddock systems are at a risk here, when there’s no shelter or the herd is not stable and reliable (often changes etc.). Some horses do prefer a box to sleep in. But watch out! The REM phase is no longer than 30-40 minutes and the maximum sleeping time is around 2-3 hours. So being in a box for more than 9 hours (regular human sleeping schedule) causes other problems on other important levels. Besides, even in a box, a horse needs to make sure there are other horses to feel safe enough, because only in a herd that watches out for you you can sleep soundly (domestication didn’t change the DNA of horses, being herd animals).
Some horses like to be alone
As we read above, horses are not solitary animals. Never. The herd instinct is deeply implanted in their DNA. It’s the most important thing to them, physically and emotionally. Horses are highly social. No horse likes to be alone. But there are horses that are so traumatised and not socialised due to wrong doing in housing and handling, that they show social pathology. That means they can’t communicate properly with other horses and show aggressive or overly defensive behaviour that it takes time and hard work for a capable trainer to re-socialise such a horse. This is not normal and not a characteristic, this is a mentally and emotionally suffering horse. Often people also misinterpret resource guarding as aggression towards other horses. That stems from lack of resources (in quantity and quality) as hay stacks, water buckets and most important: space! Solitary confinement as a regular condition is never the solution to any horse and should disappear from our horse housing standards.
My horse loves to work!
Your horse starts to dance around when you come with the saddle? Your horse snorts and chews and wants to get going when you’re in the arena? He then gives everything he has during training or showing, he’s completely into it physically and mentally? Let me get insensitively straight to the point: It’s not love, it’s stress. That doesn’t mean you’re a bad person or your horse is being ‘abused’ by you. But it does mean that his nervous system, his cells are in ‘stress’. Scientifically speaking stress is just a state a body can be in. And its very natural and normal - and even life saving when it needs to. Stress is an invention from nature to make sure an organism does what’s necessary to survive. With living animals that’s often fighting or fleeing, and with social mammals also tending. It would take too long if the organism would need to consciously decide and choose on every action that is needed to get away from the danger. So luckily, we have stress! Yay! But let’s come back to what that means. Stress means strain. To ‘stress’, the body needs energy, a lot. For that he needs the energy of other body parts that are not that important at the moment, like the intestines, the neo cortex (the upper-front part of the brain, the rational decision making part) or the immune system (fighting off viruses and bacteria, repairing internal cell damage). Needless to say that this is rather unfavourable for the body in the long run (classy in humans: the ‘burn out’). Let’s summarise this again: Stress is a natural state that helps an organism survive when its in immediate danger. Stress is a strain to the organism and should be ended soon, given a rest phase afterwards to restore said strain. A horse that picks up his feet, dances, snorts, has a tendency to run, flight or fight and expresses himself with intense bodily movement, sweating, tossing the head and so on, is stressed. He probably has learned that this stress helps him get through the exercise or show even faster and with less aversive methods. He does not do it because he ‘enjoys it’, what he does enjoy is probably the time off after (he also enjoys being calm, playing, socialising, grazing and resting). That forms the question why he needs to be so stressed in the first place (who gains from this)? And as the person being responsible for his wellbeing, should this strain not be avoided in regards of his overall health in the long run?
And he if he wouldn’t want it, he wouldn’t do it
Yeah, well, you know ‘stress’? We just learned that for most mammals, that don’t have an overdeveloped prefrontal cortex, stress is the way to get through danger and threats. They don’t ‘think’ about whether they want it or not. Their brains have super fast highways that go from sensation to immediate muscle action - without interruption of evaluation and decision making. Especially in flight animals like horses. Additionally, they perceive the world a lot different than us. Sights, smells, sounds and feels are easily potential danger and threats that need to be avoided. That counts for kicking, spurs, whips, ropes, yelling, stomping, slapping, music, motors, clapping, trailers, corners, bushes, flags, wind, …. How to deal with it when you’re a half ton overly sensitive eatable flight animal that is bound to ropes and reins? You ‘stress’ and try get through with it. But sure, not all horses are the same. There are horses that maybe try to fall out. That try to rear, buck or run. That go against their handler or rider and try to avoid at all costs. What happens to these horses? People will try to correct them or make them behave, for safety reasons, even if this means with force. Or, they will be left alone, never to be trained or shown again, because they get labelled ‘aggressive’. And those who get ‘shut down’ will stay ‘shut down’, retreating back into themselves, cutting out the world and let everything happen to avoid further pain or fear and be ‘done with it’. That’s not ‘wanting to do it’ that is ‘seeing no other option than doing it’. Psychologically, there’s a lot going on here and there are several pathologies named for this. They all have in common that the oppressed gives himself up to the oppressor - and that comes with a lot of negative side effects and serious mental and ultimately physical wellbeing issues when we fail to realise serious pain related issues.
Hard tying teaches horses patience
Let me test how thoroughly you read the previous section. What happens if I tie a horse very long and with no escape, that he first tries to get out of it, no matter how, and then finally stands still, waiting for a relief? Right! Congratulations, he is now patient. No. Sorry, he gave up. His nervous system got in ‘shut down’. He is now somewhere else internally. Depending on his character, he will either stay like this, accepting or he will try to fight again until it hurts too much or something bad happens. Either way, this is on the human, not the horse. Patience is a virtue. Not a ‘go through’. To teach patience, you must have patience. Make baby steps, tie him loosely, with an escape (no hard tie, so he can get out), but stop and reward the tying before he gets “impatient” (nervous, wary, .. because that’s normal for a social flight animal). And then prolong the sequences with a few minutes every time. Target training with a stationary matt does wonders by the way. Oh your horse throws tantrums when being tied? No problem, read on to the next section.
I need to show him who is boss!
The good old dominance theory!.. Is above all: old, just like thinking the earth is flat, the human came from Adam and Eve and the superiority of races, which have been debunked over the centuries by more accurate, logical and eventually life improving discoveries. “Dominance” is a purely human concept, and a very simple one, that does not exist like this in nature - in no social animal structures, which are way too complex (for us to understand, at least yet). While the scientific theory itself has already been proven as false (an animal in captivity reacts aggressively towards others because of stress through captivity like resource guarding because space and food are always limited - in the wild this ‘dominant behaviour’ does not exist) the concept of superiority through (forced) respect and leadership is still very alive in most of us. There are many takes on how one can defend ‘claiming dominance’ in our interactions, especially with animals. To begin with, one must have the view the animal is somehow inferior, weaker compared to humans and must be controlled in order to achieve whatever one wants to achieve (safety, performance, ..), and that other methods won’t work because the animal is not capable enough (like for example argumentation or debating). While animals are indeed not able to talk back to us or openly discuss whether a behaviour makes sense or not, this state of mind has already flaws. Humans tend to underestimate the ability of animals to communicate and connect with us while on the other side overestimate their ability to manipulate and intrigue with us. Simply put, it’s the other way around than most folk think. Animals can very well pick up the smallest body signs, energy and intention, the tone of our voices, the beat of our hearts. They can learn to understand us and we can learn to understand them. We can teach them good behaviour through positive experiences while avoiding stress through unnecessary punishment and dominance. But horses can not ‘throw a tantrum’, be ‘mischievous’ or ‘naughty’, they don’t manipulate you just because. They don’t have an ego that wants to gain any social advantage above you. (Lets do a fun experiment: Replace the word animal or horse in the section above with the word children.) Because for one: they know we are not horses and for two: they only thrive for surviving and thriving as an individual and as a herd. They have no other intentions than just their natural instincts. If your horse does not act like you want, don’t feel personally insulted (because you’re not, you are not weak or insignificant then), but ask yourself why your horse does not want to do it. He probably has a good reason that has nothing to do with your position in your two-man herd. If you feel the need to lash out at your horse, remember that this is your emotion and your trigger - your horse has nothing to do with it. ‘Respect’ and ‘leadership’ do exist, but we need to give it new connotations. ‘Respect’ (as in respect for life itself - or love) should be a given, no matter the behaviour. If you give it your horse, he wil give it to you. ‘Leadership’ is not a right to claim or work for, it is a gift given by the followers only to whom can ensure safety, resources and care. The horse will follow you if you are worth to be followed, by a wise and fair example. A harsh hand never is.
Join-up lets me connect with my horse
And that counts for Join-ups as well, as they are build on this dominance theory. Join-ups are not only a theory, its a method to make a horse comply - because he has to, right? It’s a beautiful sight how the horses suddenly choose to follow the trainer in the middle of the round pen. Almost magical how easily they follow the person - like being led on an invisible rope, following every little movement, lightly and respectful. Gotcha! Yeah, well that’s how its supposed to look. And the masses are easily fooled. BUT! Not all that glitters is gold (keep that in mind whenever you see liberty magic). How did the horse suddenly choose to do so? And why? Simple answer: he has no choice. Long answer: go back to the section of stress and that he loves what he does. In join-up, the trainer does not give the horse a choice. There is only one way out of this rather uncomfortable situation. Follow me, or I send you running until you can’t no more. That’s the message. And it’s not rare to see horses sweating and shaking after having to gallop in rounds and rounds on. There’s no corner to hide, no escape, just this dominant human chasing and freighting and threatening an animal with a deep implanted instinct to run for its life. Magical. If you want your horse to follow you - give him a choice. Give him a corner, rest, food, water, friends, and become so comforting and fun to be with, that he chooses to follow you, voluntarily.
Do you know how horses actually see the world? The big and first misconception is to believe ‘sight’ is the most important sense. That’s probably because it is for us. But that doesn’t necessarily mean it is for other animals. In fact it isn’t for most prey animals. There are many other senses that are way more handy when it comes to spot a threat early on before one can see it. And ‘sight’ is also more nuanced than just seeing ‘sharp’ (we’re just incredibly biased). To sum up: horses sight is not worse than humans sight, it’s different. Horses are not that good in seeing sharp, depth and color. So what they see is rather blurry, dull and ‘flat’ (judging distances from objects in relation). But they have a huge advantage when it comes to see movement in an almost 360 degree angle, so all around them. You might not have seen the garbage flapping inside a bush on the right side behind you - but your horse did. And to continue: you might not have heard the mouse in the grass to your left because of its high frequency, but your horse did. You might not have felt the vibration of an upcoming tractor in the ground, but your horse did. You might not have smelled the fox that had been through here before, but your horse did. There is no boogeyman. But there really is something that really could turn into a potential dangerous situation as far as your horse can judge. And you are just simply not aware to judge for him either. Especially when you’re not even acknowledging the sensory world of your horse and instead of giving him comfort and checking the danger, even tightening the grip and getting frustrated. Pressure and pushing gives the message that there is indeed a reason to be afraid. Think about that when you take on the reins and tighten your thighs before nervously chuckling “Stop being stupid, there’s no boogeyman!”
Mares are moody
If the way we react, think and feel when we’re with horses really does impact their behaviour we can be certain that the concepts like ‘selffulfilling prophecy’ as in’ fundamental attribution error’, the ‘confirmation bias’ and the ‘pygmalion effect’ does have a play in us. These are social psychological phenomenas that we are prone to fall ‘victim’ to, whether you’re the giver or the receiver. Basically they mean that a person or a group of persons (or in our case a horse or a group of horses) are misjudged, because, for one we fail to take in account external factors (not the personality or character) that alter behaviour and emotions (like the environment, hormones, overall wellbeing etc.), and for two, we give them biased attributes beforehand and then act in a way that conducts behaviour that then ‘proves’ the bias (you know, like asking your partner why he is irritated until he really is). Mares do fall victim to these. This is not a weird or funny theory, it is proven by scientific studies. Mares do not behave differently than geldings, they are not more moody or easily irritated. Your mare might be, but that’s not because she’s a mare, its because there really is something bothering her, that would also bother a gelding. But because of this bias, physical and mental issues are often generally overlooked, because you know, she’s just being a mare. And that’s harmful. And sexist. Just don’t. And if one wants to argue with hormonal imbalances - just wildly guessing as a woman we know how this feels - it is rather sad to downgrade a mare when she’s really experiencing hormonal stress instead of helping her finding balance with the right care. After all, we want to be treated equal and with care on our bad days as well, don’t we?
Why did I say "fall victim to bias” for both parties? That’s because I don’t want to blame someone who doesn’t know better. Simply put, our brains are designed to bias and form stereotypes. It’s normal and natural to have these and without knowledge it’s hard to get out of them. Biases and stereotypes help us survive and thrive when we need to. But in such a complex world we live in today they are just often misplaced. To become the better human we must learn about them to keep them in check. Our social brain is strong and powerful - it needs to be used in the right way. Strengthen your empathy with knowledge and trust in your feelings, don’t fall into old believes and sayings from other people. Form your own judgment with the knowledge you have (now) and always seek more.
This is not always an easy task. With knowledge comes responsibility. The responsibility to do it different, maybe even in a way that is not seen as ‘normal’ and will be criticised by the status quo. But it will get easier with time. You will get stronger to withstand the pressure of conformity when you truly believe the change is necessary for the wellbeing of others. Horses deserve this change. And they need strong people to stand up for them.