When it’s not a training issue
While working with horses we continuously talk about training, behavior, issues and emotions of the horse. We evaluate our methods and reinforcers to try and change the horse somehow to what ever goal one choses.
Sometimes that’s just to make the horse more healthy, fit and happy. Other times it’s to make it more complying or successful for human ambition.
Whatever the reason a human chose to take care for a horse and spend time together, there is something else in play: the human behavior, experiences and emotions.
Emotions, feelings an the “inner world” are a widely misunderstood, misinterpreted and misplaced factor in life - and it shows, especially when you’re dealing with living beings that don’t miss this factor.
As a sensitive horseperson you’re aware that your inner state and attitude influences the horse - and that’s why you’re here.
How horses react on human signals
What does that mean for horse training
What the horses know
As every relationship always works both ways, so does the human-horse relationship - wether you consider it a friendship or not.
Unfortunately that’s widely underestimated and missed in the horse world on all fronts.
But that’s no surprise: it’s easier to observe the horses behavior and adjust the horses training, than to observe oneself and maybe confront uncomfortable thoughts and emotions inside. In our society, the look inward is not a common and valued skill to be taught. Even more so, emotions and feelings, trauma and hurt are mostly repressed and ignored - a role model that goes from parents to children since generations.
It does not feel weird to wear a mask when everyone else does is, right?
But when you enter the sphere of horses, you’ll be the only one masking. And everyone will know.
But how come that the horses know?
It’s not that the horses “know” more than us, in the sense of they could make complex assumptions and theories while getting proof by some kind of secret source.
But they are more aware of reality and they have access to more information.
And that’s also not because they are some mystical creatures, they just have some physical advantages like eyesight and smell - and they haven’t unlearned to be aware.
The horses eyesight is so sophisticated- not in seeing sharp as an eagle - but in seeing wide and noticing any subtle movement and change in the nearest environment. Their sight has evolved to what made them survive for over 45 million years as a vulnerable prey animal. And that was not seeing the predators form miles away lurking through the bushes or even at night.
The eyesight of horses
What made them survive and thrive was the connection within the herd and noticing immediately if one member of it has noticed something. It’s the connection and the communication system through body language and the sight of it that can move a herd in a break of a second to flee and outrun or to stay calm and save energy. Horses are aware of every little member of the herd. They know who is who, they know what means what. And they are constantly aware of the tension in the bodies. They see every little muscle moving and they know what that eventually means. Their awareness and their body is so strongly connected that they can react before that information even reaches the brain. (more of horse communication and body language you can read here)
Horses cannot lie. They do only react to what is experienced.
Horses can not suppress their instincts.
(Side note: Horses don’t have a prefrontal cortex like we humans do. The prefrontal cortex is the part of your brain behind your forehead and the youngest evolution of the brain. That means all animals share the same parts of the brain starting by the stem that connects the brain to the spinal cord. From there, different parts evolved from birds to mammals, to apes to human. The prefrontal cortex is considered the part of brain that houses your personality, creates your inside talk and that regulates your rational and complex thinking like making assumptions, thinking into future or past, imagine possible outcomes and their consequences and so on. Horses therefore can’t do all of that. They can’t distinguish behavior from emotion - they are first and foremost emotional beings)
With all that awareness, strong emotional connections and the knowledge and sight of body language, movement, tension and the direct reaction to it, it has to be said why that’s so important to us humans, too:
We normally live in a society where all this has become unimportant. We don’t give a thought to our body language and the awareness of our body. We live like we’re just a prefrontal cortex. But the rest of the brain still works as one of a “primitive mammal”. Our brain still makes use of body language, emotions and instinct. Therefore we still “talk” in a language WE don’t listen to anymore. But the world does. Horses do. They see us communicating and they make this connection to their own body.
When we are with horses we become part of their herd. They include us in their field of sight (and smell, and sound, and feel.. etc) and they notice everything our body, words and tension says. And they react to it because they can’t do otherwise. WE might not notice that, but every horse does. And some humans that relearned how to do it too.
How horses react on human signals
Luckily, in the last decennia there have been more and more studies about how horses see and experience human expressions and interactions with some stunning insights of how subtle the perception of horses is and how good they are in understanding another species while interacting.
Wether through domestication or their natural given awareness (probably both) they have learned to interpret and interact with humans. In several studies where they worked with hidden treats, horses have shown to be able to recognize human awareness and to interact with it to make us aware - for example in one experiment where they tested hiding treats with a test person to see or not to see, the horses would notice if the human knew it or not and would make them aware of the hidden treats with more clear communication signals if they didn’t knew. (Proops and McCom 2010)
In another study, they tested if it made a difference it the eyes of the person were closed or not. And it did: if the eyes of the person where closed, horses used sound and touch to make the person aware of a treat. (Takimoto, Hori & Fujita, 2016).
But the most interesting study is about reading human facial expressions. They found that horses can distinguish between different faces from photos very precisely and that they react differently on happy faces and angry ones, as in a higher heart frequency and a preferred left angle for the angry faces (mammals tend to view threats from their left eye, which is connected to the right brain hemisphere).
And on top of it they recognized the humans from the photos when they met them in real life and showed the same preferences in left or right view from when they looked at the photos, while the person would show a neutral face expression in real life. (Proops, Grounds, Smith & McCom, 2018).
The same were found with neutral and angry voices in combination with facial expressions on photos and an obvious irritation if the voices wouldn’t fit the expressions (as in angry voice with a happy face). (Nakumara, Tokimoto-Inose and Hasegawa, 2018).
You can conclude that horses are very much aware of incongruence in human behavior and emotions. And that therefore they are influenced by us - if we know and want it, or not.
What does that mean for horse training?
We have to acknowledge that we always and constantly influence our surroundings (and our surroundings influence us). That means that we have take on some responsibility for our maybe unconscious influence. If we want something or someone to change, we have to change our influence that keeps the unwanted in place.
But how do you change something that’s not in your awareness?
You’ll have to get aware first.
And that kicks you right off that blind train that rushes through our life’s. If you want to see one part you’ll have to see all. There’s no such thing as selective awareness.
You’ll have to feel it all.
As we are with horses, we indirect influence their direct behavior. What we see is a result of all the horse has experienced up to that point. It’s genes, it’s upbringing, it’s herd members, it’s learned behavior, it’s living conditions, it’s physical and mental sate, it’s traumatic or joyful experiences, the weather, the season, the quality of the last meal, the smell of the air, the sound of the environment and of course the mental and physical state of the interacting human is the reality of the horses in this very moment.
What that means is, you can set up the best, most safe and comforting situation for your horse - if you stand there in the arena filled with tension and unaware emotions, the horse still can feel threatened and act accordingly, while you don’t understand why he is “acting out this time”.
A personal example
When I started working with Damiro, he was in complete shut down of his mental and physical state. He stopped moving, he stopped communicating and he stopped feeling and seeing - at least with humans, not with other horses. In the arena he was frozen and unreachable. But in the field he was alive, doing what a horse does, together with his herd. That tells you that the underlying problem in human contact are the humans and the past traumatic experiences while “being handled” in the arena or riding or whatever.
To make that connection again, to open him up and start seeing, noticing and communicating with humans again, I needed to trigger something fundamental, that would get him back into the sensory world. Smell was just the right trigger from him in the beginning. He started to “experience” again and get aware of everything, while being with a human. He got so far that he enjoyed spending time with me again and he would even wait for me at the gate as he heard me approaching.
But one day in the early weeks he didn’t. I got the halter and walked onto the pasture - which I never had to do up to that point. He didn’t come. I called him. Nothing.
And I realized something’s different today and it’s probably not him. The weather was good, the hay was good, the herd was calm. It had to be me. So instead of just, you know go there and get him, maybe start an argument of coming or not and being annoyed by all this effort and his “different behavior”, I just sat down in the field.
I immediately noticed my body and my thoughts - and that I indeed wasn’t well. I worked through some stuff, there in the grass. One herd member at a time visited me. First I got a bite, then a insecure sight eye. Then a nibble and a supportive head hug.
I cried and sighed and finally found a bit of peace in my mind and body.
And finally, Damiro came at last. After about an hour, there in the grass. He slowly but directly approached me. We made a connection that day, understanding each other.
Whenever I or he’s not feeling it, I know because I can see it in his behavior.
Every little behavior, every movement is communication. Every muscle has a meaning.
That is what horses can teach us.
To see behavior we “don’t like” means to go look for reasons.
Is it the food, the weather, the body, maybe pain? Is it tension in the herd - or maybe is it us today (or every day)?
Unwanted behavior can be a challenge and the reasons for it even more. But make sure you don’t simply try and “train it away”. You maybe overlooking a chance to heal yourself.
How we can value this ability and let the horses heal us
Horses are used successfully for therapeutic and coaching goals. Their positive influence on our mental and physical awareness has been used for over 50 years now in Germany, with great result. Luckily these phenomena are more and more studied and proven (to name a few: Angoules, Koukoulas, Balaktounis, Kapari & Matsouki, 2015; Hammer, Nilsagard, Forsberg, Pepa, Skargren & Öbers, 2005; Schneider & Harley, 2016; Shurtleff, Stadneven & Engsberg, 2009; Sterba, 2007). Horses can’t lie, they can’t intrigue or fake, they’re feedback on us is always a reflection of realty as it is, in the here and now, connected to fundamental emotions.
The interaction with horses can be calming, motivating and an opening to our own emotions and awareness - if we let them.
If you are lucky and owning a horse you can make use of this regularly. And the best part is, your horse doesn’t have to do anything for this - nor do you. You just need to breathe, come back to yourself, put two feet on the ground and be there - not holding back what is and what wants to show.
For me, thats the best part of handling horses and what made my way of work.
For me, its never only training or coaching with horse, its always both.
To own a horse (or care for one regularly) means you become one herd, one unity with it. The influence on each other becomes stronger every day and so does the bond. So if you want to achieve a goal or solve a problem you always have to consider both sides of this bond and the bond itself.
Because its not always a training issue.
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