Whose fault is it anyway? The truth about vices.

QSE front cover 3Why is it that we are so quick to blame the horse when he does something ‘wrong’ and yet are quite happy to take the credit when things go right.

In this day and age when there is such a huge amount of information and advice on understanding horses and why they do what they do, as well as how to achieve a better relationship by learning how to communicate with them, why is it that we still cling to our traditional beliefs that the horse is our possession, one that should succumb to our will and perform in a manner of which we approve?

As horse lovers, there is so very much we admire about the horse. We love their speed and their stamina, so we race them against the clock and over great distances. We love their agility so we compete with them in sports like dressage and reining. We stand in awe at their strength and power so we show it off in show jumping and hunting. Their versatility amazes us, along with their instinct and intelligence so we enjoy sports with them like eventing, cutting and camp drafting. And we are awestruck by their beauty and presence, so we parade them in the ring in-hand and hacking. All are sports that require attributes like speed, strength, alertness and finely tuned instincts. And yet somehow or other we expect our horses to automatically understand when is the appropriate time to show these attributes and when they should remain dormant…..as if they can turn them on and off like a light switch.

Horses on the whole are fairly simple creatures to understand, provided we take the time to study them from their perspective instead of trying to pigeon-hole them into our human idea of what they should be. And this begins by simply looking at the world from their point of view. Basically horses are flight-response prey animals. A lot has already been said on this subject so a little research will reveal enormous amounts of information regarding this. Horses therefore, are pretty much finely tuned creatures, totally aware of their surroundings and naturally suspicious of predators. They are skeptical so they are easily scared and they rely on their flight-response to escape harm so they are quick to take flight. Some horses are more prone to flight than others. Yet others are more prepared to stand and fight to protect themselves or the herd. In a herd situation these roles are easily filled by various herd members….those that signal when to run and those who hang back to fight the intruder. Horses are also capable of overcoming their fears very quickly and recognizing familiar things that pose no threat.

And really that’s about it. Horses have survived and thrived for millennia because of their incredible awareness of their environment and their ability to listen and react immediately to their instincts. Unfortunately, these finely tuned instincts that aide the survival of the horse in the wild, very often work against us in a domestic situation. For example, horses that run off, bolt or shy are overly impulsive and lack confidence in movement. Horses that are dull or heavy lack impulsion and in the herd would most likely be the ones who stand and deliver. If a horse won’t go on the float, he’s telling you that he is unsure about this place you are asking him to go and doubts your leadership in what you are asking him to do. And horses that kick or bite are either fearful, or lacking respect for the receiver of these ‘gifts’…..or possibly both. There is no ‘naughty’ behavior or vices displayed, or evil intent lying hidden in the horse……these are simply labels applied by humans in an attempt to shoehorn the horse somehow into our environment and to things we understand.

In this case then, it would seem that there are no such things as vices, only misunderstandings of the horses survival instincts! The word vice implies that the horse is somehow being bad or naughty….misbehaving if you will. And yet for thousands of years, good horsemen have understood that any action or reaction of the horse, only reflects the level of knowledge or skill of its handler. Take any horse that is showing some level of ‘bad behavior’ such as bucking or being hard to catch and put him in the hands of a truly knowledgeable horseman and almost miraculously the behaviors disappear. Just about all horse owners can relate from their own personal experience, a situation where they have witnessed this first hand. And yet for some reason we humans, the most ‘intelligent’ creatures on Earth, seem to find it easier to proclaim that the doer of these deeds was either lucky or gifted in some way, than to
face the fact that perhaps we need to take some responsibility for becoming a better horsemen ourselves.

Of course, training horses is always an option and one that we seem quite happy to accept to fix our ‘bad’ problem horses. And because the horse is such a tolerant and compliant creature, training does often work – to a point. Horses on the whole are non-confrontational easy going souls who would rather do nothing than something, so if they find a way to find some peace and comfort, some way of being left alone even if it means doing something they don’t like, they’ll often submit and comply to keep the peace. And of course they are genuinely fearful of predators and of punishment, so if we strong-arm them enough, we can get them to do as we wish. All these attributes make them fairly easy to train, however any good trainer will tell you, that while they themselves can get the horse going nicely, it means little down the track if the horse’s owner lacks the skill to duplicate what they’ve done.

Some of our best horses, those with the most flair and panache (and therefore ability) are those who have spirit and opinions. These can prove harder to train as they will stand up for themselves and may not comply. Because of this, many great horses therefore end up in the dog food can. It seems while we admire a horse for its beauty and majesty, we prefer to buy one that is quiet and submissive. These are the traits that we most favour as manageable and yet they are not those needed for success in sport nor are they those that draw at our hearts.

What we see as vices are just our horses giving us feedback. Calling something a vice is just our way of saying that our horse is doing something that we not only don’t understand but that we also don’t have the skills to deal with. Training horses then, is something that we can live with because it shifts the blame for the problem onto the horse and the responsibility for it off of us.

All horses and humans can develop a relationship that is fun, safe and interesting for both parties. We just need to take the time and the trouble to look to ourselves and realise that it is us that needs to step up and become more worthy of them.

Meredith Ransley

Quantum Savvy 2004

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