It’s interesting to note that books and calendars are not filled with dramatic pictures of wild stallions snoozing in the sun. The more common image is of two rearing, teeth-bared stallions engaged in mortal combat. So naturally because of these popular photos, one might assume that horses commonly use force to interact and communicate with each other.
These images may also help spread the popularity of natural horsemanship, which is based on pressure and release, which in itself is based on watching rearing stallions establishing dominance. I totally understand how folks would think that this is the language of the horse. It’s exciting, all this rearing and claiming of leadership status. And yes, horses do respond to humans that emulate rearing to achieve leadership, but that’s motivation through force.
I’m seeing a different side to horses as I closely observe my herd of four (three geldings and a mare) who are turned out 24/7. I see a lot of boring stuff. Plenty of snoozing, grazing, back scratching.
In my experience, most of their day is spent moving toward something that attracts them. And by most of their day, I mean a whole lot of their day, something like 98% of the time. (And no, that’s not a scientific calculation. It’s just my attempt to show how often I see them moving towards what they want).
The rest of the time (2% of their day) they’re moving away from something they don’t want. These are the photo ops. This is where you’ll see teeth. This usually occurs at feeding time when the dominant horse decides he needs all the food.
As a side note, I’ve been able to remedy food time aggression by giving the aggressive horse something else to do besides biting to get what it wants. I teach it to stand on its pedestal and then it will get its food first.
Yes, I did try flailing at him to stop, (both with and without fancy cowboy boots) but it just seemed to heighten the frenzied nature of the moment. By giving the horse a clear option as to how to get his food instead of biting his buddies, he quickly complied and is now a gentleman at feeding time.
To me, it make more sense to spend the majority of my time interacting with my horse how he interacts with other horses the majority of the time. I know it’s not dramatic (no snapping teeth and flying hooves), but it is the manner in which its very first communications took place between he and his mama.
Provider or Predator?
Here’s the other hairsplitting observation. When I work with my horses using the boring-but-effective, Follow the Sponge technique, I’m emulating many of the things that it experienced when it first met its mama, who is a provider of all good things.
I create situations where the horse moves towards what it wants and I reward it in ways similar to good ole mom. A tiny morsel of food (three pellets) or a mini back scratch. It’s very interesting for me to see how quickly a horse understands this concept.
So I become a provider by following this simple principle,
Give a horse what a horse wants.
This I think makes a horse feel good because it’s very familiar to the horse. In contrast if I worked with the horses how they spend the minority of their day, they may view me as an aggressor, or worse, a predator.
On many occasions I’ve noticed that the most insecure, fearful horses are the most aggressive. So, if I were to use aggressive behaviors toward my horse, would the horse then view me as insecure? You bet.
I have a feeling the the horses who don’t respond well to aggression are first in line at the auction. I believe these are the intelligent horses that ask questions like, “Do you think that just because you can whack me with a stick that you’re fit to lead me?”
How ironic for me to see that when I’m acting as a provider, allowing the horse to move toward what it wants, it’s so much easier to get a horse to do what ever I want it to do than using aggressive, predatorial techniques.
You’d think that more effort and energy would get more of a result, but it’s the opposite in my experience. Less is more. And guess what, my aging, petite, soft spoken self has no need to establish dominance as the alpha leader. I don’t even have to be a passive leader or pull a muscle with fancy foot work.
I just get to do what my maternal, nuturing self loves to do and that’s provide something wonderful for the creatures I adore. Why does this work so well? I think because being a provider is more meaningful to a horse than being a predator.
Even in the wild the horse doesn’t spend most of its day running from wolves or engaged in mortal combat with a rival stallion. It spends most of it’s day grazing. I think in a horse’s mind the single most important thought that occupies 98% of their day is this:
Where am I going to get my next blade of grass?
It’s that simple.
I think that horses speak two distinct languages. One of pressure and one of attraction. Why not learn to speak both?