Written By: Walt Friedrich
We've touched on this subject in previous articles, but it's important enough for an occasional revisit, just as a reminder. Our horse is not wired in the same way as we are, as he constantly demonstrates, but we've become so used to it that we rarely notice it any more. You put your favorite music on for him, playing quietly in the stable, because you enjoy it and you want to share the pleasure with him. A noble, thoughtful idea, but even when your favorite passages are playing and you might stop what you're doing, lean up against a wall, and just listen, enraptured, he shows no reaction. Well, it's disappointing, maybe, but we're just not all music lovers, are we?
Then the local wild deer herd blooms out of the woods next to his pasture, and all fifty of them graze their way across his turf, with the little ones chasing each other with rough-and-tumble efforts; you freeze, lest you frighten them off, and watch them, enjoying that warm-glow feeling, but they aren't afforded even a glance by your horse, as he, too, grazes contentedly.
And how about the breathtaking view across the valley when you and he are enjoying a leisurely ride? It's just a yawn as far as your boy is concerned, as he continues his rhythmic stroll on the trail.
We've seen that behavior – or lack of it – so often that it no longer grabs our attention. It's just the way it is, and not all God's creatures seem to have aesthetic appreciation. Is our horse one of the deficient ones, or is he maybe always thinking of that cute little filly, next door?
Well truth be told, unlike our human minds, his cognition is always tuned into two subjects (neither being that filly); his personal safety and his comfort. Unlike you and me, his mind isn't a problem-solver, and he doesn't demonstrate imagination – it's like a big vacancy up there.
That condition no longer gives us pause, we're so used to it. He may not be tuned into the fine arts, but he IS just what we want – a horse, our horse, trained and showing what we choose to consider cooperation and love for us. And that's a good deal for both of us.
It's also perfectly natural behavior on his part. He ignores what we consider beautiful and interesting simply because he isn't wired for abstract thinking – and that's actually a fortunate thing for him and for every other prey animal species; his ancestors learned eons ago that ensuring his survival depended on escaping the large, hungry predators he shared his environment with, and who would have him for lunch. That meant he had to pay much more attention to his neighbors than to his neighborhood, and that caution became his very wiring. And so, while Beethoven's music may be soothing and beautiful, and while a large herd of deer can be very interesting to observe, and though a pretty view in itself may be safe, none are of the slightest interest to him. His ancestors took a most practical and successful approach to living in the wild – namely, be prepared for anything, and be actually running the very instant you perceive a threat – all of which trickled down through the ages to him.
You, on the other hand, are wired to observe and identify first, then run if, after consideration, you deem it necessary. Rene Descartes defined all humans when he said quite succinctly: “cogito ergo sum” – “I think, therefore I am” – that's you, all right, but it certainly doesn't apply to horses in lion country.
Now, all that background may make your horse seem well equipped to handle life in the wild, and it truly is, but there is a big BUT. When the threat of imminent danger, real or just perceived, appears, your horse will take no chances, he will “spook” – and if you happen to be nearby at the time, you're in real trouble. If you're on saddle and he spooks, you'll be lucky if all you get is dumped – though that in itself can cost you anything from a broken bone to your very life. If your feet are on the ground and in his escape flight path, you can be run over and sustain still more severe damage.
What can we do to prevent damages being inflicted by a panicked horse? Plenty:
• Never occupy a cramped space with your horse – you never know when a mouse suddenly appears and panics him, and you don't want to be up close when it happens.
• Always be aware of where both of you are, and stay out of his flight path (straight ahead) and out of range of his feet whenever possible, lest he kick blindly if panicked.
• Never startle your horse, especially from behind – and when you walk around his butt, put your hand on his rump and keep it there until you're past.
• When you're coming up behind him, be sure you're not tip-toeing, and do talk to him as you approach so he's sure to know you're there. Humming or whistling work, too.
• Always keep in mind that he's a horse, not a companion or a friend – love him to pieces, but he is still an animal, and he understands, prefers, and appreciates being treated as one.
• Always be alert while riding; your constant awareness of him will keep him engaged and aware of you, and nobody gets any surprises.
• “Sack him out” whenever you're aboard – let him investigate the trail you're on, you may prevent future surprises.
Finally, a word about your own behavior when you're with him: always show him total respect, and never strike or raise your voice at him. You want him to WANT to be with you because he enjoys your company and he trusts you completely. You won't get that if he's afraid of you.