I have often heard people say horses are like mirrors, which reflect our inner state. I disagree. Horses are amplifiers. Whichever is our reigning emotion at the moment, they may not only reflect it, but playing off of it, may display attitudes and movements that far out show what we may be feeling. The thing is, we have been so thoroughly domesticated by our own kind, that we have lost touch with much of our non-verbal communication; the one emitted by others, and, more importantly, the one we ourselves send out. There are many instances, when I facilitate sessions between a horse and a human, where I witness this disconnection from our own emotions as it manifests in our body language. One of the beauties of playing with horses at liberty, is that it allows us to get back in touch with our bodies and emotions –among many other things– in a natural manner; this, provided we have a guide, a translator, a Rosetta Stone enabling us to communicate with horses safely.
There is a particular disconnect I have observed, time and time again, especially in horse-loving people. I have come to call it an excess of Lovey-Dovey Face. It is a very common yet powerful phenomenon, and it brings out potentially dangerous behaviours in horses. Lets look at a couple of examples.
1. Juana* came to me with Estrella, a wild mountain horse, rescued from a shady dealer. As Juana had no background with horses, she communicated with her in a spontaneous fashion, spending a lot of time on hikes. Even though they were bonded in such a way that they could walk about in the open country with Estrella completely loose, she had aggression issues, and had even threatened Juana’s visitors. It was clear from the start that Juana loved Estrella deeply, and acknowledged that there was a disharmony between them.
Focusing on Estrella’s behaviour first, I saw how resistant and sour she became the moment I asked her to move away from me. She would come right back to me all gentle, ears forward… and would instantly pin them and show me her rump menacingly if I attempted to move her away. After I had made sure Estrella was safe to be around, I asked Juana to herd her around a bit. Estrella resisted Juana’s requests by turning around and facing her with a sweet expression, then pinning her ears and tensing her body when Juana asked her to move away. Juana knew that she needed to draw different boundaries with Estrella, but it was too easy to fall for the mare’s charming looks. At my request, Juana persisted in asking Estrella to turn and walk away. This dynamic flowed for a few minutes, but eventually Juana became tense, and her movements abrupt, at times, even harsh. I could see she was troubled, trying to follow my directions but not knowing how to be directive without becoming aggressive. We interrupted the session, took a pause to look at more flowing motions, and as Juana’s movements became more relaxed, Estrella’s mood softened, and her resistance gradually subsided.
2. Pedro brought his 9-year-old gelding, Lucero, whom he kept at an equestrian centre, to a 3-day clinic. When I asked him about their relationship, Pedro complained that his horse wouldn’t pay any attention to him unless he gave him treats, and looked at me for validation of his disappointment. I explained to him that what we humans tend to interpret as indifference is perfectly normal behaviour in horses. Minutes later, as he was heading to the stables to check up on Lucero, he asked me, in a childlike tone, wether he could give him some carrots. I didn’t quite know why at the time, but I said “no”. This was met by a pout from a man in his forties. and my doubts disappeared.
When we showed Lucero to the corral where he was to spend the night, he was restless. I showed him to the water trough and the hay. He wouldn’t sit still, pacing around and neighing frequently. I was trying to help him settle down, by asking him gently to leave the spot by the gate where he stood and neighed, when I turned and saw Pedro. He was leaning on the gate, chin in his hand, wearing the dreamiest look on his face, as he saw his horse wind himself up in the corral. Pedro didn’t know how much grain Lucero ate, so I took advantage of this and asked him to go find out right away. The minute he left, Lucero settled down and began munching on his hay.
It was clear to me that Pedro had unconsciously been encouraging a pattern of anxiety in his horse. From what I saw, he didn’t abuse him, physically or psychologically. On the contrary, he doted on him with carrots –often, he told me, when Lucero would pace and neigh. Over time, his mere presence was enough to trigger his horse’s restlessness.
Sometimes, we unknowingly train our horses to be aggressive or anxious, even celebrating them for acting from these emotions. The problem is, movement in horses does not come without an emotion. When they move a certain way, they feel a certain way. And whatever emotion it is they are immersed in when we reward them, will come back more and more often. The two examples I described above are of people rewarding aggressive or anxious behaviour in their horses. I do not know why we sometimes tend to do this. Maybe we enjoy seeing our horses expressing themselves dramatically, rather than in their more usual, contemplative state. Maybe we have seen too many movies misrepresenting horses. Maybe we are not seeing the horse at all, but a projection of ourselves. The reasons are for others to examine. I am concerned by the dynamics themselves, because I see more and more well-meaning people getting into trouble with their horses because of this.
When we interact with horses in any way, wether at liberty or not, I always ask my students (and myself!): which horse am I rewarding? Is he the calm one, or the pushy, demanding one?; the curious one, or the one who disregards my personal space? The reward may be as simple as letting our horse know that he can catch our attention with a certain behaviour. In that sense, the lovey-dovey face can be very treacherous, because we horse lovers often display it unconsciously, unawares that we are rewarding the very attitudes in our horses that we then complain about.
I by no means imply that we should be cold or distant with our horses: anyone who’s seen me training knows that I lean the other way –rather heavily, at that. I am all for letting our tenderness and loving feelings run free… when it is propitious that our horse receive them. When they feel loved by us, horses often try to please us, even if it costs them stress or danger. It is only fair that we guide them in the better directions. One good first step is to become aware that, even though we may not know we are talking, they are always listening.
*All names from here on have been changed for the privacy of the persons involved 😉