The Horse – Human Partnership

The Horse - Human Partnership © Jim Reilly 1997

A basic question which we must answer regarding ourselves and our horses is: What kind of relationship do we want? Do we want a relationship where the horse is a beast of burden made to do our bidding and we are the master and he is the slave? Or, do we want a relationship which brings us together in a partnership? Assuming that all of us would rather have a partnership with our horses, then that partnership begins by us having empathy and understanding. If we do not have an understanding of horses – how they think, how they speak, what their needs are – we will find it very difficult to accomplish anything worthwhile with grace and harmony with the very creature with whom we seek enjoyment.

Horses do not behave like cows or dogs. Nor do they behave like people or think like us. They see the world differently. This is not because they are stupid. They know what they like and what they do not like. From their point of view, they behave logically and sensibly and in harmony with nature. To us; however, theirs is an alien logic. But with our gifts of intelligence and imagination we can bridge the gap of understanding and learn their language and thought. Without that understanding, we cannot hope to deal with them without creating unhappiness on both sides.

While horses do not behave or think like us, we are alike in many ways. We both understand the idea of living and working together with other animals, because we both live in groups. We both like reward and praise. We both dislike being shouted at or punished, especially if it is for being afraid or for not understanding. We are both sensitive and peace-loving. We both strive for companionship. It is the horse’s keen sensitivity that will make a partnership possible, if we will only match his sensitivity with ours.

Let’s consider what each of us (horse and rider) brings to the partnership.

The horse lends us his strength, speed and grace, which are greater than ours, and we provide him with guidance, intelligence and understanding, which are greater than his. The common thread running through all fields of horsemanship is the ideal of harmony.

We should always aim for a partnership rather than a subordinate relationship, whatever riding discipline we choose to pursue. The whole persona of the horse is the living expression of freedom and independence – the horse’s “spirit” in other words – and it is this aspect which is the most important and the most overlooked. To preserve that “spirit” and yet become the senior partner in this developing relationship, let’s look at what makes the horse unique which, ultimately, will govern our interaction with him, because he is not born with some mysterious knowledge about how we want him to behave.

Of all common domestic animals, horses alone possess flight as their primary defense. Despite this, the horse is the most easily dominated of all common domesticated animals and can be more quickly desensitized to frightening stimuli than any other animal. They are an acutely intelligent animal with an excellent memory (they never forget anything [good or bad] and their memory is second only to an elephant’s). They have the ability to learn quickly, but they do not transfer things from one side of their brains to the other; hence, what we teach them on one side we must start all over and do it again on the other side. They have amazing instincts, beyond human imagination!

The horse can hear and smell things that a person cannot. They can feel things remarkably subtle, such as the slightest change in a rider’s position or (so it is said) an earthquake hours in advance.  Their tactile sensing over their entire body is as sensitive as the feeling we have at the tips of our fingers. Instincts coupled with memory may explain why a frightened, nervous horse cannot be calmed down as quickly as we would wish – this aspect of their nature must always be of primary consideration, and must always be handled with a great deal of patience.  The horse has the fastest response time of any domestic animal – their actions are instant and spontaneous, not a result of various logical considerations, e.g., they can accelerate from standing still to 40 mph in about 20 yards.

The horse has no concept of obedience or naughtiness and does not know what a mistake is (contrary to those of us who are prone to say that “the horse made a mistake”). Additionally, he does not possess an hourly concept of time such as we humans do – although he is sensitive to phases of the day, such as when feeding time is to occur. The horse is an animal that exerts dominance and determines “pecking order” by controlling the movement of other horses in the herd – their body language is unique to the equine species. Thus, control of the horse’s movement is the basis of all horse training disciplines and they will accept our dominance when we can cause them to move when they would prefer not to move.

The horse has an individual space “bubble” between six and ten feet – extending further to the front and behind than to the sides (Americans have a “bubble” about two to three feet – extending further in front than behind or to the side).  Stepping into the horse’s space “bubble” causes him to move.  Learning where to place ourselves in that “bubble” and how to use body language (the language of the horse) will give us control of the horse’s movement.

Lastly, horse’s eyes are located laterally on their heads so, with a slight head movement, they can see all around. They can detect movement, like a bird fluttering in a tree, but their sensitivity is limited to seeing broad outlines; they must combine touch, hearing or smell to decide if they do or do not like what they see. That might be why they got so worried and spooky on a windy day. Lots of things are in motion and one of them might be a predator. They can see very well at night (much better than humans). However, they do not have the stereoscopic vision and depth perception like a predator (man). Where their ears are pointing are where their eyes are looking – they do have the ability to see two different things at the same time.

Horses are born good-natured. They are gentle animals and are not, by nature, aggressive.  All they really want out of life is to be safe and comfortable – kind of like most humans. Bad characters are developed through human failures.  A horse adopts “bad” (read survival) manners if the human responsible for him is not consistent in following the rules for handling horses.  However, it is wise to remember that no matter how gentle a horse is, no matter how well trained, no matter how old – flight is still the natural response to a perceived threat.   Failure to fully appreciate this has resulted in the injury and death of many people and horses.  Almost every riding and horse handling safety rule should be based on the premise that the horse can be suddenly frightened and resort to flight when it is least expected.

We, as the senior partner in this relationship, bring to it our powers of reasoning, analysis, logical thinking and the ability to control our emotions.  We must also have patience, good timing, and time itself.  Don’t handle your horse like a pet dog or another human being; handle him like a horse.  Study his character and his mentality.  Horses are always horses; they think like horses, and they act like horses.  We are entering their world; they are not entering our world.  Therefore, we should start thinking like a horse. We should learn the horse’s body language. We are already attuned to non-verbal communication since over 70% of human communication is non-verbal; i.e., body and facial language, so why not take the time to learn the horse’s facial and body language, which is how he communicates.  Punishment and pain should have no part in teaching (biting is the exception and will be discussed at another time) – this includes jerking on the horse’s head when leading him; smacking him on the face when he doesn’t “pay attention,” leading or pulling him with the stud chain around his nose; hitting him with a whip or crop when he “makes a mistake” while we are riding him, etc…

Besides, most of the times when we attempt to “punish” a horse we are too late. If it is more than two seconds after the “event”, it is too late – the horse will have no idea what he has done to deserve whatever it is that we do to him.  Xenophon, writing about horse training in 400 BC, quoted Simon of Athens: “If a dancer were forced to dance by whip and spur he would be no more beautiful than a horse trained under similar circumstances.”  When teaching the horse, we should take our time. A horse learns as fast as a horse learns – not as fast as we want to teach him. A horse needs time to think and process what he is being asked to do.  For example, if we were asked what the square root of 435 was and two seconds later were asked what the sum of45x35 plus 10 minus 56 was, we would probably say something like “Wait a minute, I’m still working on the answer to the first request.”

Likewise, similar to the way we humans learn anything new or different, the horse learns quickest when the request is perfectly clear and understandable and it is done over and over again – repetition – until the response is the kind we desire. Keep in mind, as with humans, some horses not only learn faster but some can do certain things better than others. Also, the horse has a learning cycle as some humans do. It goes something like this – bad, good, bad for long time, much better, bad for a short time, then back to good on a consistent basis and the lesson is learned.

We must have the patience to work through that learning cycle. The “bad for a gone time” may come somewhere around the tenth or twelfth ride or repetition and the “bad for a short time” may occur somewhere around the twenty-fifth or thirtieth ride or repetition.

We should ensure that what we are requesting the horse to do has been made clear and that our timing of the request has been right.

Lastly, we should learn to control our emotions. If we lose our temper, we will not accomplish anything. It is better to stop and compose ourselves, because the horse will fight back if we start to fight him. So, spend as much time on each step as the individual horse requires. We should check ourselves before we begin with the horse. If we are tense, apprehensive, anxious, tentative in our approach to the horse, or become frustrated, we will not feel things delicately, nor will we be in control of our movements well. These traits in people confuse the- horse and they do not react well to them. Remember: it is easier to handle one pound of brain than a thousand pounds of horsepower!

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