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"Why Horses Love (some of) Us”

 by Christine Adderson

 When teaching a youth horse 4-H group I asked the question,  “What do you love about your horse?”  Of which I got many answers: ”He smells good”, “He takes me for rides”, “Jumping”.  I then asked,  “What does your horse love about you?”  Pause.  One answer followed.  “He likes it when I feed him carrots.” 

Do we really love our horses in more ways than our horses love us?

Let’s look at the ways that horses “love” us, or some of us.   It is all based on the concepts of a fertile and growing relationship with any other being:  trust, respect, security, comfort and fun.  And it’s the same whether you are talking about horses or humans.

 Trust

In order to have love between two beings we first must have trust,  (and if you don’t have trust you won’t truly have anything more). Trust, for a horse, means that he knows without a doubt that you wouldn’t threaten his survival in any way, with any tool that you are using, including your body when riding.  When we inflict pain on a horse when we are riding (with or without realizing it) the horse doesn’t understand and starts to lose trust in the human and therefore our partnership is adversely affected.  Being prey animals, horses perceive things as being life-threatening or not. Horses may perceive too much pressure or pressure at the wrong time from us as being a threat to their life.  When this happens it chisels away at your relationship and weakens the bond. 

 Respect

After trust is established you have a beginning friendship waiting for the next step, respect.  In order to gain respect we need to be fair.  Fair means establishing parameters and staying consistent in those parameters of behaviour.  For example, if you want your horse to keep at a safe distance from you and not crowd you, this needs to be established and reinforced, always.  Not sometimes yes and sometimes maybe.  The rules of conduct are set and the horse finds comfort in knowing how to act.  If the rules change from time to time the horse may worry.  Horses worry also, about receiving pain when being ridden.  Many ‘behaviour problems’ are just the horse expressing anxiety in anticipation of a painful experience.  Here again, this is lack of fairness. This may also chip away at your bond and cause the horse to choose to not be with you.

A lead mare in a herd situation will treat each individual member of the herd in a specific way according to their age, sex and position to her.  She will always be consistent and fair in her reinforcement.  She will have authority without dominance because authority out of context becomes mere force, and no horse (or human being) responds well to force.  Other horses just “love” her by always choosing to stand with her and follow her lead.  This leads us to security.

 Security

Horses love a good natural leader who provides security to the herd by keeping them safe with their good judgments, consistency in expected behavior (fairness), and the care we give them by providing good safe living conditions, feed and water.   A good natural leader gives security by showing the followers that his/her requests are safe.  For example, can you send your horse over a ditch and have him respond with understanding?  Does he know that your request is in his interest, even when nature tells him that it might not be safe?  Can he think through this situation and respond rather than react.

 Comfort

When he does respond appropriately is there always comfort waiting for him?  So, you ask your horse over the ditch and he tries to follow through for you by perhaps taking a step in the direction…instant comfort by release of any kind of pressure.   Reward the little successes that your horse offers and he will “love” to keep trying for you.  Your horse will learn that you will always be there to support him.  Then the little successes become big successes.  You become the horse’s educator by helping him to turn the inevitable tests of life into victories.  Your horse will “love” to be with you.

 Fun

The last ingredient of a growing relationship is fun.  Clear, reasonable boundaries have been set, your horse believes that you are not a threat, you are the best possible rider that you can be, and you provide encouragement at the right times, now add the ‘spice of life’, variety.  Horses love to have fun and play with other horses.  Play with your horse.  Endeavor to do different tasks with your horse.  Challenge them in new ways.  Cause active mind participation.  Your horse will love to play with you. 

One more thing we can to do in our relationships with horses; detach from any expectations we may have of what our horses should be like, especially in the service of our egos.  Accept them for the way they are, shape their behaviour and our horses will “love” ALL of us for MANY reasons.

Photo credits:  ForTheHorse

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