Both on the ground and under saddle, horses are expected to follow a human’s lead. Human does something and horse reacts in a way human wants, horse gets rewarded. Human does something and horse acts in a way human doesn’t want, horse gets corrected. Horse learns to do things human wants. This is a very black-and-white version of a very complex conversation between two species and I think some horses are capable of problem-solving beyond just reacting to a human. If horses weren’t smart enough, humans would have given up trying to domesticate them for riding, working, and companionship long ago.
What does Eli do that makes me think he can think for himself? In our Saturday lesson he backed himself off the jumps without me doing very much at all other than staying out of his way as much as possible. The less I do, the more he shines over fences. He is learning that I am learning to make his job easy. He is learning that I will be there with my leg most of the time to support his efforts. He is learning distances and getting them much better than I ever will. He is learning from gridwork. Is he idiot-proof? No. But is he getting amateur-friendly? I think we are headed that way for sure. Although I couldn’t get him to land on the left lead, we did get a left-to-right change which is his harder side. I was so surprised! But happy. The more chances I give him to do something right, the more he responds positively. The “simple” theme continues. (Maybe I will actually get media of it next weekend.)
Even on the ground–probably more so than under saddle–Eli is behaving like regular sweet gelding and a pet. Don’t get me wrong–if a stranger invades his personal space unless a treat is immediately forthcoming he will pin his ears and bare his incisors, but all very lackadaisically. His aggression is nearly non-existent. I give him chances to do the right thing and it may take him an extra second or two, but he complies eventually. This is most illustrated by the wash rack. The wash racks are a step up from the aisles and are probably a bit spooky to a horse unfamiliar with them. For whatever reason, Eli needs a moment to think about how to step his hind feet up into the wash rack EVERY TIME. He always walks half way in and stops. No idea why after doing this hundreds of times he still needs an extra second, but I give it to him anyway. He steps all the way in with minimal drama, and I really didn’t have to do anything. Maybe some other people would get impatient with this and expect him to walk right in, and who knows what tricks or methods people would use to get him to walk right in, but I don’t much see the point of all that because he does walk in eventually. His terms are fair in my mind. Why pick a fight about something the horse isn’t sure about? Why not reassure him instead that this is no big deal?
Eli, by far, has taught me more about how horses learn than any of my other horses. This is partly because I am paying attention to it more with Eli–my other horses didn’t come with the baggage Eli came with as they were all 3 or 4 year olds. With Eli, it hasn’t been so much about teaching what to do as it has been about undoing some aggression to see what’s underneath all the reactiveness. I ignored so much of his weirdness early on and I think that has been the most powerful communication between us–I don’t draw attention to things I don’t like. Instead, I ignore them and go about my business, establishing a routine that Eli can count on. Yes, of course, I reprimand him for kicking out directly at me, but he does that so little now, and the last few times he’s bitten me were more like a foal nibbling a pocket for a treat, not aggression. But he has gone from a horse that couldn’t stand still to be groomed to one who stands for grooming and loves being curried (because ITCHEEEZ).
Thinking about all this didn’t come out of the blue–I think about this kind of stuff frequently. So when I found a “position statement” on social media related to horse training, I read it because that’s what I do. I am not very familiar with the International Society for Equitation Science, but I am learning more about the organization by exploring the website. I am fascinated by their position statement on dominance and leadership concepts in horse training. It’s not exactly a quick read, but I am pleased to find an organization that treats the relationship between human and horse as a science, and cites studies related to the topics they pursue. I am still digesting the import of the position statement, but I found a lot of things that ring true for me in my experience. Especially toward the end of the article, this:
“Some horse people believe that, to get the ‘respect’ of a horse and make the horse obey orders, the person handling it must be the ‘alpha individual’, i.e. in the top position of the social hierarchy. The person must be the dominant part of the relationship and the horse the submissive one. Even if horses had a concept such as ‘top position’ in a hierarchy, it is questionable whether that hierarchy would even include humans (McGreevy et al., 2009). Undoubtedly, part of the reason for these and similar beliefs is anthropomorphism (i.e. our tendency to transfer human characteristics such as respect and authority onto the horse). This attitude often does more harm than good (see McLean 2003 for examples).”
Why not allow our relationships with horses to have a novel language, not one dependent on the way humans think horses communicate with each other? My horse does not think I am a horse, nor do I want him to think that. My horse comes from a long line of animals domesticated for work and sport, and most definitely recognizes humans as agents of both good and bad things, like grain or whips–that is the very nature of domestication. We can communicate with horses in a language unique to the horse-human relationship, one that evolves over time, one that is informed by evidence-based, peer-reviewed concepts and methods, one that makes no anthropomorphic assumptions about a dominance hierarchy. Eli doesn’t walk into the wash rack because I’m the alpha. Eli walks in the wash rack because I give him a chance to.