When it comes to horses, the biggest challenge people have is ego, their own ego gets between the horse and them – it has often been said that “broken people make the best horsemen”. Certainly, that was a theme of the movie Buck. Buck Brannaman had a less than ideal childhood that resulted in harsh treatment by his, apparently, drunken father and his removal from his father’s custody.
Some folks have suggested that Tom Dorrance may have been autistic, but I have never seen anyone suggest that his brother Bill shared the same affliction. Perhaps folks are romanticising how the Dorrance’s were able to develop such insight and understanding into the nature of horses. It seems all of the Dorrance boys were pretty skilled in horsemanship, and they all shared similar talents. Surely the whole family wasn’t autistic?
On the other hand, assigning the label “autistic” to their uncanny ability to get along with a horse is a great way for other folk to excuse themselves for their own ignorance and behaviour. The Dorrance boys shared a passion for horses, animals, and stockmanship. They never intended to cause any harm to the animals under their charge and did what they could to try to understand their animals and work with them, in accordance with their natural tendencies and inclinations.
Mindfulness is a real thing, we all bumble through life chasing dollars, acquiring stuff, and trying to get ourselves noticed as unique, clever, smart, witty, intellectual or whatever. Along the path we often abandon our humanity for our perceived success. People who don’t follow the normalized path to social success are often labelled, rightly or wrongly, to excuse their differential path.
Horses are important to humans, they have been for thousands of years, for work and for pleasure, for war, for transportation and so much more. A hundred years ago they were our main means of land transportation. A hundred years ago we had a better understanding of them, of what they are, how they think and react. A hundred years ago we got around horses a lot more, out of necessity.
Today, everyone is on the clock, we have expectations, sometimes unrealistic. A colt is sent away for thirty days of training and the expectation is that upon his return we will be able to ride over hill and valley and safely negotiate our passage across streams, in the face of predators, dogs, and other animals. Somehow, if we don’t get the desired results, as is human nature, we blame the trainer, the horse, yes, mostly the horse. But we never look at the man in the mirror.
Yet, every time we interact with horses, we are training them, training without training. We are either training them to do what we want them to do, or we are training them to do something else. When you approach your horse do you extend your hand for them to sniff? Seems innocuous enough, we do it with dogs – we are taught to extend the back of our hand, held in a fist, towards a strange dog before we engage with it.
Most folks extend their hand palm up towards a horse’s muzzle, as if offering it something to eat – and in some cases offering it a treat, a carrot, sugar cube of something else enticing. Pretty soon when the horse sees a human coming it will reach forward with its muzzle to check to see if there is a treat, it may even start to frisk the person, after all the last guy kept pulling treats out of his pocket.
The horse is simply following the path of least resistance – think about this in terms of pressure and release, this is a huge release, for doing nothing but checking. The horse figures “I’d better check everyone; I might be missing something”. A lot of folks love that, it is cute, sweet, caring, friendly, whatever. While others see it for what it is, bloody well annoying. If you can’t walk your horse past someone without the horse frisking them, something is not right.
I once watched a woman trying to bridle her horse, every time she would try to pull the crown piece of the bridle over the horse’s head the horse would move its head up and away. Her thoughts were that the horse was in pain, perhaps he had a sore ear. I watched for a moment and said “you just trained him to do that” – she got angry at the suggestion she may have made a mistake.
I asked if I could try, she agreed, no doubt expecting me to look foolish. I raised my hand towards the horse’s ear, he started to move away, instead of stopping taking my hand away, I stayed with him, resting my hand on his neck behind his ear, as he moved his head trying to escape, I just stayed there until he stopped moving and allowed me to rub his ear. In a few minutes he had no problem at all with me touching him and pulling his crownpiece over his ear.
Another woman was leading her horse from the pasture, the horse would stop to take a bite of grass, and she would do nothing. She would allow the horse to eat some grass then ask if it was ready to come along. After getting its jowls full of grass to where it could get no more into its mouth the horse would comply. Sometime later the horse would expect to be allowed to eat, while she figured the horse was far enough along to understand that it should keep moving. She took to trying to pull the horse into compliance, the horse learned to pull back and far more effectively than she could pull.
The answer in each case is to recognize what we, the human, brought to the relationship, for us to think about our expectations and couch them in terms of the way the horse thinks and reacts. If we can just get to where we recognize that horses are not like us and to where we can see them and understand them for what they are , horses, our relationships will improve.