It is a common misconception among many new to horses, and sadly some with a lifetime’s experience, that horses “plan,” “scheme,” and “plot” to frustrate and embarrass us, and always at the worst of times. Of course, this belief is based on the presumption that they think like humans, and so suffer the same faults of personality. But as influential trainer and coach Denny Emerson points out in his fabulous book HOW GOOD RIDERS GET GOOD, more often than not, the roots of our problems in the saddle lead back to us, not to our horses:
“My horse won’t do what I want!”
How often have you heard this statement? But now the train of logical thinking starts to go off the track. It is true that the rider’s horse isn’t doing what she wants him to do. That much is a fact. But unless the rider is a true, honest-to-God, educated horseman, the conclusions stemming from the initial statement will be untrue—here’s how the typical anthropomorphic “logic” usually works in real life:
“My horse is misbehaving.”
“My horse is being bad.”
“I, therefore, have permission to punish him.”
In contrast, here are some possible correct conclusions, stemming from the premise, “My horse won’t do what I want”:
“I must not be explaining what I want correctly.”
“He must not have a base of work thorough enough to enable him, either mentally, physically, or emotionally, to perform the action that I want him to perform.”
“My seat (hands, balance, whatever) is not steady and ‘feeling’ enough to convey the proper stimuli to induce him to perform the action that I desire.”
“In making this request of my horse, I am creating athletically induced pain, either from asking him to lift more than he has been prepared to lift, or stretch more than he has been prepared to stretch. I need to go back to an easier level, build a proper foundation, then try again.”
These are the right kinds of conclusions that are drawn by true trainers and real horsemen with correct knowledge of how horses experience and respond to stimuli. The wrong conclusions, that the horse is “misbehaving” and “being bad,” stem from the rider’s misinformed perception that the horse has a malign “motive.” The rider’s false premise is that the horse understands and is capable of doing what she wants, but simply chooses not to out of stubbornness or for other contrary reasons.
So the rider starts to get frustrated and angry. The horse gets more confused and upset. The rider gets even more frustrated and angry, and the horse gets even more confused and upset … The downward spiral has begun. It has nowhere to go but down, and it can lead to some real brutality on the part of the rider.
I don’t know any rider who hasn’t been guilty of this, sometime, somewhere. The good riders and good horsemen usually catch themselves before it gets out of hand. The really bad riders almost never do. That’s why so many horses live their life in a world of fear, pain, and conflict—because their riders are angry people and terrible horsemen. This is the single worst part of the entire saga of man’s relationship with the horse. Robert Frost wrote, “God mocked the lofty land with little men.” We can modify this line to, “God mocked the lofty species with little men.”
Training derived from genuine knowledge and true thinking, not false anthropomorphic thinking, is one of the most important choices you have to make if you ever expect to be a quality horseperson.
The animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours, they move finished and complete, gifted with extension of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren; they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendor and travail of the earth. —Henry Beston, The Outermost House, 1928
HOW GOOD RIDERS GET GOOD by Denny Emerson is available from the TSB online bookstore, where shipping in the US is FREE.
Trafalgar Square Books, the leading publisher of horse books and DVDs, is a small, privately owned company based on a farm in rural Vermont.