I have been thinking lately about what the foundation to my horsemanship is, or is becoming. What is the core understanding that drives each decision I make with a horse? In the simplest terms, what does everyone need to start thinking about before they begin this type of journey with a horse?
I think it is the understanding that the horse has an experience that is not the same as my experience.
When I first read this sentence, it sounds utterly ridiculous. Of course my horse has an experience that is not my experience. They are ALIVE after all! But when I think about how horses exist in this world, what they are for, how they are treated, and the decisions we have all made at one point or another, I realize that this concept is incredibly profound.
Horses are generally seen in terms that are relative to us. A horse has a good day if we enjoy the ride. A horse is well built if he can perform what we want him to perform. A horse has earned her keep if she has done the job we have given her that day. A horse is brave if he goes past something that we think would scare him. A horse is smart if she accomplishes the task we provide. A horse is stupid or stubborn if he doesn’t want to do what we think is important.
But, maybe that wasn’t their experience at all. Maybe the horse had a bad day because of that ride, you just enjoyed it because they chose to cope. What if a horse has trouble with how he chews his food or has aches and pains we don’t know about, but because he wins ribbons, we say he is well built. Perhaps a horse that is held captive inside fences deserves her dinner whether or not she goes for a ride. Maybe that thing didn’t take much bravery to go past, because it wasn’t very scary at all and he understood what it was, and that’s why he wasn’t afraid. It’s possible that the horse is not particularly smart, and while she can accomplish the task she’s told to do if given very few options, if she were left to figure out how to manage her own decisions, she would struggle. Maybe that horse isn’t stubborn and stupid, but actually very smart, and doesn’t want to do something that makes no sense to him.
Horses have their own lives. They are forced to participate in ours, but they have their own experiences, own ideas, heartbreaks, successes, worries and moments of both sheer brilliance and complete confusion. It seems so simple, but to take the moment and think, I wonder what this horse’s experience is of this moment, can radically change how you might respond. Suddenly, that horse who won’t go isn’t stubborn, but worried, and petting that behavior seems a lot more practical than kicking it. Sometimes noticing that a horse is involved in something else in the world, rather than being haltered, even though they are standing still to be caught, changes how quickly you do it.
The realization that a horse’s experience is not the same as our experience may be the most obvious and life changing realization of our horsemanship journey. I think it is so profound that it cannot help but change every interaction from then on. To separate our experience from that of the horse brings an ability to empathize with their feelings, even if those feelings are inconvenient for our plans and goals.
For me, it changes the start point and the end point. I start by considering the horse, and end wherever that takes me. I have had to let go of a lot of the things I loved about riding a horse that did not locate the horse in the moment, and find new (and greater) appreciation for things that do. I think I find pleasure in smaller things than I used to. I think I laugh more around the horses than I used to. I think my understanding and appreciation for the horse has grown in ways I didn’t expect, and I have come to realize how sophisticated and funny and incredible these animals really are. I thought I already knew all of that, but I didn’t. I’m excited to share many more experiences with many more horses, and I’m sure my love for them will only continue to grow.