What is a horse to you?

What is a horse to you?

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In some parts of the world, like Romania for instance, this would be a silly question. Over there in Eastern Romania you own a horse so it can work. And that is it.

What is a horse to you? Why do you own a horse?

Almost no one keeps a horse for work purposes nowadays and we use a car or other means of transportation to get from A to B.

I asked this question a while ago in a Facebook Group containing many caring horse owners. There were a lot of ‘nice’ answers: Some people had fallen in love with a certain horse, others said they they just couldn’t live without a horse, and some said that their horse helped them with self-reflection. But when we are being really honest, we have a horse to meet our own needs, which is in essence, just being selfish.

Mark Rashid mentions in one of his books that most horses in our world are “pets, tools or show-objects”. So there must be other, perhaps better reasons for us to have a horse, otherwise we wouldn’t own one.

“The horse fills a void for me” is what one lady said in answer to my question. But does her horse want to just fill a void?

Many people believe you own a horse to go riding and then after that comes riding in competitions…

How about using your horse as a ‘fitness equipment’ so you can show off how elegant or accomplished you are? And it has the added benefit of being outside in the fresh air rather than being stuck in a smelly gym!

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People often talk about sport being the means of selecting the best horses for breeding, so that wonderful breeds such as the English Thoroughbred can be made even more perfect for racing. Or look at the development of the modern Warmblood in recent years.

However, we are still talking about an animal with a soul and personality, so to simply ignore the horse as an individual in the pursuit of the higher purpose of breeding is in my opinion dangerous.

Many people are astonished when horse owners mention that they don’t ride their horse, even when the horse is not young or old, or has health issues. There is a growing number of people who just want to “be with horses”. In Germany that is also the actual name of a form of horsemanship.

Sometimes horses are used as mirrors to help the owners learn about themselves. In other words, using their horse as a therapist. Or as a replacement for their family or friends. Do you think horses think that is a good role for them to play? Do horses really want to hear about all the bad things their owners experience just because they’re good listeners??

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Wouldn’t it be kinder to the horse if we get whatever help we need elsewhere and then we can come to our horse in a balanced state of mind, be the best person we can be in the moment, and above all be a good friend to our horse?

Many people have a horse because they feel better with one than without one. A horse gives them “something to do”, someone to talk to, or something they can care for and pamper. All of these amount to the same thing though: They are to satisfy their own personal needs not those of the horse.

What sort of attitude towards our ‘noble companion’ (as Wendy William calls the horse) results from all this though?

A working horse is often a colleague, a item of value that needs to be protected and preserved. He has a clearly defined job to which he is (hopefully) mentally and physically suited.

Horses used for leisure purposes have many roles and expectations. They have to behave in a certain way, move in a certain way and generally adapt to our expectations.

“23 hours a day you can do what you want and so for one hour you will do what I want!” is what I heard a young lady training a reining horse say a while ago so as to impress those gathered round her. The horse received this lecture when he forlornly shied away from having to do his work. The 23 hours of ‘freedom’ he was supposed to enjoy were of course spent in a small stall and without much contact with other horses.

Maybe some sports and activities are not what the horse wants to do anyway? Oh, that doesn’t matter. The horse has after all been bred for that purpose and therefore he has to do it whether he wants to or not – end of discussion. Clearly, the attitude is that the horse simply has to let himself be manipulated and molded so as to match our dreams and expectations – like a piece of clay.

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Which is amazing since what we are talking about is leisure time, not work. A dressage horse has to perform the same lessons time and time again in a really small indoor arena because, well, taking him outside could be dangerous! Similarly, a show jumper has to leap over colored poles – all for the sake of the human.

I could continue but you get the picture. Rarely do you hear that time spent with a horse is about the fun for both human and horse. Shouldn’t fun be what leisure time is all about? And for the horse as well?

And to what extent is our attitude towards horses based on the the projections of others?

Let’s look at an example: A young horse is a bit nervous about something he is being asked to do. Now, if the rider has the attitude that the horse is friendly, cooperative and intelligent, she might interpret his behavior as, “Oh, he’s understandably a bit anxious about this, so let’s just slow down, go back a few steps, take it from there and then it’ll be fine.”

However, if the rider believes the young horse is lazy and obstinate, then she could read the same behavior as: “He’s just being a coward / deliberately difficult. I’d better get on top of this and assert myself otherwise he’s always going to take advantage of me.”

In this second interpretation, what we see is the whole dominance theory kindly brought to us by the ‘Natural Horsemanship’ movement.

How does the horse experience these different approaches? You’d better believe he is fully aware whether he is being asked in a relaxed and kind manner or he is being treated like a disappointed drill instructor would treat a hopeless student. To the human though, it’s the same, she gets the result she wants. Those with eyes see the truth and those without don’t.

However, when the horse continues to be subordinated and pressured like that, how long will it be before he just gives up and gives in to learned helplessness? Is that something we want to bring about when spending time with our equine friend? That he acts mechanically out of learned helplessness and his only relief is when the human finally finishes and leaves?

Here’s one more example for you. Imagine a clinic situation where an old horse is really giving his best because he realizes that it means a lot to his owner. She thinks, “I am so grateful the old boy has given so much – and for me! Do you know what? I’m going to forget about the last lesson in the clinic and leave it at that, he deserves a rest.”

I don’t have to imagine that because I can remember it, that old boy was my old thoroughbred. After that clinic he wasn’t in shape to be ridden any more and I didn’t ride him. Yet that didn’t stop us having two more wonderful years together doing lots of fun stuff on the ground. Happy memories.

Our whole attitude to our horse determines what we do and how we do it, and this in turn determines the reaction, happiness and well-being of our horses. This is something we all really need to reflect on.

Thank you for reading and I throw the question over to you… How do you think we can change attitudes to horses and help others to ‘see’? Please write and tell me in the Comments below and I look forward to reading your suggestions.

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About the author

Chris Wolf

Chris lives near Niederrhein in Germany and is a horse friend rather than a horse professional and among her other equine activities supports a organization which helps horses in Romania. She has her own blog in both English and German at http://horsesandthoughts.weebly.com

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