I read a lot about what horses do and don’t think, what they can and can’t feel. While I realize the dangers of attributing human
emotions to animals (especially putting our hunter thoughts on a prey animal), I believe we can do equal disservice by denying that they may have a much broader and deeper emotional range. I read many a very well intended piece denying that horses can ever have a “bad” thought, like deceit, greed, etc. My experience tells me that horses can be less than pure of thought or action … but let me relate what recently happened with Tally, and you decide.
I am currently on the layup list – a bit of a switch, after all three of the adult horses have spent some part of the last two years being the patients. I hope that my layup will be brief … or, maybe it’s more accurate to say that I hope I do minimal damage when I get impatient enough to resume normal activity. Anyway, working horses was out of the question last night, but I decided they could have some playtime in the arena.
On this night, Tally seemed in a bit of a snit. The boys had been given snacks when we took her out, just to keep peace among the
masses – so maybe she was miffed about that. Or maybe the recent firework activity has her feeling edgy. Whatever the cause, she seemed a bit ill tempered. She was little interested in running, so I thought that a game of “follow the leader” would be a fun activity. I should explain my version of “follow the leader” – unlike most “join up” activities (or whatever Natural Horsemanship term is currently in vogue), I do not do anything active to get my horse to follow. I use a method adopted from Angelo Telatin (and decades of my own horse experience), and it is a completely voluntary activity.
Here’s how it goes – we’re both in the same area, with the horse free to engage or ignore. If they ignore me, I do nothing. If they engage, then they get occasional treats for following me around (rewards, not lures). Most horses, being social, find it more interesting to engage than not. If they really like you (as mine usually do), then you almost can’t get rid of them.
Tally obligingly followed me round for a bit, got some treats – then trotted back to the gate and stared back toward the barn. After a bit, she came back over, followed a bit more … then back to the gate. I moved a little further into the arena and waited for her to come back. When she did, it was at a full run! Unperturbed, because she’s done this before, I simply held my hand up in a gesture that usually means “Whoa!”. Well, she stopped about fifteen feet away, spun … and let both barrels fly in my direction! She then bolted back to the gate. That was different! She’d pulled her punches, so no harm was meant … but it seemed a rather clear message.
Now, I had a choice – give up and take her in, or wait and see if she could be more polite. Not a “parent” prone to giving in to
tantrums, I calmly waited. It didn’t take long. After watching her gaze toward the barn for a bit, I called to her. She spun around, bolting full speed straight at me … again I raised my hand … and again she spun, fired both barrels and bolted back to the gate. Yep, I was pretty certain I understood the message!
This little scene played out two more times. In between, she was not tearing around or frantic – but I could read the frustration in her. This human just was not complying with her wishes! By now I was rather amused … call it sadistic “parenting”, but I knew she’d work it out. Sure enough, I could tell the exact moment that she gave up on getting her way. Still gazing intently toward the barnyard, she suddenly heaved a big sigh, turned calmly and plodded across the arena to where I was standing. Her eye was soft now, with just a touch of what I would call resignation to her expression.
Tally got her reward for coming up quietly, then we turned toward the gate. She walked calmly, but a bit more rapidly than usual. Each time she got too far ahead, I’d stop. We’ve played this game enough that she knew how to respond – she’d stop then back up until her shoulder was again next to mine. We had to repeat this three times before we reached the gate. By the time we did, the resignation was gone, and she was back in the spirit of the game. Her final reward was a good long session of “mowing” the barnyard.
Now, you can make your own decision as to her mindset. Call it high spirits. Call it the reaction of a prey animal to a predator (a
favorite Natural Horsemanship topic). Me, I just call it a temper tantrum. I’ve read that horses have no anger, temper … or any negative emotions at all. Sorry, but I believe that any social animal will have the “bad” emotions as well as the “good” … it just makes
sense. Even prey animals have likes, dislikes and other opinions. In the end, it’s not whether or not you believe in these emotions that matters, but how you deal with them if they do occur.
Perhaps there would have been no harm in giving in and saving her the frustration she went through – but, if we’re honest, we have to admit that life (for horse or human) is filled with moments of frustration. The biggest favor we can do for our horses (and our kids) is to teach them to deal with those moments. I knew Tally would eventually find the right answer, because we’d played the game often enough. If I’d had any doubt, I would have simplified the rules and given her more hints.
Part of “growing up” is learning that you can’t get your own way … and part of being a “parent” (real or virtual) is surviving that moment that your child says “I hate you!” when they don’t get their way. I think I had that moment last night!
Be good to your horses!