No More Heroes Any More

In the header photo I’m about 23 years old and I’m practicing a well known natural horsemanship method with my mare Penny who was about 4 or 5 years old at the time.

When I was in my early twenties I was very keen to learn more and improve my horsemanship, OK nothing much has changed in my basic motivation to learn! But back at that time, my eyes newly opened to more than one way of doing things, something which started in my late teens upon seeing my first major natural horsemanship demonstration, and primed by various articles in the equestrian press,  I had a few horsemanship heroes. By the time of my mid-twenties those gurus halos quickly tarnished and fell at awkward angles. There was a reason for this. I found my gurus and they became heroes because I was hungry to strike out on my own and learn and develop as much as I could. Seeking new ideas led me to find a variety of people with silver tongues ( or their marketing people had silvery tongues too!).  I was wowed by those who brought something new and dynamic to my world. However, since it was my desire to strike out and learn new things, I continued to learn even more things, and I learned things about my heroes’ actions that I didn’t like. Suddenly there were no heroes anymore.

This was not a dark place for me though, to be without heroes. Being still open to and actively seeking greater and deeper understanding of my subject, the horse and his relationship with us, I found something new and constructive to replace them. Peers. I went on to study animal behaviour and the human-animal relationship at the University of Southampton, and I joined a well established professional membership organisation, the Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors, first as a student member, then as a newly practicing provisional member. People I held in high esteem, such Gwen Bailey, the first animal behaviourist to be employed by a UK animal welfare charity, the Blue Cross, which I also worked for as a groom at the time of the photo above, were people who I could interact with and learn from. Rather than make untouchable, unreachable heroes out of them, their candid discussions on the online members’ forum quickly had me realising they were people like me, without the showman’s ego and focused on learning and helping, and self development. I found the same amongst my fellow students in Southampton, and in many other wonderful people involved in the science and application of equine (and other animal) behaviour since.

So what about my fallen heroes? Were they also not human and with some worth? Yes, in hindsight especially, since they are of course human beings too, and I have learned many useful lessons from them, and gained skills and understandings that I would not have otherwise. I now integrate those lessons with my deeper understanding of horses and people, to better effect than I ever had previously. I can combine and recombine techniques to suit an expanding variety of horses and their people, teaching people how to read and interact with their horses better, like some kind of equine interpreter come equestrian coach, with the benefits of the LIMA approach: Least Invasive, Minimally Aversive; in combination with knowing where to be, when to be and why to be better than I ever knew and understood before.

Winners and Losers

“Sing when you’re winning.”

“I get knocked down, but I get up again, ain’t nobody gonna keep me down.”

“The winner takes it all, the loser standing small”

“How come I feel like I win when I lose?”

Strictly speaking, the “winner and loser” effect is applied by the scientists who study natural behaviour to the effects of winning and losing in a fight to the tendency to engage in future fights. In nature these would usually be over resources that are scarce. Winners grow in confidence and losers shrink and step away from further threats.

I also think there’s a broader generalisation we can apply to some aspects of the horse-human interaction. Do you see horses that are confident and act like winners with their people, and others that look kind of hang dog, like they are losers? Meekly compliant in response to the smallest of threats and directions.

Recall the recent Italian research on heart coupling between a human and a horse. In this study, when the horse had choice his heart rate variability (variances in time between each heart beat) was similar to the human he was interacting with, but not when the human forced the interaction by doing something as seemingly benign as tying the horse up and grooming him!

So where does this tie in with my generalisations about the winner and loser effect? How does a horse get to feel like a winner with us? When he gets choice in what he does, when he finds that his behaviour works (or in other words, his behaviour finds relief from anything aversive that might be happening, or it finds some pleasant and rewarding outcome). In essence, the human reada the horse well, times cues carefulky, and makes it possible for the horse to be effective.

When does he feel like a loser? When he has no choice and when his preferred behaviour doesn’t work and he has to suppress his own motivations to comply with (often frequent) instructions (which are thinly veiled threats) from his human. The human makes more demands, is less likely to be aware and responsive to the horse’s emotional state, and doesn’t always enable the horse to be effective.

This reminds me of the concept of freedom and control is something that fascinates researcher and rider, Lynda Birke. That we are often drawn to horses because of their representation of freedom, but to share that experience of freedom, we are usually driven to control them. We may be want a horse who looks like a winner, but may turn them into a loser, deliberately or accidentally. Continue reading Winners and Losers

Life Lessons

Riding on the beach below, my powerful little sports horse held between my draw rein and my spur fixed over my Nike Air trainers and topped off with my fashionable chaps. It was the mid-Nineties and I was called out by a dog walker on my appallingly bad horsemanship, and I deserved it. I was an anxious and frustrated teen at times, and I felt rubbish and humiliated by the experience. Looking back at the same location roughly 20 years on and things are rosier. Just as I was a keen horse geek in the ’90s, I’m still one now, what motivates me most is to learn more about horses, and how to do best by them. When I know better I do better.

More about the draw rein incident. I didn’t actually own draw reins, or ride with them often. I did see other people do it, and I thought their horses looked good. I tried it myself, looping up my lunge line and fashioning it into a draw rein. I had my horse in front of my leg and his core engaged and his head in an appealing (to me) position. But the dog walker saw a different picture. He could see the torment written on my horse’s face that I couldn’t from my position in the saddle. Him being middle aged and middle class suburban Dalgety Bay type (Dalgety Bay being my suburban predominantly middle class home town) and I some obnoxious horse molesting teen, he had no trouble at all telling me off. I grunted teenage stuff and carried on until he left, then stopped riding like a ****.

I started to look at what were more acceptable ways of riding and interacting with horses. Which is not to say there haven’t been more blunders, me human, you horse and all that. But I’ve had some pretty good practice at humility as I’ve bettered myself for horses. And it’s ok to cock up as long as we learn better.