The most common and yet most difficult instinctive reaction that people must overcome is fear. In my opinion, fear is without a doubt the biggest obstacle with human/horse relationships. For example: when fear sets in for a rider, the rider will usually stiffen and squeeze with their legs, their heels come up which then tilts them forward, they stiffen their torso which causes the horse to hollow their back and they clamp their elbows down. To add to all the mixed messages of squeezing, stiffing and leaning forward they are giving the horse, they pull on the horses’ mouth. This is an accident in progress.
The good news, we have the ability to change our reactions, to condition and train ourselves to act and react in a way that the horse can understand. In fearful situations, humans can reason, horses cannot. A story from my teenage days can illustrate my point. I was 15 years old and working for a guy showing draft horses at the Ohio State Fair. One evening my buddies and I walking down the noisy midway, with all the carnival type sideshows that are too politically incorrect for today’s society, when we came upon a sideshow called Zambora. This sideshow was about a woman who would turn into a gorilla “before our very eyes.” Outside this tent, there was a sign that said “Danger Exit.” Thinking that we were tough farm boys, afraid of nothing, we paid our money and went into the tent. The announcer began to tell the loud and elaborate story about this woman that would turn into a ferocious gorilla after they gave her a shot of a mysterious medicine. This woman was sitting calmly in a cage. They gave her the shot, and after a minute or two of the announcer’s voice building the excitement, the lights started flashing lights and then, low and behold, the woman in the cage was now a really angry gorilla. As the announcer was reassuring us that the cage was secure, the door drops open and the ferocious gorilla jumps out. Next thing I knew, I was outside the tent. I was not sure how I got there, but I looked back and realized I had been tricked.
What’s the point of the story? I reacted with fear, just as a horse would. In the face of sudden perceived danger, I reacted as a prey animal and ran, just as a horse would. However, reason set in and I quickly understood I was not in danger and had been duped, where as a horse would still be running until they were certain they were out of dangers’ reach. The difference between me and a horse is that I could reason and change by reaction.
In working with horses, we have to understand our instincts before we can appreciate the horse’s instincts and reactions. The good news is that we can retrain ourselves and gain knowledge and skills which will help us control our reactions produced by our instincts. When riding or working with our horse, if we can control our fears and develop confidence that we are not going to be harmed in stressful or questionable situations, we become the leader that the horse looks for in us.
As with all horsemanship skills, self awareness is the key to understanding how we can achieve the best results with our partnership with our horse. In future articles we will talk about specific actions you can consider when handling your horse