To start, one of the easy ways to tell if a mammal is predator or prey is eye position. Predators, like us humans, have our eyes close together, aiding our depth perception and ability to see in 3D. While prey mammals tend to have wide-set eyes with a nearly 360 degree range of vision. They have side-vision on both flanks to see predators. In over-simplified terms, humans scrutinize a small area but horses literally see the big picture. We’re that way about more than just our visual senses.
Meaning a rider might say out loud that she has a problem with a canter depart. Or getting bend. Or head tossing. Anyway, as your horse will tell you, saying it out loud is about all it takes to get a fleeting moment-in-time to form up into a totally aggravating thorny little rock that’s impossible to ignore.
Humans like to shine a spotlight on such a rock and then go at it with a magnifying glass and tweezers. We fuss and poke at it. We repeat the poking behavior again and again, as if doing the same thing will magically get a different result. Instead we prove our wrongness again and again.
Horses, on the other hand, don’t keep secrets well. And they have just one way to communicate with us, and that is with their behavior. So sometimes an honest horse behaves badly and we might try to take control and correct him, when all he wanted us to know was that his back hurt. Or that he was tired. They act out their discomfort in a version of equine charades, trying to get us to listen and we tell them to shut up and keep working. Sigh.
It’s so rare that I see a horse willfully disobey. Usually something is hurting them. It could look like simple confusion about the cue but we are so rat-on-a-wheel focused on getting the right answer that we hurry the horse and interrupt him right about the time he was just ready to answer, and then do that a few more times, until the horse is totally out of balance–anticipating and resisting at the same time. Horses really struggle when cues contradict each other. Especially if that something still hurts.
But by now you have driven your horse nuts, at least temporarily, because you keep poking at your little thorny rock instead of hearing what he said in the first place.
Reminder: If your horse is laid back, calm and never complains about anything, listen extra-carefully. It isn’t that nothing bothers him; he’s just as sensitive as any other horse but when other horses come apart, he shuts down. Don’t mistake his silence for agreement.
One of the few things we humans have in common with horses is fluid communication. We have a hundred meanings for the same vague word, just like horses have a hundred meanings for an ear movement. To understand horses, we need to understand that individual horse’s entire body language. It’s a lot to take in, and then it can change in a heartbeat. Any five people might come away with a different, and not entirely wrong, message. Sound complicated? It is, and since we have that razor-sharp mind for turning possible symptoms into huge training issues, half-halt your brain to listen with a wide open, creative intellect. Let your heart have a listen as well.
Too often we humans micro-manage a small situation with fear or anxiety or an unrelenting need for perfection. Any horse will get the “I can’t please her no matter how I try” feeling and the conversation stops once we make the horse wrong. Then he gives up connection and we are left staring at our small thorny rock.
My advice is to get a horse-sized view of the situation.
First, do no harm–is he sound? Don’t just nod, look at the big picture and really check. How are his teeth? They impact his TMJ, and pain in the poll is enough to ruin his balance and that ruins everything else. He can have a “tooth lameness” that destroys his canter. No kidding.
Is he muscle or joint sore? It’s another huge question with no quick answer. It would be easier to ignore it, tighten the girth, and push him on. But that might be how you got in this fight in the first place.
Then take a wider environmental view. Is a weather front coming? Have there been changes in the barn? Could he be missing someone or up all night partying with a new friend? Is he uncomfortable because his stomach is empty enough that painful acid is splashing? It is isn’t immediately obvious, give him a break.
Always know his life is much bigger than the moments you’re in the saddle.
A wise vet told me once that diagnosing lameness, (or anything else for that matter,) is like pulling skin off of an onion. There is always another layer just underneath. That’s why it feels like fixing one thing makes another thing come apart. That’s just horses. We’d do well to get used to it because the wider and more inclusive view we take of every aspect of their lives, the better partner we become.
Most of all, remember this: Horses are honest. There is no reason to think he is trying to deceive you and its Neanderthal thinking to insist you have to win every fight. Listen and give him the benefit of the doubt. Earn his trust–by trusting him first.
And then take a walk together and breathe. More problems are solved at the walk that anyone–but a horse–would ever guess.
Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.