Perception, horses and wizards:

Rethinking some common myths in horsemanship.

It has struck me recently that despite our brains being amazing, they will, at some point, give us deceptive information. There are many articles, TV shows and books dedicated to the various functions of the brain and how perception works (or doesn’t). Let’s just say that from what I’ve learned, the brain is both a miracle, and a con artist. I have forgotten where it comes from (it could be a bumper sticker ~ I don’t remember), but I’ve always appreciated the saying, “Don’t believe everything you think.”

Our brains work in mysterious ways. For all we know about the brain, there is more that we don’t know: we are vast uncharted universes. For instance, I could tell you the names of most of my client’s horses; where they live, their physical traits and endearing characteristics (the same goes for my clients!). What I cannot tell you is where I found the above quote, despite the fact I consider myself an avid reader, and a reasonably intelligent person.

What is happening outside of us gets filtered through our personal experiences, beliefs, opinions and wishes until it fits our personal model. Until it looks like something with which we are comfortable. Until it is either a step or two (or fifty) away from the truth of the situation. We know that if you ask ten people to observe an event, you will get ten differing versions of that event. Anyone in any kind of relationship can attest to the fact that we have sometimes either heard, or said something that is interpreted so far away from what we meant that it causes misunderstandings.

We can certainly say that about horses too.

Before we discuss myths, I’d like to clarify. A myth can be something like a story with fictitious characters, magical happenings and extraordinary events. It can also describe creatures we don’t encounter except in stories. The sense I’d like to chat about it is: an unproven or false collective belief that is used to justify something else. (whether it’s a belief, a value, our sense of being right, etc)

We have all learned about horses from people who have learned from other people, who have learned from people, etc. We have a network of knowledge about horses based not only on our experience with them, but what others have told us to be true and correct. Add to this that our perceptions may be skewed, and I think it’s a perfect opportunity to reconsider what is really happening when something like “My horse is…” comes out of our mouths.

I’d like to share some insights I’ve had over the past several years into the things we say (or have heard said) about our horses. In each case I’ve been struck by the thought that these things may reflect more about human perception than how horses actually operate. (They’re in no particular order, with one not being any more important than the other.)

Myth Number One:

“My horse is anticipating me.”

Humans ascribe far more to horses than horses are physiologically hard-wired to give. The very word “anticipating” implies two elements: the ability to accurately predict the future and the ability to analyze a situation and draw conclusions from it. Both of these functions take place in the neocortex, the part of our brain that we do not have in common with horses. The neocortex analyzes, plans, and plays a part in complex emotions and behaviour inhibition (wanting to do something, then realizing it is not socially or morally appropriate).

With this in mind, step into the horse’s world a bit more and look at things from a different perspective.

All living things–humans and horses included–seek comfort. A barn or paddock; herd mates; the sights, smells, and sounds of familiar surroundings: all of these contribute to a sense of familiarity that brings the horse comfort, or peace of mind. Anyone who has spent time around animals – not just horses – have witnessed them seeking out comfort.

A known task or skill (let’s use sidepassing as an example) will cause the horse less worry for the very reason that it is familiar. When a particular cue is given by the rider, the horse knows to move sideways. Now, if we take that same horse and ask them to start learning a skill with which they aren’t familiar (say, a flying lead change), the anxiety level will naturally rise. Different horses will experience different levels of that rise depending upon how they were taught in the past, what kind of relationship they have with their rider, if they were hurried or rushed or physically forced into learning something, and so forth. If the worry is great enough, we’ve seen many times how a horse will go back to a skill or behaviour for which they are sure of the outcome. Or, sometimes he will rush through what he thinks you want. In either case, the horse is about as far away from “anticipating” something as we are from growing a tail!

Most of the time, horses will behave in one of two ways: from instinct or from a learned response. (There is a also a third way-trust in a relationship they have with a person- but that is a subject for a different time). The instinct is theirs, the learned response comes from their environs, or most of the time, from humans. The next time you are with your horse and you find this phrase running through your head: “My horse is anticipating me,” pause for a moment, step out of a very human thought, and see if you can pinpoint whether he’s trying to tell you something else. The simple act of listening often brings surprising results.

I like to think of it as the Wizard of Oz in reverse: what is behind the curtain is so much bigger, and brighter than what we see outside of the curtain. What is behind the veil of our sensory perceptions holds vast amounts of insight, and if we try just a little bit to part the curtains of our senses, we can often times glean information that would otherwise not have occurred to us had we only paid attention to the puppet show our senses put on for us.

Please check back next month when we’ll discuss Myth Number Two: “My horse is barn sour.”

About the Author

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A lifelong horse woman, learning how to listen to horses.

5 Comments

Or is it that horses are experts at learning patterns, so when we repeat a pattern, the next time we come to the place we changed the gait, they may offer to do that because it was the most recent pattern…and we call that anticipating.

An interesting angle on this comes from AI and robotics studies too- we are very quick to ascribe intelligence ( and more importantly motivations ) to machines when they show a little seemingly-intelligent behaviour, even if that is entirely mechanistic in origin and has nothing like thought behind it. This is in part I think because our brains look for stories and when we see some things that fit together to make up a narrative that makes sense to us, we start assuming that our interpretation is correct.

That ability to jump to conclusions and turn a set of events into a story can be a big problem for our horses in my view – one of the hardest but most important skills to work on is just looking at the evidence and holding off on making any interpretation at all.

Thank you for sharing — very inspiring and open story! Your analogy of a river and the obstacles we put for the smooth flow, rings true with me. I will try and probably forget to release my inside resistance. Thanks again.

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