How we think determines our success or failure with horses. Horses, will clearly let us know what they think of us. What they think of their work, stable companions, environment, feed and so on. Equine behaviour offers us information, it lets us know when we are getting something right or something wrong. However, very often we do not want to know what our horses are thinking or how they are feeling especially when it does not suit us. It is easier just to label the horse as having a problem than ask ourselves why.
Our thought processes determine our success or failure with our horses and the success or failure of our relationship with them. Sometimes we need to change, or modify our thinking, become more responsible and aware of our actions and thoughts for the way forward to become clear and logical.
Observation, perception, motivation, awareness and our understanding of these areas within our own behaviour help greatly when training/working with another species.
One way of determining if you have an understanding of other minds (a theory of mind) is by observing your ability to reason about the motivation of others. This includes horses. Understanding and working with motivation is one of the essential elements of success when interacting, training and riding horses.
Our perceptions of what we see are just as important, as they determine the decisions we make. Our perceptions are guided by the context in which they are received. Often the context in which information is received not only affects WHAT we learn but can affect HOW we learn and in turn forms our personal set of principles – something Ayn Rand picks up on in her collection of essays titled Philosophy Who Needs It.
“You have no choice about the necessity to integrate your observations, your experiences, your knowledge into abstract ideas, i.e. into principles. Your only choice is whether these principles are true or false, whether they represent your conscious, rational convictions – or a grab-bag of notions snatched at random, whose sources, validity, context and consequences you do not know, notions which, more often than not, you would drop like a hot potato if you knew”
When observing equine behaviour, it is easy to see what we ‘want’ to see as opposed to what is really happening. Observation alone does not necessarily teach us much because we tend to focus on the totality of the horse rather than the many elements that go to make up the animal and it’s individual characteristics and behaviour.
Observation alone means we remain ‘outside’ of what we are seeing. We are engaged with watching the horse, which means we are not aware of ourselves at the same time. Observation, by itself, usually remains unconscious. By turning pure observation to consciousness, we start the process of awareness. When we learn to combine awareness with conscious observation we can start to avoid error in interpretation. When we can stop placing our interpretations on what we are seeing and activate our sight, in full consciousness. Then we can start to learn in detail.
Sanjida O’Connell in her book Mindreading says “We do not just watch people as if we’re anthropologists from Mars, we speak to them and they tell us what they’re thinking. But even in conversation, we do not always say what we mean, or even mean what we say, and most people, again unconsciously, look at the underlying meaning rather than the words themselves.”
She offers an example given by Steven Pinker in his book The Language of Instinct reads:
Woman: I am leaving you
Man: Who is he?
We know immediately whom the ‘he’ stands for, but we only know this because we guess what is going on based on our own assumptions – not because it is a fact.
When training, riding or working with a horse we tend to be responding to our map of reality, not reality itself. What our mind stores is not experience but our own individual translation, symbol, or representation of that experience. Everything we do or say on behalf of horses relates to this. To work with equine behaviour we need to become fully conscious of our interpretations of information, of ourselves, our behaviour, our understanding and our motivations.
A helpful exercise is to watch DVD’s of trainers and riders working with horses and turn the volume off so you are not influenced by what you are being told. Remove your preconceived ideas and focus on the detail not the whole picture. By practising conscious observation you should begin to hone your skills at gathering more information with the volume off rather than on. This exercise will begin to fine tune your observation and reasoning skills.
Mark Berkoff makes a very important point in his book Minding Animals. “ If we are to draw reliable inferences from our work, we must be sure that we are not influencing the animals to the point that we are unable to answer the very questions we are interested in.”
To truly understand equine behaviour and motivation, we need to look at ourselves. We need to take responsibility for our own behaviour and expectations. We have to stop expecting answers and solutions without any effort. We have to stop wanting the ‘end result’ with out the ability or understanding of how it is achieved.
We need to start thinking how, why and what we can do to help horses understand and tolerate their humanised world. We need to learn how to improve our own abilities. It is up to us to become responsible and work in the best interest of the horse. When we start understanding the equine brain by using ours, then we are working from the seat of intellect, sensation and intelligence.
“The horse could and did give man a total education. He had to be tamed and befriended and could not be fooled by honeyed words. Thus, only those who had the humility to blame themselves and never their mount could benefit from the education a horse could offer.” – Charles De Kunffy.
By Emma Kurrels
© 2009 Emma Kurrels Voices for Horses
First published May 2002 updated 2009