Anthropomorphism, or attributing human emotions to animals, is common in the horse world. Think about how often we give our horses a backstory and paint their actions with colorful imagery. This is fun, of course it is! We spend so much time with these creatures that it only makes sense that their daily actions be as meaningful as ours.
We share such an incredible bond with these animals, but don’t forget that horses don’t think like humans — they think like horses. When we use these descriptors, we're often losing sight of the true motivations behind our horse's actions. What we might interpret as enthusiastic behavior (“My horse loves cross country! I can hardly get him to slow down to the jumps!”) can actually be anxious behavior (“My horse rushes at the fences because he is nervous.”).
According to horse behavior expert Tik Maynard, one easy fix is to remove the word “like” from your vocabulary. You want to take away the idea that your horse likes or dislikes certain behaviors. Instead, try to simply describe the behavior objectively. Using this objective terminology helps take emotion out of the equation so you can approach training your horse scientifically.
Most horses behave because of an emotional reaction or a learned habit. If someone who is claustrophobic gets stuck in an elevator, we wouldn’t say that person likes to panic, we would say that person is afraid and panicking. Let’s challenge ourselves to give our horses the same courtesy.
Instead of saying, “My horse likes to push into my space.” Try, “My horse pushes into my space.”
Instead of saying, “My horse is jealous when I pet other horses.” Try, “My horse paws the concrete when he can see me feeding his neighbor a carrot.”
Instead of saying, “My horse likes to lean on the bit.” Try, “My horse leans on the bit because he is off balance.”
Often when we use these descriptors with our horses, it subtly colors the lens through which we view their behaviors. For example, when you say, “my horse likes to run out at fences,” then often the rider has an emotional response and may feel the need to put the horse in his place. Instead, saying, “My horse runs out at fences,” is a more approachable statement that presents itself as a training opportunity.
This isn’t to say they can’t have a personality. Your horse can still like carrots and dislike apples, but when you are describing their work, keep it straightforward.
To learn more from Tik, check out his must-watch Masterclass courses here, where you'll learn about analyzing and addressing common training problems for sport horses.
Feature photo by Leslie Threlkeld.