Talking Horses

A Journey I Hope Never Ends


This month marks a couple of significant milestones for my relationship with this wonderful paper and the local horse community.  It was ten years ago, April 2010, when I wrote my first column for the paper, a feature article about using the power of a more natural approach to horsemanship to rebuild the relationship between a local rider and her horse after a life-threatening bolt and crash.  The story covered a year long journey that went from selling a beautiful horse and never riding again, to competing in and winning some of the most challenging equestrian events for horse and rider.

This month also marks my 100th column for this paper.  That’s a pretty amazing number by anybody’s standard.  Over the years, the column has occasionally been picked up and reprinted in other horse-oriented publications around the country.  I’ve heard from people as far away as New Jersey, Massachusetts, North Carolina, Idaho, Washington and California.  It has given me the opportunity to remind riders of some important techniques and in some cases change the way people interact with their horses, even without ever meeting them in person.  I’ve made some new friends and gained some outstanding students from the reach of Desert Exposure.

My main goal when I started writing the column was to ask people to think a bit differently about their horses, how they relate to them, teach them, care for them and ride them.  The columns could never be long enough to give step by step solutions to particular training or behavioral issues, although the answers to many of these problems were contained in the more general philosophical points I’ve tried to get across. 

As I’ve said many times over the years, I’ve never been involved in any activity where there is so much bad advice being given by unqualified and inexperienced people, friends or “trainers”, or so many beliefs about the nature and behavior of the horse that are so far from the truth.  I’ve tried very hard to keep my columns fact based and filled with advice from the best horsemen, vets, equine scientist and my 20 years of experience working with over 350 horse and rider partnerships.

Perhaps my second goal has been to figure out and put into words the mystery of the horse and why the horse continues to be such an important icon for many cultures around the world, and why the horse remains an important and powerful emotional partner for so many people in a world that has become so unfriendly to the horse.

This has been a bit more challenging.  It’s pretty easy to see the beauty of the horse, and the strength, spirit and athletic ability of this magnificent creature.  This is the image conveyed to us in the movies and advertising, and in all the pictures and stories of the wild horse herds around the world.  It is easy to find examples of how the history of man, good and bad, has pretty much come from the back of a horse.  It’s hard not to tear up or get angry when you read a story of abuse or neglect of any horse, or their fate in the never-ending stream of natural disasters. Or, feel immense joy when you read about the good works of rescues and successful adoption programs.  Whether you own a horse or not, or you’ve never come any closer to a horse than watching “The Black Stallion” or “Seabiscuit”, there’s something about horses and humans that is unique to the relationships we have with any other animals.

Working with horses for so long has convinced me the reason so many people have problems with their horses, why so many people get hurt, or why so many simply don’t understand these animals, is that we want them to be more like us.  We want them to behave.  We want them to be logical.  We want them to instinctively know what they’re supposed to do, even if we aren’t skilled enough to teach them or confuse the heck out of them with all our requests.  We want them to always be in a good mood and be ready to entertain us no matter how they feel.  We want them to accept and live in our world, forgetting their 60 million years of evolution and what their lives would be like if they could choose for themselves.

Maybe this is why it’s so hard to put the magic of the horse into words.  On one hand, we admire and love them for being horses.  On the other, we want them to be more like us.

I recently came across a quote that in many ways, for me at least, is as close as anything I’ve ever read to capturing what makes the horse so special.  The quote comes from Buck Brannaman, an inspirational trainer and one of the best horsemen alive today. His words come at this in a way I’d never thought of, but in the usual Brannaman way, they make complete sense.

“Horses don’t think like us.  Something that’s most unique about the horse, something that I love, is not what he possesses but what he doesn’t possess – and that is greed, spite, hate, jealousy, envy or prejudice.  The horse doesn’t possess any of those things.  If you think about people, the least desirable people to be around usually possess some or all of those things.  And the way God made the horse, he left all that out.”

I’d probably add a few things to his list – they don’t look to get even, they don’t hold a grudge, they don’t have ulterior motives – but he has hit the nail on the head.  What makes horses so special is they aren’t like us. 

Maybe our unique bond with the horse is that we can project any of our emotions, our psychological needs or human interpretations of behavior on our horses, and they simply stand there with their long beautiful faces and seem to understand – even though they don’t.  They’re great listeners even though they have no idea what we’re talking about or why it matters.   There are no human motivations, especially the negative ones, behind anything they do.  They’re just horses, perfect in every sense as horses.

Maybe this is what every horse owner or lover should consider when looking at a horse.  The greatest gift we can give back to them is acceptance – accepting they are not like us, they don’t think like us, they don’t understand us, they don’t see or react to the world as we do, and they’re not motivated by the same things that motivate us – and knowledge – the knowledge that we need to teach, ride, handle and care for them based on what they need as horses, not what we need as humans.  As they’ve shown for thousands of years, they’ll meet us more than halfway.

For as long as I continue with horses, I’ll strive to give my horses, and every other horse I ever meet, the respect they deserve for what they are.  No matter how much I bend their ears about my life, I won’t look at anything they do in human terms and I won’t expect human-like responses for any of my crazy requests or special needs.  They aren’t like us, and that is the absolute best thing they can be for us.