Tuesday, May 12, 2009

My Horse Doesn’t Love Me

My horse knickers when she hears me coming. She comes to the fence to greet me and stands quietly while I scratch her on the forehead or kiss her on the nose. She always lets me catch her. She respects my space. She leads and bathes and clips and loads and does it all without any fuss. She will do simple tricks and take treats very carefully from my hand. She seems to enjoy being in my presence, and when I ride her, she always gives me a try, no matter what I ask her to do.

I certainly love her. But does she love me? I don’t think so, at least not in the human sense of the word.

Human love takes many forms: romantic love, parental love, divine love, love of country, love of job, love of food, love of hobbies, love of animals, etc. Each is a complex mental construct consisting of sense memories and abstract thoughts. It is a product of the human brain.

We can certainly correlate certain human “mind states” to equine “mind states.” For instance, fear. When a horse acts fearful, we think we know how that feels because we know how we feel when our safety is threatened. We can thus empathize with the horse and that is useful in giving the horse what it needs from moment to moment.

But love is different. We expect beings that love us to behave in a certain way, to protect us, even place their welfare above our own. A horse just can’t do that. It’s hardwired to always make its own safety number one. That is part of its essential nature.

I can hear the screams already. “No! It’s not true! My horse loves me!” You can believe that if you want. We can even redefine the meaning of the word “love” if that makes you happy, although that is a dangerous thing to start doing. It doesn’t change the reality: a horse is a horse, not a human.

The tendency to anthropomorphize is strong with all of us and it is often harmless. Those of us who teach horsemanship sometimes deliberately do it to make a point. When a horse is not respecting its owner, Clinton Anderson says, “He’s flicking cigarette butts at you!” These little excursions into fantasy can be helpful as teaching tools, but far too often, horse owners live in that fantasy and get hurt because they think their horses will be motivated by love and not primal instinct when they become frightened.

Horses are perfect just as they are. They don’t need to have human emotions or feelings or “mind states” to add joy to our lives. It is part of the journey to recognize the true nature of the horse in all its glory and uniqueness, and celebrate it for what it is.

Food for thought, my friends.R


John said...

We said, my friend. So many times we get caught up in our own need to have our love for them returned. They just don't see it as a part of the relationship.

Barbara said...

this has more to do with a definition of love than a real statement of pro or con. Look at how some people behave who profess to love their partner. I have seen horses who really love each other who will stand together with their heads over each other's arthritic backs, nickering every so often andcompletely blissful. I have also seen them grieve refusing to eat, staring into space and when I take them out whinnying plaintively for their buddy. It takes lots of treats and extra care to get them through this. WHen I lost an old gelding who was the patriarch of my herd, all of them knowing him their entire lives. They lined either side of the grave, some of them almost screaming in distress and it gave me chills, they were like an honor guard. One spooky gelding walked quietly behind the tractor when we brought him out, as if not snorting or running like he usually did was his tribute. It was very strange and reassuring to me that they understood he was gone. When I lost an almost forty year old mare last week, I found her companion being comforted by a two year old filly who stood next to her, touching her and laying her head across the old mare's back. A comforting hug to an old lady in distress.

American Horse said...

As a trainer and a horseman I have often thought about the way different horses interact with me. I have horses that look as if they are actually glad to see me coming, I have horses that head for the other end of the ranch unless I have a bucket of C.O.B. Why? Horses are all different. Some actually enjoy the company of people, some just tolerate us and others downright don't want anything to do with people. The one common factor is that if I didn't show up at all ever again none of them would ever think about me again, not even that doe-eyed gray that is in my back pocket from the minute I come into sight. So, that said... Some horses love to see you coming, most don't and all of them never think of you till you show up. Little Sister... that ain't love.

cowman said...

Thanks for your detailed observations. I just wish the menfolk could be a little more enlightning. Each in his turn (Rick Included) wrote a few facts
that we all know to be true, (I suppose to give credability) to the disparging comments that were to follow without any proof or even weak examples. To make it simple boys: If you have examples of how a person feeling that he has a two sided love relationship with a horse compromises anything including safety please let me know.

cowman said...

I recently heard about a survey that was conducted on 500 couples concerning their definition of love. Each person was privately asked what made them feel loved.
All 500 men voted that it was to feel respected.
All 500 women voted that it was to feel served.

So Rick the vote is in, if your a man and your horse shows you respect, you should feel loved.

If your horse does what you ask without complaint, your femine side should feel loved.

So Rick I don't know what else to tell you with two out of two cases saying you are loved except that you must be waiting for that kiss on the nose to be returned.

Good Luck on that one.

Barbara said...

Another observatio was I sent a 2 year old filly to a trainer so I could have him assess her reining potential and was amazed to see her in a stall when I always kept her pit and he had paddocks and pens. I asked him why and he said, it took three people to catch her and halter her, she had to be cornered where in a stall she just allowed herself to be haltered. I pointed out that I had caught her by calling her in a 160 acre pasture, haltered her and told her to come home with me. I didn't even put a lead rope on her and she followed me 3/4 of a mile home walking beside me like a dog. He said she never kicked struck or bit but she made no secret that she did not like them. By the way the halter when I loaded her up was the first time she had been haltered. Weeks after she came home she got out (due to a neighbor's fire burning my fence posts) and was miles away and I was able to load her and her fellow escapee. The trainer assured me that he would have been in trouble under the same circumstances,he said, "She loves you and did not care for any of us." This from a respect NHRA trainer.

Mag said...

The problem is with the English word "love," which, as CS Lewis pointed out, describes four distinct phenomena: affection, friendship, romantic love, and altruism (see CS Lewis, "The Four Loves").

Your horse is quite capable of affection--this is very commonly found in animals, even between species. I used to have a guinea pig and duck who were inseparable. In this sense your horse loves you just fine.