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