Sunday, March 12, 2017

Your Horse Doesn't Love You. Get Over It!

Your horse doesn’t love you. 

Them’s fightin’ words to some people. Now, I’m not saying that’s you, but since you’re here, let me lay this out for you. There’s a point to this, I promise.

We all know that there are different senses of the word “love” in English. I can say I love ice cream and I love horses and you wouldn’t be confused by either statement. Get out of our shared culture and there is more opportunity for misunderstanding. I would be very careful how I talked about loving all things equine when ordering in certain European restaurants. It only gets worse when we try to translate a nuanced concept to another human language, and it’s a complete disaster in inter-species communication.

The human and the equine are as opposite as can be. Dr. Miller and I coined the terms “ultimate predator” and “ultimate prey animal” back in 2004 to drive this point home. That a relationship of any kind can exist between these two polar opposites in the animal kingdom is amazing on its face. That this relationship can be taken to the highest levels of mutual trust, respect, and communication is … is … well, it’s why I’m writing this and you’re reading it.

Why can’t we use “love” to describe how a horse feels about his human partner? Two words: It’s dangerous. It’s dangerous because it feeds the notion that the same thought processes and mental structures are in a horse’s noggin as in yours. Your horse has a more primitive brain than you. He lives in the moment. He has no principles or values. His perceptions of the world around him are those of a highly successful prey animal. His first instinct when there is any question about his safety is to move his feet. Yes, you can train him to look to you for leadership when he’s worried, but the instinct to survive at all costs remains. Every horse is capable of spooking and running right over anything in its path, including you. Your belief that he loves you won’t stop that.

Now think for a moment about your essential nature. Humans are tool users. Our hands, not our feet, are our first lines of defense. We can imagine things we haven’t seen, we think about the future, we have the capacity to read and write, we have empathy, and we can reason. And since I brought it up, is it reasonable to think that this already-complicated concept of love that occupies our thoughts can also exist in the horse’s very different mind? Hmmm?

So, if it’s not love, what exactly does your horse feel when he’s around you? When he bats those big brown eyes, when he nuzzles you, when he nickers at the sound of your footsteps approaching? He feels safe. That’s it. He may like what happens when you’re around. He gets fed or brushed or ridden. But none of that would matter a whit if he didn’t feel safe. Pat Parelli used to say that a horse’s priorities are safety, comfort, and play (food has since been added to the list). Safety is first for a reason. It’s more important than you.

This truth may stick in the craw. You may fear it will ruin what you love about horses. Take a deep breath. Accepting this essential truth about horses is a rite of passage on the horseman’s journey, and you know what? It won’t change a thing for you. Horses will still be wonderful and they’ll still be the most perfect vehicle for human fulfillment and self-actualization that has ever existed on God’s green earth.

You love your horse? I’m happy for you. Really! Just don’t tell me your horse loves you back. Because he doesn’t.   

1 comment:

Rick Lamb, Ph.D. said...

Love is the wrong word

When I stated that your horse doesn’t love you, I knew it would get varied reactions. There have been some incredibly insightful comments (on Facebook) and some that just left me scratching my head.

One of the points some folks are missing is that this isn’t about the horse’s ability to be part of a relationship with a human; it’s about whether the human notion of love is accurate in describing what a horse feels. The words we use matter, not only in how we communicate with others but also in how we organize schema in our own minds. If you mislabel the horse’s feeling as love, your predictions about how he will behave will be wrong much of the time. The consequences of being wrong run from harmless to deadly. If it’s love your horse feels for you, he will be happy to be with you. Fine. If your horse loves you, he will want to please you. Questionable, but … okay. If your horse loves you, he will never do anything to hurt you. No! This is a deadly prediction about horse behavior. The instinct to survive trumps everything in the equine species, even the welfare of a human partner who happens to be in the way. The flight or fight instinct is primal. It is a reflex, not a thoughtful action, and is part of the glorious nature of the horse. A few thousand years of domestication hasn’t changed what took 50 million years to create.

Now let’s flip back to how YOU feel. Is it accurate to call your feelings for your horse love? Well, sure! Frankly, I can’t see why anyone wouldn’t love horses. The human concept of love is rich and complex and broad. However, part of loving someone or something is accepting it for what it is. If you love your horse, you must accept that he cannot return the same exact feeling.

If you’re still with me, get ready for a concession of sorts. I concede that your horse feels something for you. If you want to call it the horsey equivalent of love, that’s fine with me. Affection? Contentment? Friendship? Equine-Human Bonding? All that is fine. I described it as feeling safe because I believe that is most accurate. Maybe that’s a bit too clinical for some people. We know that horses meet emotional and spiritual needs in humans. Maybe the tendency to anthropomorphize about the horse’s feelings is an expression of those needs. That doesn’t make it right or safe to do. If you are compelled to think that your horse loves you back, please, please apply some sort of horsey filter to this thought. All I’m asking is for a small shift in your thinking. It won’t diminish the joy you find in horses and it could save your life.