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Horses Got Us Figured Out

Published: 4/2/2012
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By Maddy Butcher

What do they see in us?

I’m on my way to the Horsemen’s Re-Union, a new event in Paso Robles, California, where 20 trainers will start 40 colts over the course of a week. The event promotes good horsemanship and discourages shortcuts and showmanship.

If only I could get inside those horses’ heads and experience good horsemanship from their perspective.

I’ll write about what I see and will try to report on the event at its infant stage, before it becomes the next Big Thing. I’m looking forward to seeing horses treated well and given good starts.

But I wonder:
  • Will I be able to see the subtle connections and cues given by Martin Black, Bryan Neubert, and others?
  • Will I see why one man makes more progress than another?
  • Will I be able to tell the happy horse from the weary one?
Looking forward to this event has me evaluating horse-human interactions in general and my own experiences specifically.

I had an ‘ aha’ moment recently:
Big Brother was watching me. Big Brother is a lovely Belgian with soft eyes and long, cream-colored feathers on his lower legs. I take care of him when his owners are away.
One morning, he saw something different. I was late and annoyed. He sensed it as soon as I got out of the car. He stayed back more when I brought him hay.
Was something wrong? I looked around.
Then I realized it was me.
[Photos by Kim Stone]

Sure, we have sophisticated language skills and superior intelligence. But animals are better than humans when it comes to giving and reading nonverbal communication.

Forgive the tangent and consider dogs:
  • Patricia McConnell at University of Wisconsin studied the common leash scenario (Stranger with dog on leash approaches another stranger with dog on leash.) and found that the dogs were looking at the owners. When they saw anxious or aggressive eyes, they too became anxious or aggressive.
  • In another study, the dogs played the shell game and picked correctly by relying on unspoken cues from the human.
  • Dr. Brian Hare of the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences studied how dogs react to our body language with a forward lean indicating aggression and a backward lean indicating passivity. They refined their interpretation by as little as a quarter of an inch either way!
As for horses:

  • Remember Clever Hans, the Counting Horse? Of course, he couldn’t count. He was reading cues from his owner. Cues his owner didn’t even realize he was giving. Cues most human observers didn’t even see.
  • Remember the ugly scene in the movie, BUCK? It went something like this: Buck asks a man to desensitize a “problem horse” by placing a saddle pad on his back. The man does so, but instead of truly desensitizing the horse, he only escalates its stress level. But the guy doesn’t realize how this poor horse is getting more and more agitated until the horse finally lashes out and bites him in the head. Ouch.
We might be at the top of the intelligence totem pole, but when it comes to non-verbal communication we land at the bottom.

I used to think there were problem horses and problem dogs. Now, I look at the person involved. It could be me. It could be someone else.

In Evidence-Based Horsemanship, Martin Black writes:

"Horses are so much more sensitive and intelligent than we are aware of. Because we are intelligent in other ways, we may think of them as inferior. The fact is, they are so much more tuned into us because of them being a prey animal... There’s a lot of missed opportunity to acknowledge their sensitivity and open lines of communication. They are very capable of acknowledging the slightest gestures we make and responding accordingly.”

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Stay tuned for reports from the Horsemen’s Re-Union, including coverage of Dr. Steve Peters Tuesday night presentation.

Click for Horsemen's Re-Union introduction
Click for Horsemen's Re-Union review
Click for additional Horsemen's Re-Union report
Click for Horsemen's Re-Union Vendor report
Click for horsemen of the Horsemen's Re-Union
Click for EBH debut at the Horsemen's Re-Union

View Reader Comments:

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4/3/2012 Denise
Interesting reading I'll have to do some experiments on myself with my horses! Can't wait for the report from the Horsemen's Re-Union :)
4/5/2012 Julie
Can't wait to hear your report of this wonderful event!
4/6/2012 Mike
I was at Horseman's Re Union on Monday and Tuesday. Great event. It's such a pleasure to watch good horsemen make such easy work of starting 40 horses.I enjoyed everyone but Martin Black, Bryan Neubert and Joe Wolter are three men that look like their not doing much but are getting the most done. Can't wait to hear how the rest of the week went.

"Those who look down eventually get there" - Kip Rosenthal