In their quiet, mysterious ways, horses can make us feel exquisitely important. There is the one that watches your every move with ears fixated forwards. Or the horse that offers a transition in the split second before your brain sends the impulse to your legs…and the one that moves close to you, pressing its head into your chest when you are feeling down. They make us smile, give us confidence, and make us feel as though we could spend a lifetime together.
Do animals know when they are lifting our spirits? They must be reading and sensing something about our mood and behaviors, as they can also be quick to withdraw their interest if we seem threatening to them. Not unlike humans, if horses are repeatedly treated badly they can potentially shut down and refuse to willingly engage with us. They might even act out with their own version of hostility and angry rebuttals. There is a list of physiological stress responses identified with anger and aggression. In both horses and humans an over-stimulation of the flight or fight response and excessive activity in the sympathetic nervous system releases chemicals that have detrimental effects on one’s health.
Being partnered with a horse is somewhat comparable to having a close relationship with another human in many ways. Some of those partnerships work out much better than others, and as a trainer observing the interactions between horses and humans for many years, there is now research to confirm a lot of my own suspicions as to why some people get along better with their horses than others at a basic, interpersonal level.
A team of researchers created a study that looked at why some couples are able to stay together for a lifetime, while others do not survive much past the honeymoon phase. The attached article (link below) from The Atlantic is well worth reading.
When the researchers analyzed the data they gathered on the couples, they saw clear differences between the masters and disasters. The disasters looked calm during the interviews, but their physiology, measured by the electrodes, told a different story. Their heart rates were quick, their sweat glands were active, and their blood flow was fast. Following thousands of couples longitudinally, Gottman found that the more physiologically active the couples were in the lab, the quicker their relationships deteriorated over time.
But what does physiology have to do with anything? The problem was that the disasters showed all the signs of arousal — of being in fight-or-flight mode — in their relationships. Having a conversation sitting next to their spouse was, to their bodies, like facing off with a saber-toothed tiger.
The horses could relate to having to face off with a saber-toothed tiger (somewhere back in their genetic memory!). When we have a horse, we do have a relationship. It may be more constructive amongst some horse/human teams than others, but when the two species interact, that is ultimately a pairing with responsibilities and expectations on behalf of both parties.
There has been a lot of talk in recent years about the need to have a good relationship with your horse, but that is only the beginning. What follows your engagement is what makes or breaks the partnership. As described in this article, there are the masters and the disasters.
As with traumatized people, horses can go from sweet, kind personalities to stressed, terrified bundles of nerves that overreact to stimuli. The reverse can also occur. Could the qualities that form the basis for a long-term, loving human relationship be the same that ensure longevity with horses? Obviously their brains do not compute language in the same way we do, so what would the common denominator possibly be comprised of? The answers appear to be quite specific and applicable to both species.
One of the key factors with the successful relationships according to this article is that the couples remained calm and connected, even when they fought. Their physiological arousal was low compared to the elevated flight/fight response of their less loving counterparts.
It’s not that the masters had, by default, a better physiological make-up than the disasters; it’s that masters had created a climate of trust and intimacy that made both of them more emotionally and thus physically comfortable.
This could explain why some of us feel we connect better with animals than we do with most people. We really are that sensitive to gesture, body language, and intention. We understand the silent, but important responses to our requests for attention, and animals seem to pick up on that behavior. Best of all, if we feel happy, safe, and trusted, we garner a positive response in our animals that is immediately apparent, because we can read the emotions they appear to be mirroring back to us.
When we seek an in-kind response from our loved ones, and are met with indifference or a negative reaction, such actions set the downward spiral in motion for the deterioration of what might have begun as a wonderful relationship.
Gottman made a critical discovery in this study—one that gets at the heart of why some relationships thrive while others languish.
Throughout the day, partners would make requests for connection, what Gottman calls “bids.” For example, say that the husband is a bird enthusiast and notices a goldfinch fly across the yard. He might say to his wife, “Look at that beautiful bird outside!” He’s not just commenting on the bird here: he’s requesting a response from his wife—a sign of interest or support—hoping they’ll connect, however momentarily, over the bird.
Horses trust us more as riders when we respond positively to their bids for connection. It doesn’t mean we agree with them that there might be a fire-breathing dragon hiding beneath the bridge on the trail. More appropriately, that we acknowledge their response without a negative reaction that will have them thinking we are spooking at the invisible fire-breathing dragon too! The horse is just looking for the trusted herd leader to determine the right behavior based on their perceived threat. Sometimes they are just curious, which we can also consider a bid for attention. None of their requests should be met with anger.
People who turned toward their partners in the study responded by engaging the bidder, showing interest and support in the bid. Those who didn’t—those who turned away—would not respond or respond minimally and continue doing whatever they were doing, like watching TV or reading the paper. Sometimes they would respond with overt hostility, saying something like, “Stop interrupting me, I’m reading.”
These bidding interactions had profound effects on marital well-being. Couples who had divorced after a six-year follow up had “turn-toward bids” 33 percent of the time. Only three in ten of their bids for emotional connection were met with intimacy. The couples who were still together after six years had “turn-toward bids” 87 percent of the time. Nine times out of ten, they were meeting their partner’s emotional needs.
I grew up watching my parents criticize each other, constantly taking little bites out of their marriage. It was sad, as they had not been taught a better way to communicate. Their hostility in turn affected their relationship with my brother and me as we took turns vying for their affection. The family room walls were covered in our awards and certificates of achievement, yet all we really wanted was to know that our parents genuinely loved us. Our “bids” for attention rarely garnered the responses we were seeking which may have been something as simple as a hug, a positive comment, or listening to our stories without creating an argument. Unfortunately we learn from our parents all too well and tend to find ourselves with partners who reflect the same type of relationship we were raised with unless we make a conscientious effort to work through that conditioning.
Our human issues seem to translate to how we interact with horses. If a horse is met with a smack from a whip or a jerk of the rein, it is, in the horse’s mind, an attack from the person who is supposed to be the one that can be trusted. While firmness may be necessary at times, and boundaries are established for the sake of safety, they can be accomplished using the same responses one horse would convey to another. Timing is everything. A horse that is always expecting an attack from its rider is not a pleasant ride, nor is it a happy horse.
“Disasters are scanning the social environment for partners’ mistakes.”
“It’s not just scanning environment,” chimed in Julie Gottman. “It’s scanning the partner for what the partner is doing right or scanning him for what he’s doing wrong and criticizing versus respecting him and expressing appreciation.”
Contempt, they have found, is the number one factor that tears couples apart. People who are focused on criticizing their partners miss a whopping 50 percent of positive things their partners are doing and they see negativity when it’s not there. And people who treat their partners with contempt and criticize them not only kill the love in the relationship, but they also kill their partner’s ability to fight off viruses and cancers. Being mean is the death knell of relationships.
Watch a horse’s ears go back when approached by someone who has caused them pain. They may exhibit other behaviors too, such as moving away, threatening to kick, or raising their head and tensing their body. If someone even reminds them of a person who has hurt them, the behaviors may surface. Much like a human being who has been heartbroken or mistreated, the defensive responses are always looking for the triggers. The reactions happen in the body before the brain can talk you out of them.
With horses, it is interesting to observe their responses to a rider from the ground. As an instructor, we have the opportunity to pay attention to the equine expressions of contentment, gratitude, pain, stress, fatigue, or anger. Whether one believes horses have these emotions or not, with experience it becomes obvious when the facial expressions and body language change in response to either stimuli in the environment and/or something the rider is doing. Given the actions of the horse that follow a particular expression, I am pretty convinced after many years of riding, then teaching others to ride, that there is something biochemically similar occurring in both species.
This being true, then the masterful relationship techniques should also have the same effect in regards to horses and humans. Kindness makes all the difference in the world.
Kindness makes each partner feel cared for, understood, and validated—feel loved. “My bounty is as boundless as the sea,” says Shakespeare’s Juliet. “My love as deep; the more I give to thee, / The more I have, for both are infinite.” That’s how kindness works too: there’s a great deal of evidence showing the more someone receives or witnesses kindness, the more they will be kind themselves, which leads to upward spirals of love and generosity in a relationship.
There are two ways to think about kindness. You can think about it as a fixed trait: either you have it or you don’t. Or you could think of kindness as a muscle. In some people, that muscle is naturally stronger than in others, but it can grow stronger in everyone with exercise. Masters tend to think about kindness as a muscle. They know that they have to exercise it to keep it in shape. They know, in other words, that a good relationship requires sustained hard work.
“If your partner expresses a need,” explained Julie Gottman, “and you are tired, stressed, or distracted, then the generous spirit comes in when a partner makes a bid, and you still turn toward your partner.”
Horses respond best to their handlers when the attention is 100% focused on them. They are sensitive enough to know where our attention is directed, and can tell when we have so much as shifted our eyes to look at something. Inherently, we humans are similarly attuned to each other too, and it may be why we are so easily hurt. Many just don’t realize it.
Horses love to be acknowledged when they have done well. I have watched a student’s horse do something exceptional or correct, and then receive no accolades for it. A little scratch on the neck is all they need, yet I have often found myself repeating, “pet, him, tell him he’s been good!” Eventually the rider responds and I can see the positive change in the horse’s expression. As with human-to-human relationships, being generous with small acts of kindness can go a long way. This includes recognizing when the horse is really trying. Be kind with a giving rein, a soft voice, and a scratch on the withers for even the subtle moments of generosity your horse offers to you.
When people think about practicing kindness, they often think about small acts of generosity, like buying each other little gifts or giving one another back rubs every now and then. While those are great examples of generosity, kindness can also be built into the very backbone of a relationship through the way partners interact with each other on a day-to-day basis, whether or not there are back rubs and chocolates involved.
One way to practice kindness is by being generous about your partner’s intentions. From the research of the Gottmans, we know that disasters see negativity in their relationship even when it is not there. An angry wife may assume, for example, that when her husband left the toilet seat up, he was deliberately trying to annoy her. But he may have just absent-mindedly forgotten to put the seat down.
I can recall many spectacular moments with horses, especially the enthusiastic ones who have a lot of “try” in them. Sometimes they get frustrated when being asked for new or difficult movements, especially as they are building strength and gaining endurance. I would ask for the new movement, just to the limits of their ability at the time, sense the fatigue setting in, then let them have an “out.” They want to do well and because they are just learning, it is far from perfection, but they know I am satisfied with their efforts. I try to be extremely conscientious of the precise moment to let them stop.
They immediately offer something they do very well, for example a big, beautiful lengthen stride or flawless canter transitions. They almost seem to want to be given the opportunity to ensure that their intent to do well is acknowledged and appreciated. Of course, I gush all over them for their “look what I can do!” attitude. This is how you create the kind of relationship with a horse that makes them happy to see you every day and want to go into the arena with you for a workout.
“Even in relationships where people are frustrated, it’s almost always the case that there are positive things going on and people trying to do the right thing,” psychologist Ty Tashiro told me. “A lot of times, a partner is trying to do the right thing even if it’s executed poorly. So appreciate the intent.”
Another powerful kindness strategy revolves around shared joy.
The psychologists found that the only difference between the couples who were together and those who broke up was active constructive responding. Those who showed genuine interest in their partner’s joys were more likely to be together.
It is all about kindness and generosity. These two gifts innately offered by horses are the same gifts we can give to each other that will potentially create the most loving, lasting relationships we could hope for. Not only important for the kind of relationship we will have with our horses…but among couples who not only endure, but live happily together for years and years, the spirit of kindness and generosity guides them forward.
And what could be more precious than that?
I really like this post a lot. Many of the horses I train and some of the horses whose riders I am training are worried, anxious or even withdrawn. Even horses who come board at our ranch start that way, and then as they are fed free choice hay, given free choice water, taught the rules of the barn (no rushing, no barging, move when asked), their heads come down, their reactivity diminishes, their eyes come alive and start looking around, and they even show affection for their handlers. I find that the horses I train develop a relationship with me for exactly the reasons you identify – I do my best to be consistent, to be gentle, to move slowly, to only be harsh when they take an action that presents a danger and then, whether correcting gently or more harshly, I reward them with a “good boy” and a wither stroke as soon as they do well. Training is sometimes a burden if the bundle of corrections gets too heavy, so I prefer to mix things they know and do well with new, harder things, so I can offer plenty of rewards and always close the session with a positive. They seem to like it and even show some eagerness for their work sessions in their willingness to take the bit, their tendency to walk briskly to the mounting block, and their yawning when things are going well and they have a break during the session.
I do believe that horses are limited and alien in some aspects of their cognition, but I also believe that they share core emotions with us, which they generate non-verbally as a result of their context – their environment, the sum total of their handlers behavior, their neighbor horses in the domestic herd, etc. We can see them yawn when relaxing, sigh when the tension of a rider’s request transitions into a rest, snork when confronted with the worrisome, sigh-snork when disappointed or resigned… they rub on us when they need us, breathe on our faces when wondering about our ‘horseness’, lick us out of curiosity or out of gratitude (usually for water) – it’s all very interesting and even when we are trying not to anthropomorphize, we don’t need to be idiots and ignore the clarity of these non-verbal messages.
Thanks for sharing this, Susan! As always, informative and helpful.
Thank you Mark. Not only do you write with great eloquence, it is apparent we can declare that you already have a “compassionate barn.” Hopefully many others will follow your example.