Heart of Equus

It is said that history repeats itself and accordingly, that we can prevent a great deal of adversity in our lives by simply avoiding the mistakes of our ancestors. Nowhere on earth could this be truer, than our relationship with the Horse. If we truly desire to unleash his full potential, and share with him that privileged bonding of mind, body and spirit, then we must gain a better understanding of how friendship evolves in his world. Only if we see the world through his eyes, understand his thinking, and learn his ways, can we ever enjoy the rewards of his friendship and partnership (instead of confronting the resistance of an adversary we created.) If we refuse and continue blindly on as we have been, we only have ourselves to blame for losing a priceless opportunity of limitless emotional and spiritual wealth.

Our first awareness and regard for the horse was a major food source some 50,000 years ago. In that period of our relationship with the horse, we lacked the speed and tools to catch him and had no way to kill him from a distance. Our only option was to devise various traps and other methods of killing him. One of the most commonly used methods that proved to be highly successful was frightening him off the edges of cliffs. Thus, the first “horse training” lesson we learned was that we could use fear to manipulate and control him.

It is believed that the horse was first domesticated by nomadic tribes on the Eurasian Steppes not only as a pack animal, but also as a readily available source of milk, skins and meat. With the advent of the spoke wheel replacing the solid wheel, the cumbersome cart gave way to the chariots, wagons, coaches and other implements that made the horse an integral part of society. While recent archaeological research tentatively places the first horseback riding at approximately 4,000 BC in Dereivka on the Ukrainian steppes, it is generally accepted that any significant horseback riding in the ‘civilized’ Near East made its debut between 1,000 and 1,200 BC. As saddles, bits, stirrups and harness were refined through the centuries, the horse became even more deeply intertwined into the social fabric of our everyday life. In each era, his contribution more than amply filled all of our needs in work, war, travel, commerce and leisure.

As we had developed the ability to not only catch the horse but also contain him in a small area, we escalated the levels of fear we had learned to use 50,000 years ago by using various training aids and formats. Some of these training formats included starving a horse into submission; tying wild cats or other small clawed animals to their tails; applying hot irons near their rectums and attaching spiked nose-bands to their faces. This enabled us to instill extreme levels of discomfort and pain in varying degrees “as needed” at our discretion. The severe discomfort and pain escalated the levels of fear that allowed us to force him into submission more efficiently in a shorter period of time. Physical cruelty was of little consequence to those using these methods (nor was the concern very great of those who were waiting for their “trained” horse.) To compound matters, we seemed oblivious to the fact that restriction of any kind is the horse’s greatest instinctual fear. For he is a prey animal, and his ability to survive depends entirely upon how fast he can react to danger and escape by running away. To be caught in brambles or mire, or trapped in a tiny canyon means certain death.

The only factors taken into consideration were his submission, instant obedience and the amount of time and effort invested to produce the desired effect. Thus, our “horse training contest” was initiated thousands of years ago to see who had developed the best methods of manipulating and controlling the horse. Those who could make the horse react instantly to various commands or “cues” in the shortest amount of time gained both the social prestige and financial rewards for being the “best trainer.” This justification of using restriction and force deeply embedded a commonly accepted perception and standard practice of training that has been passed on from generation to generation. That we completely accept this basic format of using restriction, comfort/discomfort and force without ever giving it a second thought can be attributed to several factors.

One reason is the deep-seated reverence we have for an established tradition. Religious, family, social, military and other traditions give us a feeling of belonging to something greater then ourselves and the confidence that what we are doing is “right” by a commonalty of standards and beliefs. Traditions allow us to pass on to future generations the things we feel are important and dear to us. But when a tradition becomes as deeply embedded in our minds as the basic format of using restriction and force to “train” a horse has become, we develop a strong intolerance to the possibility that our methods may in any way be flawed. In addition, peer pressure leaves little incentive to disbelieve (or internal fortitude to challenge) a practice that is commonly accepted by highly respected, nationally renown “horse trainers”.

Another reason is the personal challenge and feeling of superiority gained by conquering an animal much larger than ourselves (and possessing the potential to do us great bodily harm as well.) Actually riding on his back and directing his every movement to prove his complete submission is the final culmination of those efforts. Our need to dominate and control all things in our environment is a very powerful force, as is our respect for those who display the greatest risk and success at doing so (no circus show would ever be complete without the lion tamer and his lions.) Overcoming the challenge of this huge animal’s resistance boosts our ego and allows us to personally share some of those same feelings of esteem and prestige by facing and overcoming danger (as well as earning the respect and admiration of our peers.) *While in and of itself this sense of achievement may be appealing to some, those with “control issues” will be particularly susceptible to this particular facet of human nature.

And too, until very recently, there has never been an alternative method of human/equine interaction other than using some type of restriction and/or force. To our specie’s credit, our regard for the horse over the centuries has changed from a convenient food source, to a simple beast of burden and finally, to that of a thinking, feeling entity with instincts far different from our own. In recent years, we have seen a responsive “equine clinician boom” unlike any other in our entire relationship with the horse. This response was due to the overwhelming desire of horse owners for more humane methods of training. The number of “new” aids and devices seems endless, as is the number of “natural” training formats, each proclaiming to be the one true solution to end all problems with a horse. But if we closely examine their primary training environment, it becomes obvious that they all share exactly the same basic format we have been using for 5,000 years. All we really have accomplished is modifying an ancient system of restriction and varying degrees of force. As far as the horse is concerned (other than possibly getting a few treats and rubs) nothing has really changed. First restriction (an instinctually fearful environment for the horse) is used to contain him in a small area. Then he is “trained” by using intimidation and fear to motivate him and force his submission. Thus the same old “horse training contest” continues, with the complexity at times seemingly blown out of proportion by the expertise of various promotional experts each trying to sell a specific trainer’s system. Judging by the number of recurring problems we continually experience when trying to “train” the horse, it would be safe to say that he remains quite unimpressed by these “modifications.” In fact, if any of these modified systems were truly successful, those problems and difficulties would cease to exist.

It is often heard from those with decades (in some cases generations) of equine experience that they were forced to “take a little of this and take a little of that” from various training formats to customize their approach to each individual horse they were training. Logically, one could conclude from this fact that there is no singular training format that “fits” all horses. Given 5,000 years to experiment and our supposed vast intellectual superiority (coupled with an entity that is governed by very specific instincts that have remained unaltered) one would have thought that we should have had our “horse training system” perfected long before now. Judging from the number of recurring generational “horse training problems,” one would be forced to acknowledge the probability that we have completely failed in this particular area.

The Law of Chaos would definitely apply to these generational human/equine problems as it dictates that, “The more complex the problem, the more simple the solution.” The solution to this seemingly complex human/equine problem is that we have been copying the pattern of intimidation and physical punishment of a physically aggressive Alpha horse to gain submission over the other horses in the herd. In the process, we have regrettably lost more than we could ever have gained. For in our all-consuming eagerness to quickly and efficiently gain control of the horse, we have completely lost sight of the fact that there is not one but two distinctly different inter-herd relationships that a horse shares with other horses.

The primary herd relationship is the normal interaction a horse shares with the rest of the herd. Establishing and maintaining his or her herd rank is a matter of sheer survival. When food becomes scarce, there will only be enough for those of the highest herd rank while those of lower herd rank will starve to death. This may seem cruel by human standards, but Mother Nature determined that it was the only way to give a prey species the best possible chance of surviving. The extremes of establishing herd rank can vary greatly from simple body language to a fight to the death. This variance is dependent on many factors that constitute the individuality of each horse. One factor is the need (or abnormal need) for herd rank ascension. This is seen when a low-ranked horse constantly shows signs of physical injuries. No matter how many times his challenge to those of higher herd rank is beaten down physically, he continues to “come back for more.” At the other end of the spectrum is the complacency and nearly instant acceptance of lower herd rank established by a horse of higher herd rank with just a mild gesture of body language. Still another is the horse that is extremely physically aggressive and defensive about their higher herd rank. These horses tend to continually overreact to the slightest unintentional invasion of their “extended” personal space with extreme physical violence and occasionally attack other horses in the herd for no apparent reason.

Milton said, “Those who overcome by force, overcome but half their foe.” We have established our herd rank to control the horse through intimidation and varying degrees of pressure and physical punishment. In doing so, we have simply copied exactly how horses establish their herd rank in any herd. However, in so doing, we reap the rewards of that type of relationship. Those conquered by force are given to an oppressive state of mind, and with it, resistance and resentment. This holds equally true whether it is applied to a horse, a human or a nation. The established herd rank of any horse in a herd at any given time is fluid, marked by constant, daily confrontations in varying degrees. Even the herd rank of the most aggressive, dominating, physically vicious herd leader is never “set in stone.” His dominance is marked only by the amount of fear he can maintain at any given time. As soon as a horse of lower rank detects any weakness because of illness or injury, the horse of higher rank will immediately lose his position. Comparing that situational circumstance to the myriad of generational “horse problems” we encounter using traditional formats of restriction and force is regrettably obvious.

But there is another very special equine relationship within the herd that has absolutely nothing to do with herd rank or physical punishment. It is such a common occurrence that its rather remarkable significance is easily overlooked. It is a relationship that not only transcends all age and gender barriers, but also is so intense that it supersedes one of the horse’s strongest survival instincts. It is a relationship between two horses that is so intimate, so genuine, and so sincere, that it is not shared with any other horses in the herd. We refer to this relationship as “horse buddies.” We see them constantly “hanging out” together, mutually grooming each other, playing together and even sharing the same food together. Quite the contrary to their relationship with the rest of the herd, this very special relationship is composed of absolute trust, peaceful harmony and a very intimate codependency.

Thus, we have a choice. We can continue trying to modify the basic format of an ancient method based on restriction, intimidation and fear that works against the horse’s natural instinct to establish a true friendship. Or we can start a completely new and different “horse training contest” that strives to embrace the Heart of Equus. And in so doing, will give us the opportunity to enjoy the safety and personal satisfaction of working, playing, and sharing a very special part of our lives with a trusted friend and devoted partner.

Final Answer, Chapter II, “A Herd of Two” will cover the following topics:

  1. Human perception modifications required to establish a true friendship with Equus.
  2. Why the use of restriction and force to form the initial relationship works against the horse’s nature and instincts instead of with it.
  3. What a horse fears more than physical punishment.
  4. The difference between traditional training and restriction free relationship building.
  5. Why using restriction and force creates problems.
  6. How the ritualistic, sequential process of two horses establishing an equine friendship is initiated, nurtured and finally consummated.
  7. How to establish a “Herd of Two” relationship with your horse and how positively it affects every aspect of any ground or mounted activity or discipline.

By Chuck Mintzlaff