Ask a Horse: Is my horse a “jerk?” – Part 1

AMBER: Fiona, I’ve frequently written and talked about my perception that horses don’t act out of spite or malice the way people often believe. Many riders and trainers attribute unwanted behaviors like bucking or rearing or bolting to the horse being a “jerk,” or purposefully trying to harm them. They feel that the horse has very human motivations and intelligence, like that he or she is trying to get out of work or prevent them from riding or doesn’t want to do what is asked because he or she is lazy/has a poor work ethic/cantankerous/what ever. I have never experienced that when I connect with a horse; there is always a reason for his or her behavior. Usually that reason is either pain or emotional trauma/distress. Consequently, I have concluded that there is no “jerk” horse, only misunderstood horses. That said, sometimes animals do have angry, resentful, or aggressive reasons for the behavior, such as a cat who is marking a certain person’s room because of dislike, and that seems very personal to people, like the cat is indeed a “jerk.” Can you speak this in greater depth and help me better understand this complex subject?

FIONA: Yes. I would be happy to. This is a great subject because animals are very, very misunderstood by humans in this realm. We’re a lot more straightforward and a lot more generous and pure of heart than most people believe. The problem is that most humans, themselves, are troubled inside, and see the world as enemies. In this way, they project their feelings of being victimized on to animals, making us into adversaries who purposefully harm them with our behavior. Certainly, we understand your frustration when you are hurting so much inside, and why you choose to blame us. We see your pain in your reactions, and in your manners, but you must understand: it is your pain that you are seeing, not our character.

Most people, when they punish a horse, do so because they believe the horse has wronged them. They believe that the horse wishes them ill and wants to hurt them with his or her behavior. They do not see that the horse is only ever a product of his or her environment. They do not wish to believe that the horse is responding only to their energy, to their presence, to their device and mechanisms, because that is all a horse can do. We are not stupid, don’t misunderstand, but we do not have such deep motivations as you. We do not plan, plot or scheme. We are content to be in our pastures, content with where we are. We do not desire as you do, we do not formulate plans as you do, and we certainly do not try to harm others out of ill-intent as you do. We are very much in the present, in what is going on, and content to make the best of the situation around us.

You (humans) have goals. You have ambitions. You have drive and reasons and desire that move you and which you strive to bring forth into the world. These are wonderful qualities, but they are very different than the nature of us, of horses. Our desires are more like preferences, not like the great dreams which spur you forward to misery or silliness with your ambition. So when a human accuses a horse of trying to stop their efforts, or of sabotaging them, or of plotting or of being cruel or of doing anything to “get in the way” of their plans, it is only ever in the eyes of the human, because a horse is not capable of such complex desires. We seek balance and contentment and connection, not discord.

That does not mean that we horses do not have feelings. We have emotions, as you do, and as powerfully as you do. Our emotions are not precisely the same in the ways in which they are expressed, for we are less likely to fluctuate between them as you do. However, we have fear, anxiety, anger, distrust, and all the gamut of those emotions you perceive as unwanted, as well as joy, contentment, pleasure, and the blessedness of connection. We encompass all that you do on the inside; it is mirrored in us. So yes, you many encounter animals who perform behaviors in those emotional states, and these behaviors are not pleasant – just as yours are not when you are in an unhappy emotional state.

AMBER: So what’s the difference? If a horse is angry and tries to buck someone off, then is he truly a jerk? I don’t believe so, but I would like to hear your take on it. Horses are not always nice to each other, either.

FIONA: No, indeed not, and we do have preferences about the horses whom we abide. The difference is that that is a temporary state for the horse. It is not his character or nature to be angry. The anger has a source that is directly related to his environment, which means that it’s often directly related to the person at hand. If in your society a child was being abused, and one day stood up to his abuser, would you call that child a jerk? Would you tell him off for punching back to defend himself? That is mostly how horses act out of anger or rage or frustration; they have been pushed to their limits and snap, or fight back, because of the threat they are facing. Even in circumstances like the cat marking the room, there has been a cause of stress that is so great that the cat is torn out of its natural behavior and wellbeing to demonstrate its anxiety. Is that a bad cat, or is it a faulty caretaker?

For you see, animals do not usually resort to extreme behaviors without significant motivation to do so and usually without many warnings and subtler communications first, unless a life or death situation (in the eyes of the animal) arises. This has caused many humans, who miss these first demonstrations and communications of distress, to label horses as aggressive or cruel, or to call them bad apples when truly the situation has nothing to do with innate personality and everything to do with handling.

However, that does not mean that all such instances are a direct result of current handling. Just as our emotional states and preferences are slightly different in experience than yours, we have a different perspective and view of the world. Horses who have experienced poor handling in the past will express the same behaviors and emotions in the present if these internal memories are not resolved. You call it trauma, which is not incorrect, but it might help others to think of this as instinctual memory. You cannot undo what has been programmed into our survival from past experiences. In the wild, we need those memories and those functions to protect us the instant we learn them. Our survival depends on keeping them, so we are not wanting to let them go because we believe it is unsafe to do so.

AMBER: Does that mean you are unable to let them go? That is what it has always felt like.

FIONA: That is the net effect. We cannot rise above our instincts through thought like you do, because we often substitute thought for instinct. That is how we survive. You survive, you think, you motivate differently. For us it is all about survival, and thinking before instinct would lead to death. We are not able to do it very well, which means we are unable to release or process trauma as you might. We have no means to disarm it within us. This causes many people to trigger unwanted reactions from their horses based on these past or prior traumas which they cannot fathom or identify, causing the human to believe that the reaction is a personality trait instead of a trigger. For instance, a horse who bucks after jumping may have done so because he was punished for hitting rails before, and may be pre-empting the associated response. Finding no reason for the bucking, the human believes that the horse is a jerk who is bucking out of cruelty, or to get out of work. It is sadly so simple, and yet such a gap between us. The horse is no more a jerk than the child who punched back, but his inability to de-program that reaction causes those in his life to judge him as unsuitable in temperament.

Continued in Part 2

Have you ever wanted to ask a horse how they feel about a particular subject? Now’s your chance! Hear about horse-keeping and equestrian subjects straight from the horse’s mouth. These segments are conducted interview-style between Amber and equine advice extraordinaire Fiona, or a guest horse. Have a question or a topic you’d like to know about? Leave a comment here or on Facebook or Twitter with under #askahorse.

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