Speaking for the Silent – Part 1: Anthropomorphizing

As an animal communicator, many people turn to me for answers about their horse’s behavior. While a few of my clients simply want to ensure their horses are happy, or they enjoy the novelty of their horse’s conversation, most people who call on my services are having a problem with their horse. They’ve either reached the end of their options and are making one last desperate attempt, or they don’t even know where to start looking. Regardless, they all have one burning question for the horse: why are you doing this?

Answering that question is the most challenging part of my job, not because the horse doesn’t know, but because we humans take everything so darn personally. For you see, the question that most people are actually trying to ask is, “Why are you doing this to ME?” We perceive ourselves as working so hard to provide for our horses and to do right by them that we can’t fathom how they could repay us by acting out or even hurting us. We wonder if they don’t care for us, or don’t respect us, or are just cruel, and we might even be angry that we’ve given so much and received so little in return.

I hear comments like, “I only ask for one hour of your day! The least you can do is behave during it!” or “My spoiled horse gets to eat all day while I slave away, and now she’s bitching that I took her away from her grain,” or “That horse is just a jerk to every kid that rides him.” I also hear, “I love her so much and I have tried so hard to help her, and she keeps shutting me out,” as well as “When is he just going to learn that there’s nothing to be afraid of here?”

All of these sentiments break my heart, because nothing could be further from the truth. These beliefs express a fundamental misunderstanding of the horse and his behavior. Now, I feel for the people speaking them, because I’ve been there. I asked a lot of those questions myself when Fiona’s situation looked hopeless, as she wouldn’t even speak to me. I was angry with her for rejecting my advances and healing, and for disconnecting from me, and for refusing to be healthy. Mind you, I was already an established animal communicator and should have known better than to make such assumptions, but we are all a little blind to our own animals and I was at my wits’ end. I couldn’t rise above my distress to see the situation clearly, so I projected my emotions and thoughts on to Fiona and evaluated her through a human lens. I anthropomorphized her.

Horses do not have the same motivations that we do. They are quite transparent with their emotions and behaviors. It is only our lack of understanding about what those behaviors mean that causes us to assign human attributes to them. Since our equine friends cannot talk, we fill in the blanks with our own issues. Have you ever been angry with a friend or lover because s/he was insensitive in a text or e-mail exchange, and you took it personally? What emotions did you experience? Did you want to break off the relationship, or yell or scream, or curl up and weep, or hurt them back? How long did you stew about the transgression until the other person cleared up the confusion with a perfectly reasonable explanation for the miscommunication?

That is what we do to our horses all the time. Only, horses can’t clear the air by telling you what happened. Instead, their silence convinces us of the truth of our accusations, because there’s nothing to stop our minds from taking over the relationship. Consequently, our angst is entirely of our own making, because we’re reacting to feelings and beliefs that aren’t real or even close to the horse’s experience. We then feel justified to take our frustrations out on our horses. Moreover, because we see them doing this “to” us, we believe it’s right for them to bear the consequences of their “bad” behavioral choices, when all along the horse has no understanding of his crimes. That’s the danger of anthropomorphizing.

I don’t have the answer as to why we project so much on our horses, but I have a few thoughts. Horses often show us a part of ourselves that we don’t enjoy seeing: vulnerability. They are larger and stronger than us, and can easily hurt or even kill us if they desire. We’re biologically programmed to be on alert for this danger, and so while we may consciously forget or become accustomed to that threat, our bodies are ever-present to the possibility of death. A horse who bucks us off reminds us of our mortality on a visceral level, and we enter fight-or-flight as a response. This immense vulnerability causes us to seek control of the situation which often translates into dominating the horse into submission to prevent him from hurting us. Those feelings of powerlessness are so strong that our genetic programming finds any and every possible reason to regain our strength and sense of safety. Our instinct even justifies retaliating against an animal when they can’t fight back on the grounds of the “they’re out to get me” clause. That’s why revenge feels so good, because we’re no longer the one on the bottom. We have power over something again, so we can feel safe. It’s a very primal desire that, while not civilized, is an undeniable part of the human condition.

The more vulnerable we are, the more self-preservation we enact and therefore the more self-involved we get. We lose our neutrality. Our vulnerability doesn’t have to be a physical matter; often we are most vulnerable about our fragile human egos. We often perceive unwanted behaviors in our horses as some threat to those egos, and our immediate response is to decide that the horse is “giving us attitude” and “trying to take charge.” In response, we then get to feel better about ourselves by “showing him who’s boss!” or “not letting him get away with that!” Even accomplished trainers can make this mistake, for when they encounter a horse for whom their program doesn’t work, they may assign blame to the animal rather than trying to understand the horse’s perspective. Most good trainers will check for pain in the horse first, but pain is only one possible cause for unwanted behaviors. If the horse checks out from a veterinary perspective, even the best sometimes feel like they have a free pass for “whipping her into shape.”

I remember a child who’s mother called me to visit their pony. The pony had started refusing jumps and even rearing a little bit, and they hadn’t owned her long enough to know if this was normal or not. Even after the pony shared that she had incredible pain in her fetlocks, which the daughter and mother saw up close when I showed them the inflammation and swelling, the trainer remained steadfast in his anthropomorphizing. “She is being such a bratty pony! She just can’t do that to Lily. I showed Lily how to ride her through it and make her get back to work. She almost ruined our shot at regionals!” Yep, sometimes we humans are all about us.

We may also become overly sensitive in the opposite direction and turn our horse’s behavior into proof of our inadequacy. Some people believe that the horse is “showing them” how terrible they are as riders or horsemen, and that the evidence of their incompetence is in the horse’s reaction. “My horse tells me I suck all the time,” may be a typical example of anthropomorphizing in this way, or even “If I were just a better rider, I wouldn’t have these problems with her.” Many self-reflective people and empathetic horsemen will go to this mindset in their anthropomorphizing, especially if they learned the golden rule of “never blame the horse.” This perspective seems healthier in that they are unlikely to punish the horse and are looking to themselves for answers, but it’s just as short-sighted as the domination mentality. By assuming that we are the cause of the horse’s behavior, we once again project our own issues on to the horse and make the scenario about us. In so doing, the valuable information the horse is giving us is lost to our ego. The horse never gets “heard,” or has his issues addressed, because we’re doing all the talking. This serves neither party, and neither do the feelings of stress or failure that we then bring to our rides as a result of our beliefs.

Regardless of the expression, many people anthropomorphize to the extent that their emotions take complete control of the relationship, and they then feel the need to physically or mentally punish their horses for these supposed transgressions. The vast majority of riders and trainers fall in this category, as most of us are not taught to separate our emotions from our riding. Consequently, anthropomorphizing is probably the biggest cause of trauma for all equine-kind, because horses do not understand what they did wrong to deserve that treatment. The unfairness of such acts can drive horses mad.

The number one complaint I receive from our equine friends is that they do not understand what we want, and that their incomprehension receives punishment. The second most common complaint I hear is that they are trying to tell their rider that they are incapable of performing the task at hand, but no one is listening and instead they are punished for non-compliance. The third most common complaint is inconsistency: riders either act differently based on their emotional state, or boundaries and cues established yesterday don’t mean the same thing today, and the horse is punished for not knowing the difference. For an animal with a mentality level of a kindergartener, the world of humans can be a scary place. It’s no wonder so many horses shut down to avoid that kind of stress.

That said, horses work very hard to understand us. They’re not stupid; they certainly understand if they are punished for bucking that bucking is not something you want. But the waters get pretty murky, because horses have reasons for their behavior that is completely unrelated to pleasing you (shocking!). They may be trying to relay information, or are having a trauma response, or are stuck in fight or flight mode. Often, what we label as “bad behavior” is an instinctual reaction from the horse and not even something she has conscious control over. In anthropomorphizing, we condemn horses for not having the same presence of mind and mental cognizance as human beings. We perceive their nature as a threat to our own.

But we cannot blame people for being people, just as we cannot blame horses for being horses. Precious few trainers or instructors even understand horses enough to speak about this issue and educate their clients. Most just learned, like Lily (name changed) learned from her trainer, that “it’s such a bratty pony.” They don’t even understand that they are making an assumption, let alone that the assumption is wildly off the mark. Most of us are just in our worlds, focused on our own agendas, reacting to things that don’t go our way. We are unaware of the lives around us and our impact on them, because we’re swallowed by the deep jungle of our own perspectives.

Even those who do understand this insidious habit of anthropomorphizing are not immune to it. I find myself having a momentary lapse now and again, or empathizing with a client ‘s perspective that the horse is “irritating” in his behavior. I catch myself almost immediately, but it’s unrealistic to expect that we can remain neutral at all times. After all, horses are such powerful mirrors that they are constantly reflecting our energy – and our issues – back to us. It’s a set up for us to have emotional responses to them. Instead of berating ourselves for falling into old patterns, we can use this exchange as an opportunity to become more awake and alive by really looking in that mirror when our horse shows it to us. We can evaluate the emotions that arise and become conscious of the assumptions we are making. Just as we want to be present with our horses, we can use these patterns to become present to ourselves and grow in awareness of what we’re doing on the inside.

If you’re not sure whether you’re anthropomorphizing or not, remember the texting example and ask yourself, “what kind of story am I making up here?” Seeing the beliefs and decisions you’re making, as well as the emotions involved, will help you untangle fact from fiction. You can turn your emotional response on its head and improve your relationship with your horse by examining these pieces. See an example of breaking down this anthropomorphizing here.

Of course, there will be times when all of that fails and we are simply stuck in the misery of the situation. That’s okay. The best thing to do is to recognize that emotions have entered your relationship and to step back if you can’t get out of them. I did this with Fiona, when I realized that I couldn’t be 100% fair to her because of my distress. I sent her to a different trainer and used that space to regain my footing and work on what had come up in myself. My change in perspective allowed me to see her neutrally again, and I was able to find fresh approach to helping her through ReBOOTs. I stopped letting my emotions dictate the relationship, and we both benefitted from the exchange.

In addition to training ourselves out of anthropomorphizing, we can also teach ourselves to better understand equine nature. This endeavor will help us reprogram our default interpretation responses to our horse’s behavior. When we understand the language, we don’t have to fill in the blanks for our equine friend. We can learn to speak “horse” and so that they no longer live in silence. In this way, we can engage in a dialogue with our equine friends and build the relationships with our horses that we truly desire. Stick around for Speaking for the Silent: Part 2 for a glimpse into the equine nature from the perspective of an animal communicator and her horse.

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