Friday 25 October 2013

‘If you love somebody, set them free’

A sentimental title, but I’m feeling sentimental.

On Wednesday I was teaching at Horse Haven Riding School for the first time since I became ill in July. I’ve been very touched by their care in returning me to work gradually - first day back was one gentle 1/2 hour lesson, perfect.

Even more touched by the care shown to their horses and ponies. 

One of their little ponies, Peaches, who had been with them for many years, had taken ill. The love and attention she was shown could not have been better if she was somebody’s beloved only horse.  
The decision to have her put to sleep, although emotional, was taken unselfishly, rationally and with full focus on what was best for Peaches. 

Letting your horse go can be one of the hardest decisions to make, and although this was a sad occasion, it felt like the right thing was done at the best time, and you couldn’t ask for more.

With love to all who loved Peaches.  

Sunday 20 October 2013

A little bit about a big word - Anthropomorphism

Firstly, what is it? The Oxford English Dictionary defines anthropomorphism as

‘the attribution of human characteristics or behaviour to a god, animal, or object.

There is a prevalent view that we shouldn't anthropomorphise about horses. From behavioural scientists to natural horsemanship gurus, all sorts of people will emphasise the dangers of attributing human desires, emotions and characteristics to horses, as doing this can lead us to dangerously inaccurate explanations of our horse's behaviour and to managing and training them in ways that are ineffective, dangerous and bad for their welfare.

I am 100% behind the idea of avoiding anthropomorphism. Like most of you, I've noticed that horses are a bit different from people, and we shouldn't make assumptions about their motivations, needs, or feelings based on our own. Indeed, we know that their needs are often significantly different from ours.

To keep it simple, I’ll just deal with emotions here, and start with a real example.

I'm chatting to a client, and she says she feels her horse was grieving when her field-mate died. Then she apologises and says that another trainer has already corrected her for saying this, telling her that she shouldn't attribute human emotions to horses.

This isn't an isolated example – I hear this quite a lot – people are defensive, apologetic or a bit embarrassed to say they think their horses feel love, grief, happiness – a whole range of emotions.

So, this other trainer was quite right, in my view, in saying that we shouldn't attribute human emotions to horses. BUT who said that grief is an emotion that belongs to humans? Well, humans said that of course, and we've got an impressive track record for claiming ownership of things that should not be exclusively ours J

How humans claimed ownership of emotions is beyond the scope of this article – and, to be honest, beyond the scope of my knowledge! Philosophy, science, politics and religion have all influenced our reasoning over many centuries. In the 17th century, Rene Descartes argued that animals are automata that might act as if they are conscious, but really are not so – all their behaviour can be explained in purely mechanistic terms, and to this day academics are still putting forward arguments that animals do not necessarily even experience pain!

Maybe we can’t ‘prove’ what emotions our horses feel, but absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. We don’t even know much about the emotions other people feel – how do we know that two people who say they feel upset are feeling the same thing? But we listen, we observe, we draw on our own experiences and we (hopefully) do our best to understand what other people are feeling.

So fine, don’t attribute human emotions to horses. But be very sure that the emotion you are talking about is definitely exclusive to human-kind before you decide your horse couldn't be feeling it! 

And don’t let people make you feel airy-fairy or sentimental for considering that your horse may have a more complex emotional life than we generally give them credit for.

Thursday 17 October 2013

Who knows what makes a horse happy?

On the way up to where my horses live, there are two ponies in a small paddock. They have been there for the 9 years that I've been there, and I know they don't go out. I've always felt a bit sorry for them, imagining they have a rather dull life. But actually, although I could not say for sure that they are 'happy', they certainly show no signs of discontent, and are progressing into a healthy old age.

So, I was thinking about them the other day when I was talking to someone who was feeling guilty about not getting her horse out much, as she had read that feral horses can cover large areas every day, while her pony was stuck in a comparatively small paddock. Her pony has company, ad lib hay and grazing, and 24/7 turnout.

It seems to me that we often confuse two things - giving our horses a natural life, and giving them an 'enjoyable' life. There is a big overlap between the two but they are not the same thing.

For example, if we observe a population of feral horses, and all of them travel at least 8 miles a day, it doesn't actually tell us anything about whether they enjoy doing this! If someone had observed me 2 winters ago, they would have seen me walking to visit my horses, about 1 mile through deep snow, every day - if they then concluded that I enjoyed this and arranged life for me so that I could do it every day, I'd be distinctly unimpressed - I did it because I had to :-)

Likewise, horses may travel to find water, good grazing, protection from the weather or from flies. They may also do this because they enjoy it, but we shouldn't assume so. We can think about what is physically or mentally good for them, what is natural, and what is enjoyable - all different things and some fairly impossible to measure! I'm pretty certain that many horses do enjoy wandering far and wide, but I also think that some would be perfectly content to do the equine equivalent of staying home and watching TV.

Yet again, it is down to assessing the individual, and trying not to make assumptions, whether they are based on traditional horse management methods, natural behaviour, or human preferences. There is a baseline from which, I feel, you should always start - that horses need adequate turnout, equine company, and lots of forage, but beyond that the ways in which we can enrich our horse's lives are many and varied, and very individual.

So, who knows what makes a horse happy? Your horse knows, and if you listen to him you may find out too :-)

(with no apology for using the apparently anthropomorphic term 'happy' - more on that later...)