In a way a lot of people interested in horses, particularly people who have got interested in natural horsemanship, got here because, at heart, we want to be friends with our horses. We want to them to feel they can trust us, rely on us and to like us – we are social animals, just as they are, and wanting to be liked is a big part of that.
This keys into one of the trickiest intellectual problems we run into when we are thinking about our time with horses. The idea that a horse might think enough like us that they see social relationships and friendships in the way that we do is, at heart, anthropomorphism. So many difficulties that we create for our horses derive from anthropomorphic thinking – maybe most of us these days don’t think that our horse is trying to get one over us or behaving in a particular way because they know it will annoy us ( horses are never doing those things, they are only ever being horses ) but is it really any less anthropomorphic to think that our horse wants to be our friend or wants to play with us? If we are going to get rid of the negative anthropomorphism, we really need to get rid of the positive as well for our position to make sense.
The simple truth is that we cannot know how our horses feel about us, what they find interesting or boring or even whether they have any concepts equivalent to interest or boredom – what would it mean for an animal that would choose to be grazing most of the time to be bored? The way they physically perceive the world is unimaginable to our minds adapted for our own sensory system.
In fact when you consider that, it’s a miracle that we manage to have as much fellow feeling with our horses as we do. It is quite possible to have very subtle and reliable lines of communication between a horse and a person that both absolutely understand. This is interspecies communication at what I consider to be a uniquely sophisticated level – I can’t think of any equivalent to the constant contact and feedback that is available between a horse and rider.
To me, a big part of how we make that work is about finding a line between anthropomorphism and empathy. I don’t want to be attributing human needs or motives on my horse, but I definitely want to make the best guess I can about what they are feeling and where their attention is, to recognise their tries and to give them the benefit of the doubt if I am unsure. I also know that horses need to feel safe and want to feel comfortable and if I can judge how relaxed and how comfortable they are at any given time then I can ensure that when they are with me and we are working together, they are as relaxed and comfortable as possible.
What helps with that is that as social animals, horses are highly communicative- you only have to watch interactions within a herd to see how much they can say with a flick of an ear or a lift of the head. They are always offering us honest feedback in their terms about what is going on and although I don’t believe that a horse would ever believe us to be another horse – that would be weird, wouldn’t it? – we can learn to read horse-to-horse communication and maybe tap into parts of it enough that we can make ourselves understood.
This is a tricky area and one where I think we all have to make our own judgement on where we stand- this post is simply my own take on it. I don’t believe my horses perceive me as a friend or as a herdmate or anything of that type but when we are in the field together they do choose to come over and spend time with me, ask for scratchies and generally distract me from whatever tasks I’m trying to achieve. If I go out of sight when they are in a stable they will often whicker to me on my return and seem keen to interact with me. That is the way I want things to be- I definitely want my horse to feel comfortable in my company and it opens the door to a lot of the training I seek to do.
For my part, I love my horses – I think of them as my friends and enjoy their company more than that of many humans. I also constantly anthropomorphise them, having one-sided conversations with what I imagine them to be saying, attributing human characteristics to them and generally being totally irrational about the whole affair. Horses will do that to you. But underneath the jokes and nonsense, I am very conscious that for all the ideas I have of what they might be thinking if they were people, the fairest thing I can do if I want to offer them human friendship is to treat them as horses.