Riders know that, because every horse is different and every person is different, no horse will respond to different people in the same way. To make things even more complicated, a given horse might offer different reactions to the same person on separate occasions… but that’s not what I’m getting at today. My inexperience with groundwork and, in particular, true relationship-building, has led to a certain level of naivety about these reactions.
I’d heard that horses – and other animals – can have profoundly different reactions when faced with a human who displays – whether in an introverted or extroverted way – that they are vulnerable or different, but I hadn’t seen it first hand until earlier this year. As horsepeople, many of us are aware that there are “special” horses who are suited to working with disabled riders or particularly nervous people, but these reactions can actually be far more spontaneous. Horses just seem to know. They can be aware that some people just need a bit of extra care, or confidence, or… something. That some people aren’t sure who they are, where they are or what they’re doing, but that being around animals might help them, and that those animals should be patient and placid in order to facilitate this.
It isn’t always those who need medical or therapeutic help who generate these behaviours, though. Horses know when a person is experienced, when a person is an adult, and when they can get away with stuff. I know because I’ve seen it. It can be infuriating. I have a list of horses my boss has asked me to particularly focus on with my horsemanship work. By co-incidence, two of the top three have been “adopted” by campers who have been selected for my horsemanship class. If I take the rope, those two horses are Class A douchebags – this happens to my colleagues too. When a camper is on the rope, you could mistake these 16 hand idiots for lambs. Don’t get me wrong: the horses don’t do exactly what the campers want – this bit is down to the inexperience of the kids, and the fact that they’re beginners at this particular element of handling equines – but they also don’t behave like the complete monsters they can be with adults.
Earlier this year, when I was first watching some equine learning sessions, conducted using horses I was getting to know well, I was frustrated that the animals were responding far “better” to the children involved than if I were working with them. The horses were much more placid and amenable than they were with me. They forgave mistakes and gave the handler wins more easily. Nothing advanced was being achieved – it was mostly walking, stopping and turning on command – but it was all being done without a huge amount of fuss. At the time, the horses didn’t really want to be with me, planted their feet and grinned as I got increasingly frustrated.
I’ve become a little more relaxed in the last few months. It’s still irritating when someone else’s horse doesn’t understand me as well as they understand and acquiesce to their owner – though that shouldn’t come as a surprise – but my ego has been knocked down to size. I still feel like a complete novice, and that I very rarely have the best answer to a given question. My knowledge and observation of the very basics has improved a huge amount, but I miss the support of my mentor which I know would help me to push on through the next few levels. I don’t compare myself directly to other people who work with the same horse, because I’ve seen that work in my favour and against me during the last six weeks – it’s gone both ways: I’ve had an easier time with horses than others have, as well as having a tough time when others have achieved results I can’t.
Ultimately, I’ve still got what seems like an immeasurable amount to learn and I got a timely reminder recently when I was scrolling through inspirational quotes on Facebook: every horse has something to teach, every person has something to learn.