I don’t know about you, but when I go somewhere new I like to get the lay of the land. If I’m camping I explore the area. If I’m in a hotel room I peek in all the cupboards, and closets. Check to make sure the bed and bathroom are clean. I might open the window to let in fresh air or close the curtains to give me a sense of privacy. I want to be comfortable and feel safe.
With a clinic coming up this weekend I think about the horses traveling in. How do they feel about coming to a new place?
Think of their paddock for the weekend like a hotel room. If you pay attention, when horses go into a new paddock or pasture the first thing they do is start moving around and investigating. They look around and see what they can see. Explore the perimeters. Maybe test the fencing. Meet their neighbors. They sniff the ground and any piles of manure or puddles of urine – who’s been here before me? They check to see if they have water and food.
Can you imagine being taken someplace new and being tethered to someone who insists you stay behind them, and only move when they move? Oh, and don’t get distracted! You aren’t allowed to explore or investigate at all.
Consider that horses use all of their senses to gather information from the world around them. They can smell, see, hear, feel and taste things that are completely outside the range of our own senses. The mammalian nervous system is purpose-built to gather information that helps us survive. I’ve spent the last few years actively developing my ability to engage my senses more like my horses do. My nervous system has never been happier!
So why is it so many horse training practices seem to ask a horse to squash that inherent need to gather information from their environment when they are with us? Depending on the situation we might say they are distracted (as though that is a mortal sin) or worse, ‘out of control’. I know, horses are big and quick. Their nervous system is designed to prioritize their ability to coordinate movement. They tend to need to move to feel safe and if they forget we’re there it can be dangerous.
I get that.
But I also know from my personal explorations that when I don’t make use of my own senses the way nature intended then I feel anxious. All. The. Time. It took a while to figure out why I was so anxiety ridden. And it wasn’t until I started consciously exploring what it’s like to make use of all of my senses that I realized I had been essentially starving my nervous system of information it needed to guide me to do things like drink water when I was mildly dehydrated. Simple stuff. But as far as my nervous system is concerned it’s life or death – basic survival needs.
What an eye opener!
So I’m thinking, here we are with a population of domesticated horses who are riddled with metabolic syndromes. Ulcers are so common it’s ridiculous. I remember reading some years ago that over 90% of horses at that time died from digestive related issues. Wow. I have to wonder how much stress it causes them to have to subvert their instinctive behavior when they are with us?
I started exploring these ideas with my own horses and found that if I let them, each and every one of them wanted to explore the arena when we first got in there. Yes, they were distracted. They wanted to move and their attention was all over the map. I went along for the ride, giving them enough slack in the lead line to follow them wherever they wanted to go.
They might stop and stare off into the distance for a while. Then they might go check out the perimeter of the area and see what was available to nibble on. If there were manure piles or places where there had been a manure pile they wanted to sniff each and every one. This never went on for more than about 5 minutes before I’d feel their attention shifting towards me.
Once they were done exploring the space they always came back to me and were able to focus fully on what I had in mind. And oh boy! What great practice for me to be tethered to my horse and stay with them, in the moment, not pulling on their heads, not being in a hurry, staying out of their way while staying with them. Phew. All my impatience and control freak tendencies showed up in spades the first few times!
Horses are no different from other mammals. They like to explore and investigate. They use all of their senses to do that. I wonder how much less stress related illness we’d have in our horses if we allowed them to make use of their senses? If we explored with them instead of demanding their attention be only on us at all times?
Now, when I take my horses out and about into new territory we walk together. We explore new things together. Each of us stands in our own autonomy, confident in our natural abilities to use our senses to guide us and keep us safe. I don’t need to control my horses. And they don’t dive for grass and drag me all over the countryside.
As you haul your horses out and about this weekend remember that it’s stressful for them to travel and they probably won’t behave exactly like they do at home. Let them move their feet. Let them sniff around and investigate this new place. Stay safe by keeping your horse’s nervous system happy and healthy!
If you’d like to learn more about how to work with your horse’s instinctive behaviors you are welcome to come join Anna Blake and I this weekend. We’d love to see you!
Conversations that Restore: June 2-3, 2018. Auditor and Participating auditor spots available.