Do our horses love us?
“The horse is a great equalizer, he doesn’t care how good looking you are, or how rich you are or how powerful you are – he takes you for how you make him feel.”
— Buck Brannaman
‘The difference between man and the higher animals, great as it is, certainly is one of degree and not kind’
Darwin; ‘the descent of man’.
I was listening to a conversation recently, where a very knowledgeable horsewoman (who I respect deeply) was describing a way of achieving something with a horse; and finished rather whimsically ‘..and your horse will love you’. She then paused, and added ‘well of course they don’t really love us, but you know what I mean.’
‘Hang on a minute’ I thought, but the moment passed, and we didn’t get to discuss that little aside more deeply.
So let’s talk about Love. Real Love.
I always knew I ‘loved’ horses. I was obsessed with them as a child, all I wanted was horses.
However for many immature years I did not treat the horses I owned as individuals that I Loved. I loved the idea of horses, but I didn’t really even know who those real, flesh and blood horses were. They did not usually measure up to my dreams, which were selfishly all about what horses could do for me, although I didn’t realise it at the time. In return, the horses hid themselves from me. At best, I was a problem for them to solve.
Brutal honesty? It was a typical master/slave dynamic, and the individual riding school horses, and later my own first ponies and horses that I interacted with, usually could not hope to live up to my childish expectations of unearned regard. While I dreamed of harmony with horses, the reality was better described as a nightmare, at best, hit and miss, and overall largely frustrating for all of us. I was variously coddling, clingy, demanding, needy, forceful, and chauvinistic. It was, I thought, the horse who needed training, or adjusting, or to change his ‘attitude’. I was also in deep denial about my own skills, attitude and understanding.
You don’t treat someone you actually Love like that, right?
In return, my horses would be hard to catch, resigned, ‘shut down’ or defiant. I would blame them for being variously:
…the list goes on.
But really, what I was doing was projecting my personal, in the moment misinterpretations and assumptions upon the motivations of the horse.
And that, I later learned, was anthropomorphism.
For many years since, I have espoused the wisdom of not projecting human thoughts and emotions onto animals.
Anthropomorphism is not considered cool in most enlightened horsy circles.
I have heard countless people being corrected for ascribing ‘human’ emotions to horses since I learned not to do it myself.
But…are we really so certain that horses do not ‘feel’ Love?
The projection of our own personal feelings and ascribing them to our horses is rightfully not fair or accurate. It is equally unfair to project our own emotions and thoughts upon any other person or animal. However it is, to my mind and to my heart, hugely unjust to take this legitimate correction of ‘projecting personal emotion’, and extend it to presume that horses do not feel ‘Love’ (and other emotions) at all.
Firstly; to me the obvious reason; which is an intuitive one when it comes to the word ‘love’.
When I first started practising partnership/relationship based training my horses changed. For the first time, they were being acknowledged as individual, thinking beings themselves, and were now allowed to have opinions without unjust reactions on my part. I learned to say ‘how interesting’ and to read undesired behaviour as feedback, instead of immediately blaming and/or correcting the horse. Their responses became a puzzle for me, I needed to use my imagination and empathy to try and set them up so they could find success. This on turn changed how the viewed me. I ceased being a problem to solve, and instead they found me setting puzzles for them, and my horses became puzzle solvers themselves. In the process, they revealed themselves as the intelligent, intuitive, playful and curious beings that they are.
As our relationships deepened, they started to trust that there was always an ‘out’ from any dilemma. Using good techniques with very clear principles always held at the forefront, and despite my many mistakes along the way, my horses felt empowered to search for the release from any pressure, or the reward for anything well played. The ‘seeking’ mode was activated in my horses, superseding the prey animal instinctive reactions and replacing them in our times together. This seeking mode, along with its cousins care, rage, lust, play, fear and panic; are common to horse and human alike.
This deepened as my journey expanded, my feel and timing improved, and as I learned and gained knowledge and experience with teachers both human and equine.
The wild horses showed me explicitly about Love. I have watched and cried as a mustered wild mare grieved over her aborted foal, and I know that my Feel for that grief gave her the motivation to reach out and touch me, a human, for the first time in her wild life.
Grief is the price we all pay, ultimately, for Love.
It’s what we have in common that matters, not our differences.
The equine brain and the human brain have much more in common than not. The most important difference is that we have a prefrontal cortex, and much of the human brain is used for language and fine motor skills, while most of the horse’s brain is used for analyzing information received from the environment. This is why the cerebellum is much larger (relatively) in the equine brain than in the human brain. This is the part of the brain where the integration of sensory perception, coordination and overall motor control takes place.
However, the part of the brain where emotions are correlated is a very ancient part of the evolutionary structure, and horses definitely have an amygdala and hippocampus structure just as we do. We have the seat of our emotions in common.
So what is Love?
First of, it’s a word, and words are interpreted differently. We need to remember that what one person means by the word is not necessarily the same as another’s interpretation. This is where I think most misunderstanding occurs, between people and our symbols. Horses don’t have words, so it’s much simpler and more direct. You feel it, or you don’t.
I really feel that horses probably are much better at ‘Love’ than we are. Their brains go straight to the source. Thy aren’t confused by symbols and interpretations and logic. Love is not a logical process. It’s a feeling.
I think when speaking of Love as meaning unconditional, appreciating, and caring deeply about another, that the brain mode which scientists call ‘care’ (another label) covers it. The instinct to nurture. Friendship. Reciprocal esteem. We hold that in common.
I think that underlying truth applies to us, and to horses. All the human confusion between romanticism, attraction, possession, desire, lust, parenthood, the unmet needs of children projected upon pets, and the various stages of care as expressed by men and women and every other iteration of the immature needy creepiness that we sometimes project, is far more likely to be less ‘love’ than that simple purity which horses express for their young, their mates, their herd, and, yes, when we nurture it, to us.
Who are we to determine the depths of anyone else’s relationships? When in a relationship, you know if the feeling is reciprocated. If you don’t, then the relationship you have is not a mutual one, and you are objectifying your partner, horse, child, …victim? For without a doubt there are people who claim ‘love’ while actually experiencing possessiveness, or indulging in romantic fantasies about idealised partners who are nothing like that in reality, and who may be entirely oblivious to any feeling of reciprocity.
When my horses see me, their response is usually positive. If they are calm and happy they run to greet me. If they are tired they will nicker and wait for me to join them in the slumber fest. If they are scared they will include me in their alarm, and be mightily relieved if I can check it out, walk out the stress with or for them, and they will believe me when I say ‘it’s ok’. They know I have their back.
Love is not ownership, it’s not a right, and it can only be given, never taken.
It’s a heady claim I know. It sounds childishly naive, and I expect that in many cases the claim ‘she loves me’ is exactly that naivety.
But I feel that is true only if your definition of Love differs from mine.