Working With Your Horse – Part 3: Communicating With That Other Brain

This is the third in a series of articles on Working With Your Horse.  The others were entitled:

In the second article, we explained that a simple way of understanding how a horse thinks is to consider that it has both a logical brain and an other brain.  The other brain handles all the sensory perceptions.  That exactly parallels what happens with we humans where we have both a logical brain and an other brain handling sensory perceptions.  The big difference is that in horses the other brain is much more active in directing the horse’s actions and reactions.  That is because horses are prey animals and must be constantly on the alert to be ready to flee at the first sign of a potential threat.

In working with your horse, you cannot ignore this other brain of your horse.  It will pick up on the very smallest indication you may give by your body language.  Equally if you are very perceptive, you may spot small movements in some part of the horse that will signal what they are thinking about or what they are concerned about.

However there is another factor that comes into play in the relationship between horse and rider.  If you read a book like Connecting with Horses: The Life Lessons We Can Learn From Horses or the videos produced by Martin Clunes. you might feel that the connection you develop with your horse will be one of mutual respect and camaraderie.

That has a measure of truth, but it really distorts reality.  The natural grouping for a horse is the herd.  Within the herd, it’s not just a great life of pleasurable companionship.  In any herd, there is a natural hierarchy – a pecking order.  Usually the lead mare will exercise complete authority over the others.  Only when she has finished drinking is any other horse, usually the next in the pecking order, allowed to approach the water.  The leader of the herd is constantly confirming its superiority.  When the time comes to flee from danger, it is she who will lead that flight.  If any horse is to be caught by the threat, it will not be the lead mare.  The strongest survive to continue to lead the herd.  Weaker horses may fall by the wayside and in some cases die.  This tough process may seem cruel to a compassionate soul, but it is the reality that most horses believe applies to them.

The human rider does not escape this herd mentality.  The horse may well wish to establish that it is the boss. Only if the human rider insists that the horse respects the rider’s  ‘space’ will both have an acceptable way of interacting.  When the horse trusts the rider, then it can be ready to accept that the rider is the leader.  These words are easily written but very hard to apply.  Every horse is unique.  Depending on their upbringing and the other horses and humans that have come into their ‘herd’ from time to time, they may appear to react in highly unpredictable ways.

Each trainer develops his or her own way of ensuring that their horse sees them as a leader.  In fact there is a wide divergence of views among trainers on what is acceptable in establishing that leadership position.  Horsemen (and horsewomen) in general are often soft-spoken people who quietly work to achieve their task of developing trust in their horses.  Taking up the cudgels and confronting someone with whom you disagree is very far from their nature.  However that is beginning to change.

Only two months ago, a video appeared on YouTube showing Pat Parelli appearing to abuse a stallion, “Catwalk”, at the Festival of the Horse Natural Horsemanship Demonstration.  This so incensed another high-profile trainer, Chris Irwin, that he went public with his condemnation of what was shown in that video.  Pat Parelli has since then responded to the criticisms of his behavior in the Catwalk Video but still seems to feel that what was done was the only way.

Provided you have the skill and experience to be able to communicate with the horse’s other brain through correctly reading the body language and sending the right signals, harsh methods are unnecessary and in fact counter-productive.  There are a number of fine trainers who demonstrate that:  just watch John Lyons or Doug Mills in action to see how it is done.

Here in Langley BC we now have the opportunity to see a very experienced horseman who is certainly in the same league.  Jay O Jay thrills audiences with what he can accomplish even with very young horses.  It’s a fine example of what the Langley Horse Federation Workshop  is encouraging to make the public more aware of just how much horses can enrich our lives.