I find it fascinating to watch children talking to animals. It’s almost like studying mustangs. Kids are who we are, in a more natural state.
The toddler wants to pet the cat, cradle the cat like a doll, take the cat for a walk. It’s sweet and childlike, but I’ll also use the word dominate. Is that word too strong for a little girl?
I’ll use that harsh word because the toddler wants to have her way. Game on! Some cats become boneless, as easy to hold as a furry eel. Some stay just barely out of reach, in a sea of table legs or on top the bookshelf. Cats manage to control the environment, holding just at the edge of possibility, only to tease. We don’t commonly use treats with cats, so no baiting. (I know clicker training works, but not usually for toddlers.)
The reason cats and kids are fun to watch is that we’re in on the joke. Cats have that quality humans love/hate; cats have intelligence and autonomy. We know it’s the cat who’s playing, and they have the advantage.
“The biggest enemy to the partnership of dressage is impatience and the human nature to dominate other creatures.” Walter Zettl
It’s easy to rant against domination when it’s physical brutality. Easy to rage against dog fighting and Rollkur. Drawing attention to cruelty is easy because most of us aren’t cruel.
Kids are impatient and kids like to have their way. It’s okay, they’re only kids, but they’re also the perfect expression of our nature. The instinct that we think we’re the boss. It’s how our brain works naturally.
A simple explanation of the difference between us and non-human animals, like horses. Scientists agree that horses have consciousness, defined as being aware of their own body and the surrounding environment. They think. Humans have self-awareness, generally defined as consciousness, as well as the awareness of our existence. We think, and then we think about our thoughts.
The thought process that makes us feel superior, self-awareness, is also the thing that also gets us in trouble. It’s instinct as pure as a child, our thoughts talk us into thinking we can control outcome. That we can control animals, through our love for them, for their own good.
It sounds like logic seen through our eyes. Of course, the horse, a flight animal, should give up control of his feet to us so we can pick them up; so the farrier can trim him. Of course, he should want to get into a horse trailer, a small noisy metal box, so we can go trail ride, or take him to the vet for an emergency. See it from his side.
While riding, our hands want to control what a horse can look at, where he puts his feet, and the speed he travels. For his own good and our own safety, we alter his balance. We absolutely love to ride (when we are in control.)
Most of us hate an over-controlling quality in other humans, while we enjoy being victims of our own uncontrollable house cats. Even as we still feel somehow that we deserve to control horses. As if building trust was as easy as buying hay.
Stalls. Fly masks. Winter rugs. Vaccines. I love my horse so much, I keep him controlled in a small stall. Where is the place between supporting horses with confidence and loving them into a state of learned helplessness? Between respecting their natural instinct and keeping them safe.
The advantage of giving up the idea that we can control the universe, or even an hour on a horse, is that it puts us back into the conscious part of our brain. It’s where we are more aware of our senses and the natural world around us. Rather than fantasizing about the perfect ride, we are in a position to converse in real time with a real horse. Not as easy intellectualizing about it but infinitely more rewarding.
When you stop and think about it, our natural instincts are a poor match with the natural instinct of a flight animal. Emotions don’t change that. It’s an awareness that we should keep in the forefront of our training: our differences are on a level of instinct, not choice. If we expect a horse to lay down his instincts for us, then we had better be ready to make that same commitment.
What happens when a horse has autonomy? He grows confidence, just like a cat. Yikes.
To them, it would sound like humans saying yes, all the time. Less of the correction of training and more direction to a positive place. It means that we start with acceptance them just the way they are. It sounds simple but saying yes is trickier than it sounds. It isn’t enough love horses, it’s that question of how we show our love. Where is that middle path, between spoiling them by smothering their instinct and supporting them to their best confident selves?
Where to start? First, we must embody that same confidence in ourselves.
Zettl is right; the biggest challenge to partnering with horses is that we can’t have our way. Like a toddler who whines that the cat doesn’t like her, we must find a way to lift our conversation above love or hate, to a place of equality with this intelligent creature. Instead of mitigating our weaknesses, we need to partner our strengths.
Rest in Peace, Mr. Zettl. We’ll do our best.