First an apology. The title of my last blog ‘How to Train a Wild Horse’ was misleading I believe my work is not training in the traditional sense and I often feel like I am being trained by them rather than they by me.
Our world has shifted. Coronavirus is restricting and challenging us on so many levels. I am making the most of this introspective time to slow down and pay attention to detail. This is the perfect time to look at the concepts and principles that underpin my work.
The definition of to train is; to develop or form habits, thoughts or behaviour by discipline and instruction. The miserable experience I had at school with discipline and instruction goes a long way to explaining why I would be resistant to imposing this on others. A more accurate description of how I work with equines is by encouraging communication and interaction. I do so by building trust and connection whilst working towards flexible objectives.
My two biggest influences have come from what I have learnt from equines themselves and ethology (The study of the behaviour of animals in their natural habitat). I do my best to combine my experience and common sense with intellectual knowledge. My work is almost always equine led, allowing the animals to shape and direct our interactions. I have a plan but I don’t get attached to it and take the long term view of its accomplishment. The other hugely important element has been studying equine ethology and evolution by observing feral ponies in the wild. As there are no truly wild horses left, feral populations give us a window through which we can view what is now the closest to truly wild horse behaviour. When we view equine behaviour from an ethological perspective we can really choose to take what we have learnt about them into consideration in all our interactions. We can then find answers that can enlighten us about how to create a high quality life for them.
I was very fortunate when I first starting researching natural animal behaviour to come across the book ‘Touching the Wild’ written by the remarkable ethologist Joe Hutto, in whose honour this blog site is named. This book is about his experiences over the nine years he spent living with Mule Deer. Everyday he would pack a lunch and go out with the herd, experiencing as well as observing their lives. This is what Joe has to say about his ethological work,
“The observations I’ve made are not complex. If I have a gift, it’s for recognising the obvious. But unless you become a part of the lives of these animals and put in the days and months and years, these observations will elude you. I’m like a cultural anthropologist, studying the animals’ social lives”.
I had a moment of epiphany when reading his book. He describes the first contact between a deer and himself which was instigated by the deer. I had previously experienced the same with semi feral ponies and I thought it was just an anomaly. It was a revelation to think that this could in fact be a more pure expression of natural behaviour than running away. The more I study feral ponies the clearer it becomes to me that by nature they are curious and social animals who choose to seek company, even with another species. It is the most natural thing in the world for an unhandled equine with no prior bad experience of humans to be curious about us, approach and then interact.
So I believe the starting point for any training, before we get anywhere near them is to study their species in depth. If we can get our heads around their innate behaviours, we can then understand not just their physical needs but also their social, emotional and cognitive ones too. I don’t claim to know the inner life of an equine but I do my best to learn from their behaviour and attempt to interpret it. I believe that it is our responsibility and privilege to study them as a species and as individuals. Then the decisions we make about how they live their lives more closely aligns with what nature and evolution has equipped them for. The brilliant work of the lifelong equine ethologist Lucy Rees is thoroughly researched and comprehensive. Her book ‘Horses in Company’ is the best source of information about horse behaviour that I have come across : www.lucyrees.uk
Equines are a social species who do their best to get along. Being in a group equals safety on a very fundamental level so they have strong motivation to adapt their behaviour to those around them. Even though I may be making a request of the equine one of my goals is to help them find the easiest way to do that. I prioritise calmness and confident engagement. I always allow them choice in their responses so that they can be as comfortable and accepting with what is being asked of them as they can possibly be.
As I write this blog I realise that it so important question everything (even this blog!) With so much information at our fingertips we need to remember to be discerning, and also to incorporate the wisdom gleaned from our own life experience. I always look into the credentials and ethos of the people whose teachings I may take on board. Science is often used to establish credibility, but there is a large variation in the quality of scientific studies, so again this is an area where we need to do our research. We owe it to our equines to be like gold panners and sift through information to find the nuggets.
When we have sound information and understanding we can look from the equine perspective. 56 million years of evolution has given them a blueprint for survival and therefore they are hardwired to behave in certain ways. They have an innate need to express these behaviours and when they are unable to, due to our influence, it creates long term stress which leads to multiple physical and behavioural problems. Equines that express natural behavior lead a fulfilled life, which in turn creates confidence and happiness. This means that we when interact with them there is a good chance that it will be calm, safe and straightforward.
Equines are often referred to as a prey species and this does indeed shape their behaviour. However by recognising that equines always choose to coexist in a peaceful way I always work with their curiosity and sociability. Through first considering and addressing their intrinsic needs, I work towards having a shared experiences and reciprocal attention to form a connection. Once this is established we end up as two beings who confidently and happily spend time and interact with each other. From here almost anything is possible. I have many tools in my equine toolbox, but in the end I always take my lead from them, this is my priority which I combine with the concepts I’ve outlined. I base my ‘training’ on this foundation.