I called my brother this morning to wish him happy birthday, and we got to talking about a trip he took to Uganda. He told me about a park he and his wife had visited where they were able to observe a few families of Gorillas, and about how the park employees spent time acclimating them to humans so that tourists would be able to watch them without the gorillas being afraid. The conversation progressed to horse herds and eventually horse behavior. We discussed different behavior studies through time and how with horses, they tended to focus on making them less fearful, and more interested in being around humans. We brought up training methods which went to great length to make horses less afraid and more friendly, such as imprinting. Imprinting, in my opinion, is one of the most immoral ways to train a horse – this is where when a foal is born, before the mother is able to clean them off and bond with them, handles the foal and maybe introduces things that could potentially scare them in life, such as clippers, plastic bags, etc.
My brother mentioned that this reminded him of when he was a kid, how relatives would hug and touch him and pinch his cheeks, and how much he hated it. My brother is fairly introverted, quiet, and enjoys the company of a few people. He’s extremely intelligent. This forcing of affection was an affront to him. It got me to thinking.
Shelter cats and dogs that aren’t friendly don’t stand much of a chance of adoption. They can’t just lack aggression or negative behaviors, but must show extreme levels of excitement, drive for affection, and desire to be around people. Not being this friendly or interested in endless affection is an actual threat to an animal’s life. People feel sad for working dogs who spend their time satisfying their genetic desire being active and fulfilling a purpose outdoors, but are comfortable and even happier with the image of an overweight family dog milling around in the house, sleeping on a couch. When a timid, scared, abused, neglected, or just green horse comes into people’s lives, they work hard at making them more friendly. They want this horse to enjoy petting, being fed, and interacting with humans. It’s the reason why many riders prefer goofy, in your pocket puppy dog personality type geldings, and have disdain for mares, who are often labeled as “witchy” and “nasty,” when really they probably just lack this goofy nature and worry about their own needs first.
The first thing people do when they meet a dog is reach down to pet it – often with no regard to that dog’s expression, behavior, or needs. My pitbull is a happy-go-lucky guy who loves a good cuddle, but my heeler is a nervous natured and devoted one person dog. I’m always a little shocked when, after someone who’s never met her tries to pet her, and she hides behind my legs, they STILL pursue petting her – after she has clearly said no. Luckily, she’d rather hide than bite, but if she did bite, people would comment on her poor behavior, instead of their poor ability to respect her needs.
Similarly with human interactions, introverted people often face their friends and family’s disregard for their introverted nature. They are offended if you don’t want to hug, offended if you prefer silence to chatting, and offended if you don’t accept invitations to parties. In the professional arena, it’s nearly impossible to be successful without being extroverted. I’ve often noticed the most successful horse people aren’t always the most talented with horses, but the best talkers. People love to be acknowledged – sometimes clinics can be more of a social event for many than a resource to get help with their horse.
With the developments in understanding of autism and how different minds work, people are gaining more acceptance toward different social behavior. But it makes me think, what makes it so important to us to be needed? We often neglect or ignore the needs and nature of the animals in our lives and tend to focus on the need they should be filling for us instead, however anthropomorphized that relationship may be. A horse, dog, or cat, no matter how much we love them, will always be an animal first. I’m not offended in the least that my horse loves to be outside, eating grass with her friends, over being with me. It would be completely out of her self interest to leave them and do what I ask. Do I love her and want her to enjoy time with me? Of course! I do my best to make our interactions beneficial to her, enjoyable, and give her something to feel good about. But when she leaves me, I don’t expect her to be sitting at the fence pining away for me while i’m inside eating my dinner. That would be absurd – she is a horse first.
I wonder sometimes what’s missing from our human relationships that makes us feel the need to fill that void elsewhere. I think its an unfair burden to lay on an animal. To respect the horse, in my opinion, is to leave their nature in tact. My horse will always be a horse – she can buck, rear, kick, spook, bolt if the situation calls for it – that’s what she was given to protect herself. But I try to make sure when we’re together she feels safe and there is no need for those actions. I don’t seek out to systematically eradicate her nature and dull her down til she’s a puppy dog that needs my affection. She is intelligent, with a high sense of self preservation and a very giving nature when she trusts a situation to not cause her harm.
I want my horses gentle, unafraid, and happy to be with me, but I don’t want to make them anything they are not.