"What's in it for the horse?"
Here is an important question, it is something I have been talking about recently in the dismounted discussions on my clinics… “What’s in it for the horse?”
I think it is a good question, a question I like to ask myself regularly whilst riding or working with my horses and a question I encourage riders to ask themselves on a regular basis…
“What’s in it for the horse?”
Why should we ask that question of ourselves? Well, because otherwise it is just possible that we are taking something from the noble creature without giving anything back, without being aware of the ‘other’ as a sentient and valued being in its own right, reducing the horse to nothing but a vehicle for whatever reward we wish to derive from our riding - competition wins, an antidote to life’s miseries, personal sense of achievement or whatever it is that motivates us ride… but mainly I like to ask that question because I am seeking some kind of willing involvement from the horse as a partner…
I think there are quite a lot of things the horse can derive from being with us and by being ridden and those things can be traced to some aspect of the natural way of the horse in its feral state… Here are some thoughts to get you started:
Horses are naturally social creatures, they live in groups and within the herd they form very close bonds with special individuals with whom they enjoy close companionship and a safe and respectful relationship. We can do that!
Horses can be inquisitive creatures but that inquisitiveness is tempered by the fact that they are prey animals… so whilst they might like to go walkabout and see new things and nosey about whats around the next corner, their prey animal status makes them highly cautious and suspicious of new things and places. What they can benefit from is trusting us as a leader and borrowing our courage to go ‘walkabout,’ with us they are loaned a sense of boldness and get the chance to see and experience things they wouldn't have the courage to do with their own timid prey animal nature.
Horses like to play and to use their bodies, to dance, express, to feel good. Generally horses express themselves through an extravagant use of their bodies and their paces when the wind is up, a new horse arrives on the block or they feel like they need to have a maintenance dose of posing in the pasture which happens for about twenty minutes per week as a broad average… And using their bodies makes them feel good! When we ride well and have them express themselves through beautiful movement or self-carriage we are encouraging them to experience that fun aspect of the expressive nature more often.
Here is an interesting thought shared with me some years ago by a wily old horse woman: that when the foal seeks safety it stands beneath its mothers neck, so that the mare’s neck is across the foal’s wither and back… this is exactly the same place that we take up when we sit on the riding horse and drape our legs over him or her.