Changing Our Words

I feel like I don’t have many pet peeves. When brainstorming topics for Amateur Hour, the idea of discussing our horsey pet peeves came up once. I thought about it for several days, and I never could think of any. The idea kind of fizzled out and we didn’t end up using it. While hand grazing Rio post-ride the other night, some pet peeves came to me.

The more I thought about it, the more I decided that this is something we should talk about as an equestrian community. The way we talk about our horses and their ‘motives’ creates this culture of how we inherently understand them. It is very tempting to want to assign  complex human-level emotions to our horses to explain their behavior in specific situations (especially when negative behavior is involved), but I really think that we should refrain from such a temptation. If we continually normalize such talk, it eventually translates into thinking that way, and younger riders will hear and internalize it as well.

What exactly do I mean? Here is an example:

You are at a horse horse show. Things didn’t go according to plan in the ring. Your hunter round on Dobbin looked more like a jumper speed class, with a stop thrown in to top it off. You come out of the ring and start talking to your barnmates, “Dobbin was freaking psycho out there. I just know that this is revenge for that hard caveltti lesson last week. He hates cavelettis! I can’t believe he stopped, he is such a freaking baby.” You laugh it off and move on.

Rio & Lilly (his crush)

You may have said it in total jest, but later when you have a not so great jump lesson, you might start wondering why. In your search for an answer, you settle on how Dobbin must have been bad because he was pissed at being pulled out of the back field away from his friends. You post about it on social media. “Dobbin was awful tonight, he was so mad that I took him way from his friends. Too bad for him, I still made him work!”

A younger junior rider heard you at the show. She also read your IG post. What started as a joke has now turned into you assigning human characteristic to your horse to make his behavior fit your understanding. Furthermore, it has also spread that same line of reasoning to a young and impressionable rider at your barn who is now telling her friends how Button is awful to girth-up because he doesn’t get enough fancy treats.

This anthromorphizing of our horses in no way helps us to understand their behavior, and in fact it can make us miss cues that they are scared, confused, or in pain. Let’s review:

Dobbin was quick in the show ring. Instead of getting mad at his behavior and writing it off we should try to understand it. Maybe it was his first show in a new environment and he was nervous by all the sights and sounds. Maybe he is a veteran show horse and the sudden quickness is a sign he is experiencing pain somewhere. It is possible Dobbin stopped at a fence because it was a spooky fence and he didn’t feel confident? Or maybe he stopped because he is in pain. Could be hocks, could be SI, could be kissing spine. The list is endless. Maybe he strained something doing all of those cavelettis.

What about your “bad ride” at home? Instead of searching for the real answer, you write it off of Dobbin being pissed. Maybe you are confusing him with your aids. Your timing is off, and you are pulling and kicking in a way he doesn’t understand. Or he could be in pain.

What about Buttons? Maybe Buttons is bad to girth-up because she has ulcers. She is in pain, but no one is listening to her.

So there it is. That is my pet peeve. Assigning complex human emotions and behaviors to horses to explain away bad rides is NOT ok. Your horse IS trying to tell you something, but it’s not that you haven’t given him enough peppermints today, or that he is mad you took him away from his friends. He is confused, he is scared, he is in pain.

I will admit to being guilty of this. SO GUILTY. I always say it in jest, but I realize I shouldn’t do that in social media, because I do not want to normalize that line of thinking to other less experience riders. I grew up occasionally explaining away bad behavior in such a way. Instead of saying I had a bad show because my horse is a jerk, I should have said things like I had a bad show because my horse didn’t understand what I was asking.

I want to be a better advocate for our voiceless horses by using better words. Here are some examples:

 

“Bella is such a bitch. She must be on her monthly!”

Instead try:

“I have noticed Bella seems to be in a lot of discomfort. Maybe I should ask my vet to look at her and see if she needs some hormone therapy to make her more comfortable.”

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“Dobbin only likes jumping from long spots, he thinks they are more fun.”

instead consider:

“Dobbin and I struggle with closer distances. We have been schooling them with our trainer, but I also want my vet to evaluate him to make sure it is isn’t pain related.”

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“Bella is so crazy over bigger jumps that I have to use XYZ (harsh) bit and draw reins to control her!”

Nope. Let’s instead try:

“Bella doesn’t seem very confident over bigger jumps, and I am not totally in control yet. I’m trying to make sure I’m not accidentally causing it with a hot seat. We are also focusing on breaking down the exercises and making sure she understands and is comfortable with this level of work.”

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“Dobbin was mad at me for not riding him in ages. He was being so strong, so I just let him crash into a jump to remind him it’s his job to be careful.”

Just no. No no no. Maybe try:

“Dobbin was very fresh today, probably because I haven’t had enough time to ride him lately. I decided we need to focus on control, so we ended up just flatting. We will jump again once he is more relaxed and listening better.”

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“Bella was such a little shit today. She was completely ignoring me and flipping her head everywhere.  I had to go grab  XYZ gadget to make her listen to me.”

Again… just no. Come on people. I really do see people saying crap like this. Let’s instead try:

“Bella seemed very confused today. I could tell that I wasn’t clearly communicating what I wanted. She also seemed really uncomfortable in her mouth. I need to have the vet check her teeth and make sure she isn’t in pain.”

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“Dobbin ALWAYS spooks in that corner of the ring. It is so irritating. I know he is doing to piss me off.”

Repetitive spooking can be a tough one, but it is more beneficial to try to find the root of the problem instead of this type of negative talk. Next time try:

“I notice that Dobbin seems to always spook in this certain part of the ring. I am wondering if I am somehow causing it by expecting it and tensing up. Or maybe he can’t see that well because it’s shadowy over there? I need to rule out the possibility that I am causing it or that is is pain related so I am going to talk to my trainer and vet.”

 

Ok, you guys get the point. Rant over. As a community, let’s be more cognizant of the words we use. Words have meaning. We should all be incredibly thankful for these amazing animals. If we change our words, we can help to change the way everyone thinks when it comes to their horses behavior, which can only help to benefit the horse.

 

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4 comments

  1. I love this post. Demanding performance of horses without giving them the benefit of the doubt relating to their behaviors is something I am forever trying to avoid! I have to meet Eli’s care needs before I can ask anything of him.

  2. I love this! It’s so true and it does a disservice – or even harm if the horse is in pain! I just read an article discussing how horses don’t feel emotion like humans. They are incapable of holding a grudge over that cavaletti lesson last week. If I can find that article again I’ll share it!

    Anyway, your example of Dobbin taking the long spot made me smile. When I first started riding Duke, he would almost ALWAYS take the flyer. Admittedly, we would sometimes joke about how much he loved those long spots. But we (trainer and I) knew that he was doing it for several reasons: 1) he was coming back from kissing spine surgery so he didn’t have the strength to offer a deeper spot and a rounder jump; 2) he was likely expecting his back to hurt because he doesn’t know that the surgery was to help his back stop hurting; 3) I wasn’t riding as effectively as I could to manage his canter and hold him with my core to wait for the closer spot. It makes me smile now because we almost never take a long spot now, so we have solved those issues!

  3. We’ll have to agree to disagree on this one. This is kind of no big deal to me – just because someone jokes about something doesn’t mean they’re not also working to find solutions.

    I can’t really think of any pet peeves, but I’m usually alone at my barn early in the morning, problem solved =)

  4. I absolutely agree with this sentiment. The further away we get from horses being a working animal, the more we seem to want to anthropomorphize them. Horses are never “bad” because they are “mad” at us. They are bad because we are giving them bad directions OR there is something in the environment that is bothering them OR they are uncomfortable/in pain. Most often probably because of us.
    I definitely have this issue with my inner monologue. Coco is crazy talented, but I’m not as good of a rider as she probably deserves. So, we have had many moments that were lost in translation because I wasn’t a very good direction giver and caused her confusion. She has made me a much better rider both physically and mentally!

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