For many years I would spend several weeks a year in Arizona visiting and working with my friend, Harry Whitney. One time Harry and I went to the general store to get some groceries in the small country town where he lived. As I was browsing the aisles I noticed a big burly rough looking bloke at the other end of the store. But what caught my eye more than his general appearance was that he had a gun holstered to the side of his hip. My eyes instantly widened and my blood pumped faster. Everything inside me went on alert mode. In my head, I heard sirens blaring and saw strobbed warning lights everywhere.
I sidled up to Harry as casually and inconspicuously as I could and said in a quiet voice something like, “Harry I think we should get out of here. There’s a guy over there with a gun.”
Harry looked at the man and calmly replied, “It’s okay. He’s allowed to carry a gun into the store. Don’t worry.” I couldn’t have been more shocked by Harry’s nonchalant attitude than if he had told me he was taking me to a Satanic prayer meeting. I never took my eyes off the man while I waited for Harry to finish his shopping. It was a huge relief when we finally drove out of the parking lot leaving the man and his gun behind us.
I was convinced we had just had a lucky escape from a life and death situation and I was troubled why Harry didn’t see it that way. If the same scenario had occurred at home, I know there was a high probability it was not going to end well. The event made such an impact on me that I still think about it 15 or more years later, yet I suspect if Harry were asked about it he wouldn’t be able to recall it because it probably made very little impression with him.
So what is the point of this tale?
I have recounted a couple of times in previous posts that one of the most important lessons I learned when I was a PhD student came from my supervisor who said, “Assume everything you are told is wrong until you are satisfied it is not.” This is a lesson I had to learn and it has been both life changing and invaluable. But while it took more than two decades for me to learn this lesson, horses are born with this insight.
From day one a horse knows that their best chance of staying alive is to assume everything they don’t understand is dangerous until they are convinced it is not. Their reaction to new things or things that are not on their “okay” list is to assume it is dangerous.
This was my response to the man in the store with the gun. I didn’t understand that an ordinary man in the street with a gun did not necessarily pose a threat, so my reaction was to invoke the flight response. I was confused why would a person carry a gun into a shop if it were not to do harm?
Now consider a horse that feels the tightening of a lead rope for the first time. The pressure the horse feels from the halter when a person pulls on the lead rope must have a horse asking the same question I did about the man with the gun. A horse must wonder why would anyone apply pressure on its head if it were not to do harm? So why wouldn’t a horse try to pull away? Why wouldn’t it try to resist? Doing nothing or yielding to the pull might get it killed. Of course, it has to resist or defend itself in some way.
A horse is made to see the world in terms of life and death. Their sense of survival is always close to the surface and strongly linked to every decision they make. When you begin to appreciate this truth about horses you begin to respect that the bad choices they make are never personal and never intended to make our life harder. That’s why there is no place for punishment in good horsemanship. A horse’s mistakes and their bad choices are not about us, but about the lack of clarity and the poor job we have done in satisfying their need to feel safe and comfortable.
Photo: Both Jana and her horse Arnie exhibited resistance to the leg yield because from their perspective it threatened their safety. But I am trying to convince them it is not with a very stylish demonstration.