Under the Magnifying Glass: what do we mean by what we say?

Before sharing some ideas about the myth of horses being barn sour, let’s revisit the context in which we are using the word “myth.”  We are scrutinizing commonly held perceptions and/or beliefs under the magnifying glass of inquiry. What do the things we say mean and how do they affect our relationship with our horses?  It is through honest, unbiased reflection that we can start to untangle some of the myths surrounding horsemanship.  We have the opportunity, with each interaction, to reach out to horses in understanding, instead of with habits or because someone else passed along their own beliefs to us.

Myth Number Two:

“My horse is barn sour.”

It had become a recurring pattern: I put my leg on to the horse’s side, and he would rear up. I would spin him in a circle, and kick again, and up he would go. Maybe spinning the other direction will work? Kicking harder? Up he’d go, walking backward and flailing his front legs.

I had bought the Missouri Foxtrotter gelding to retrain (knowing that he reared) and sell, and although I had tried everything I knew, we were no more than fifty feet from the barn. As we stood in the middle of the dirt road, the sun highlighting his gray dappled and sweaty neck, I thought back to the past months, and how many things I had tried (with sporadic success) to get this horse to go out on the trail. We could do it, eventually, but always with the same beginning. How was I going to sell him as a trail horse, if he was so barn sour? 

If we’ve been involved with horses for even a short amount of time, we have either said or heard, “My horse is barn sour.”  Boiled down, it means that where the horse lives they act in a calm and agreeable way.  When they leave that place and we take them somewhere that is not familiar, they act in ways we don’t much like (or understand).

Horses look for a release from pressure, and the quiet state of mind that follows. Going away from familiar environs causes an increase in internal pressure, whereas going back to somewhere they know will decrease that pressure. In addition, returning from any kind of activity to an area where they are tied up, untacked, rested, then turned out into a familiar place with their herd mates is an incredibly large release. If we add a poorly fitting saddle, teeth that aren’t balanced (so a bit in the horse’s mouth may be uncomfortable), feet that aren’t sound, etc the release from being ridden becomes that much more amplified. It’s not any wonder they are in such a rush to get back to the barn (or the horse trailer).

It’s perhaps a difficult truth to look at, but when we say that our horse is barn sour, it lets us off the hook and pins the blame on the horse. That’s the first part of this myth.

I experienced the second part of this myth while doing an exercise in one of Mark Rashid’s Aikido For Horseman workshops.  The second part of this myth is that “barn sour” has nothing to do with a horse acting out. Disorientation, however, does.

For example, when you go to an unfamiliar state or country, you may feel disoriented.  As humans, we have the advantages of relying on maps, GPS, or local people to help guide us. Horses, who live by hearing, sight, smell and the feel of the surface underneath four feet (as opposed to two) receive their information differently. Every time we take them away from what is familiar, they will experience (to varying degrees) a rise in emotion. We are no different; when disoriented or lost we may feel mentally foggy, become worried, not know which way to turn, feel uneasy, or become anxious. The difference is that we can use our neocortex (the newest part of our brain to have evolved) to formulate a plan that will calm some of those emotions down.

Horses, on the other hand, will act the way they feel. There will be some sign, no matter how small, that they experiencing a sense of worry when we take them away from their known environment. Looking at the horse as “barn sour,” “spoiled,” or even “spooky” closes the door on an opportunity to see beyond the behavior to what the horse may be trying to communicate.

At that moment, I decided to go back to the beginning. I rode the gelding down the driveway, returning to the barn. Before he could stop, I asked him to turn and walk up the driveway, toward the road. At the end of the driveway, we turned again toward the barn, and after going most of the way there, we turned again and walked toward the road. This time, we went to the road, then turned and walked toward the barn. Over the course of the next hour, we alternated walking toward the barn, and then down the road, each time getting farther away, and further down the trail. By the end of our  time together that day, I could ask him to walk faster away from the barn, without him rearing up. Once we were at the farthest point from the barn, I dismounted, patting his now dry neck, and lead him back.

Over time with Jack (the rearing gelding), I researched saddles and saddle fit, made sure his feet were balanced, had chiropractic and massage given to him, and balanced his diet. I rode in or attended horsemanship seminars and clinics to better improve my skill. After six months, Jack and I could ride down the trail together quietly and the rearing disappeared. He became my best trail horse, and for 18 more years we rode everywhere we could. At the time, the experiences he shared with me were doorways through which I learned how to better understand him, and other horses as well. Now,  I see that all along he was trying to tell me, in the only way he could, that all he needed was time to figure out where he was.


Next month, check back in for a discussion of Myth number three:  “My horse is resistant.”

Perception, horses and wizards:

Rethinking some common myths in horsemanship.

It has struck me recently that despite our brains being amazing, they will, at some point, give us deceptive information. There are many articles, TV shows and books dedicated to the various functions of the brain and how perception works (or doesn’t). Let’s just say that from what I’ve learned, the brain is both a miracle, and a con artist. I have forgotten where it comes from (it could be a bumper sticker ~ I don’t remember), but I’ve always appreciated the saying, “Don’t believe everything you think.”

Our brains work in mysterious ways. For all we know about the brain, there is more that we don’t know: we are vast uncharted universes. For instance, I could tell you the names of most of my client’s horses; where they live, their physical traits and endearing characteristics (the same goes for my clients!). What I cannot tell you is where I found the above quote, despite the fact I consider myself an avid reader, and a reasonably intelligent person.

What is happening outside of us gets filtered through our personal experiences, beliefs, opinions and wishes until it fits our personal model. Until it looks like something with which we are comfortable. Until it is either a step or two (or fifty) away from the truth of the situation. We know that if you ask ten people to observe an event, you will get ten differing versions of that event. Anyone in any kind of relationship can attest to the fact that we have sometimes either heard, or said something that is interpreted so far away from what we meant that it causes misunderstandings.

We can certainly say that about horses too.

Before we discuss myths, I’d like to clarify. A myth can be something like a story with fictitious characters, magical happenings and extraordinary events. It can also describe creatures we don’t encounter except in stories. The sense I’d like to chat about it is: an unproven or false collective belief that is used to justify something else. (whether it’s a belief, a value, our sense of being right, etc)

We have all learned about horses from people who have learned from other people, who have learned from people, etc. We have a network of knowledge about horses based not only on our experience with them, but what others have told us to be true and correct. Add to this that our perceptions may be skewed, and I think it’s a perfect opportunity to reconsider what is really happening when something like “My horse is…” comes out of our mouths.

I’d like to share some insights I’ve had over the past several years into the things we say (or have heard said) about our horses. In each case I’ve been struck by the thought that these things may reflect more about human perception than how horses actually operate. (They’re in no particular order, with one not being any more important than the other.)

Myth Number One:

“My horse is anticipating me.”

Humans ascribe far more to horses than horses are physiologically hard-wired to give. The very word “anticipating” implies two elements: the ability to accurately predict the future and the ability to analyze a situation and draw conclusions from it. Both of these functions take place in the neocortex, the part of our brain that we do not have in common with horses. The neocortex analyzes, plans, and plays a part in complex emotions and behaviour inhibition (wanting to do something, then realizing it is not socially or morally appropriate).

With this in mind, step into the horse’s world a bit more and look at things from a different perspective.

All living things–humans and horses included–seek comfort. A barn or paddock; herd mates; the sights, smells, and sounds of familiar surroundings: all of these contribute to a sense of familiarity that brings the horse comfort, or peace of mind. Anyone who has spent time around animals – not just horses – have witnessed them seeking out comfort.

A known task or skill (let’s use sidepassing as an example) will cause the horse less worry for the very reason that it is familiar. When a particular cue is given by the rider, the horse knows to move sideways. Now, if we take that same horse and ask them to start learning a skill with which they aren’t familiar (say, a flying lead change), the anxiety level will naturally rise. Different horses will experience different levels of that rise depending upon how they were taught in the past, what kind of relationship they have with their rider, if they were hurried or rushed or physically forced into learning something, and so forth. If the worry is great enough, we’ve seen many times how a horse will go back to a skill or behaviour for which they are sure of the outcome. Or, sometimes he will rush through what he thinks you want. In either case, the horse is about as far away from “anticipating” something as we are from growing a tail!

Most of the time, horses will behave in one of two ways: from instinct or from a learned response. (There is a also a third way-trust in a relationship they have with a person- but that is a subject for a different time). The instinct is theirs, the learned response comes from their environs, or most of the time, from humans. The next time you are with your horse and you find this phrase running through your head: “My horse is anticipating me,” pause for a moment, step out of a very human thought, and see if you can pinpoint whether he’s trying to tell you something else. The simple act of listening often brings surprising results.

I like to think of it as the Wizard of Oz in reverse: what is behind the curtain is so much bigger, and brighter than what we see outside of the curtain. What is behind the veil of our sensory perceptions holds vast amounts of insight, and if we try just a little bit to part the curtains of our senses, we can often times glean information that would otherwise not have occurred to us had we only paid attention to the puppet show our senses put on for us.

Please check back next month when we’ll discuss Myth Number Two: “My horse is barn sour.”

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