Saturday, January 29, 2011

Let's talk equine psychology

Little known fact: I have a degree in psychology. Sure, it's a degree related to humans, but I'm sure some of it should transfer over to horses.

While sitting around the barn today, I talked to a couple of the teens about my mare. One rides her on occasion, the other just handles her around the barn and has ridden her in the past. Their consensus is that Fiona is bipolar. She can swing from being the most mellow horse around to having a meltdown, and then right back to being mellow. In the span of five minutes. We also talked about the fact that the princess is practically the twin of another chestnut Thoroughbred mare in the barn.

This did get me thinking. Every horse is unique, but that uniqueness tends to get lost. We fall into the habit of stereotyping any horse based on horses we have met before. Breed, gender, color, discipline, even the shape of the head. The princess is particularly subject to this, being a chestnut Thoroughbred mare. I can't think of any other combination of descriptors that is the subject of more jokes. Most people take one look at her and immediately assume what she will do next. Clearly she is going to be fast, hot, cranky, and crazy. It's a perfectly natural human behavior and based on a mental process that makes us more adaptable. Generalization is why we can be introduced to a concept in one place and understand a slightly different version by extending what we already know. It's very handy dandy, but very dangerous.

When a person sees something, they immediately classify that object according to what they already know. It's a survival trait. Is it a threat, or something useful? I really don't discourage it, since we're often right, but so long as people are aware of what they are doing, they can compensate for it. I have met Appaloosas that were triers and pocket ponies. I have met Arabians that I would happily take for a solo trail ride. I have met draft crosses that would bolt and shy and generally act like the world was ending if a piece of paper blew by. They were not beginner or amateur friendly, despite the reputation the cross has.

It's a minor detail when handling a horse on the ground, but when it comes to training? I have to step back and think: what will work best for my horse. Not someone else's TB, not my previous horse, not what some trainer suggests, but Fiona? She is unique. She has a unique combination of genetics and experiences. While she will have things in common with other horses, making generalization very useful, she will react as Fiona and not as a chestnut Thoroughbred mare. But isn't that what makes the game fun? No horse is the same, no two rides will ever be identical. Horses are not robots, they are living, breathing, changing creatures.

The princess has several people scratching their heads, trying to figure out how to make this work reliably. I, however, am convinced that she is not bipolar. She is ADD, and so am I, so we work out just fine. Who cares about five minutes ago, we've already forgotten about that. We're already working on the next thing to catch our attention. It's a match made in heaven, and we are having all the fun. Haters to the left, lovers of chestnut Thoroughbred mares to the right.

No comments:

Post a Comment