Horses as Partners… ?

I find that many times the idea of working in unity or partnership with a horse comes from a belief that the horse has cognitive capabilities comparable to those of humans. But the truth is that human values and goals are completely incomprehensible to horses. It’s pretty likely that at best horses form percepts and first order generalizations from percepts but that they are unlikely to form concepts much beyond this. Now horses have goals but they are things like “get water”, “find my buddy”, “avoid the scary object”. Even assuming horses had a theory of mind about other creatures (evidence for this is very slim even for horses interpreting horses) this simplicity would make it impossible for them to align to goals like “do lateral work to be strong enough to do a good sliding stop so your human can win a reining competition and earn money to pay for the show”.

So if the idea of partnership with a horse can’t exist because horses can’t offer alignment with human goals, what can take its place?

Despite their limited cognitive equipment, horses navigate the incredible alien complexity of the human world. They are so adaptive as to be able to handle many of the demands we put on them, to go from being loose, rubbery creatures, ready to run at the suggestion of novelty to intensely precise, straight, rhythmic creatures, incredibly athletic and fit, self-controlled, and able to handle human and natural change in an orderly way.

Horses let us wreak this transformation on them. To some extent they are helpless to prevent it – their minds are wired in such a way that they will learn things we present them with in certain ways. In that situation, we replace their natural context with our goals and create an environment that incents them to succeed at what we want from them.

But they don’t know why we want them to do these things, and that puts a burden on us to ensure that what we ask is good for them, and that we make becoming competent at these actions something that is pleasant for them.

So when I teach my reining horse to sidepass a circle, I do it because I know that the lateral strength it develops in his hips will keep him safe when I ask him to slide to a stop. It gives him the muscles to prevent his legs from spreading as he gets his butt down to the dirt. It’s what I owe him. It’s ethical. It’s one part my half of the partnership. The other part is how I get him there – that I quickly move to a place where the lightest suggestion of my request is all he needs, so that he is comfortable, not afraid, when I ask him to do these things.

His half of the partnership includes learning what I’m asking and to listen so I can move from “command” to “tell” to, finally “ask”. His part of the partnership is to control himself, to not be afraid,, to try to hear what I am asking and determine what I want and act accordingly.

For this team, I am the coach – who drives the player through discomfort to toughness and success. The horse gains fitness and precision, a better, more athletic body and a firmer, more relaxed, more self-controlled mind.

Now this isn’t a partnership of informed consent. It is a partnership of willingness to adapt combined with willingness to teach in the right way. It’s a partnership of two distinctly alien minds. We do an injustice to both halves of this partnership when we see it as if it were two people on a team. It’s more complicated than that.