Hi there, humans! Horses aren’t all that interested in calendars, you know. We measure time by seasons, and by how the grass is growing – and by daylight so we can tell when you are late with our dinner!
But lesson horses definitely know when you go back to school. Our schedules change; the barn is action-packed in the evenings and quiet during the middle of the day.
We horses have school, too
Now that I’ve been granted Old Pony Privileges and I’m allowed to use the internet, I understand that school might look a little different for a lot of people this year.
I don’t know exactly what Zoom is, but it sounds like something I would love – I’m all about zooming around bending poles.
You might be wondering what school looks like to a horse. Well, we don’t exactly have kindergarten or standardized tests or homecoming dances!
But horses do have to get a basic education to survive in the world, especially to become good riding horses or athletes.
Here are three fun facts about how learning works in the horse world:
FUN FACT #1
Almost everything you do with a horse, you can do because of training
Can you put a halter on your horse and lead him to the barn? Can you tie him up and pick out his hooves? Does he open his mouth for the bit or stand nicely for the farrier? Can you walk, trot, canter, jump, ride outside the arena, exercise the horse on a longe line, load him on a trailer, or go to a show?
If so, you have trainers to thank – the people who taught the horse that all these things are possible. We horses are definitely not born knowing how to hold our feet up politely, or canter calmly over crossrails, or climb into that scary cave you call a horse trailer!
If you think about it, it’s pretty cool that you can do any of this stuff with horses. We’re big animals, and technically, we could squish you if we really wanted to.
But we’re willing to do all kinds of weird things for people who are fair, who communicate clearly, and who make it a positive experience for us.
Remembering this can give you a little perspective if your horse doesn’t behave the way you want.
Not all horses learn the same lessons in their training. If you ask your horse to do something and he resists or tries something else, he might actually have no idea what you’re talking about.
I’m pretty smart, you know – they don’t call me the Greatest Horse That Ever Lived for nothing.
But sometimes the Girl tries to teach me a new trick and it’s a long time before I understand exactly what she wants.
When I learned to paint, for example, I spent a lot of time hitting her with the paintbrush before I learned the canvas was the target!
FUN FACT #2
School is always in session
Another good thing to know about horses is that we don’t have school hours, like you do.
Humans have a funny tendency to divide up the day and say, “This is the time I will spend learning.” If you find school hard, you might have even started to think that learning is a difficult thing you would rather not do.
But if you’re doing stuff, and interested in what you’re doing, you’re always learning – even if there’s no grade or quiz.
Horses understand this, which means we’re constantly learning something from you when we interact.
Maybe we’re learning good things, like backing up in a straight line = COOKIE!
Or maybe we’re learning that if we spook at the Scary Corner (all arenas have one, you know) you’ll get off and put us back in the field. If you get upset or punish us, we’ll learn that the Scary Corner is indeed a terrible place.
Our brains may not be quite as big and powerful as yours, but we are really good at remembering things that are stressful.
That means that riding and handling = training, which also = responsibility.
I know, I know, you just want to ride horses for fun! Once you learn to understand our brains, though, we can become real partners, which makes riding more fun for both of us.
FUN FACT #3
If your horse is frozen with fear, his brain is frozen, too
There is one situation where a horse is incapable of learning something new. If we are highly stressed or afraid, adrenaline surges can actually prevent us from accessing learning areas of our brain. We aren’t processing information anymore – we’re just trying to stay alive!
Horse trainers and equine behaviorists use a term called “threshold” to describe a horse’s level of stress. Once we go over this threshold, you can’t teach us anything new.
You can watch an excellent video about horse’s brains and their response to stressful situations here:
You’ll need to help your horse relax in order to get him thinking again. This means learning how to read your horse’s subtle body language and developing strategies for creating trust and relaxation between the two of you.
This is something you’ll be practicing for years, because…
Equine education is never-ending
After you go to human school for a while, you get a diploma and call it done, right? Maybe you earn a bunch of diplomas and become an expert in your field.
But if you’re really smart, the most important thing you’ll learn during this process is how much more there is to learn.
This can be humbling when you first get into horses. You’ll think you have it all figured out and then meet a new horse who gives you new puzzles to solve.
You’ll learn five “right” ways to do something and have to figure out the best method for you in your particular situation.
Riding, training and caring for horses well requires years of study, listening, thinking, and asking questions.
Even then, you’ll still just be getting started. The more humans study horses, the more new information they learn about how we think, feel and behave.
Since the Girl and I met twenty years ago, she has totally changed her ways of thinking about training, tack, feeding, hoof care, dental care, and deworming. All for the better, if you ask me, and all due to continuing education.
You will never know it all - but that shouldn’t stop you from trying
And hey, if you’re really lucky, maybe someone will notice your effort and give you a treat!