BY DEBORAH JANE NICHOLAS
They don’t hate or love us either. They merely tolerate us because they have no choice. This is the equine version of Stockholm Syndrome. Those horses that can no longer cope with pain, fear or confusion will react in a way that earns them the label ‘dangerous’. Unfortunately it is always viewed as the horse’s fault and his bad character.
Usually when a novice purchases a horse, things can go well for a while. Things are not going well for you in the eyes of a professional horseman, but you are blissfully unaware of this. As far as you are concerned, everything is super. The horse greets you every morning at the yard and you think this is cute. The horse whinnies at you because you may provide food. He comes to you in the paddock because you may provide food. Everything else you do around or on him is merely tolerated. What the horse ideally wants is to be left alone by humans and to graze with his herd. From getting the horse in from the field to putting him out again, everything in between is him merely tolerating the situation.
The worst case scenario in my eyes happens every day all over the world. It’s the novice parents that buy their child a pony. It’s just all wonderful in the parents’ eyes, the child is so happy running up to the pony with a carrot, giving it cuddles, hanging off the neck and playing with it like it’s a four-legged flesh and blood version of Barbie. On searching for suitable images I actually struggled to find a pony that wasn’t pinning its ears, the worst I saw is too unsuitable to even show. But through the smiles and laughter of a happy child, pause for a while and take note of the pony’s ears, be responsible parents and ask your child to show the pony some respect.
Riding schools are particularly stressful places, there’s a lot of human traffic and noise, the ponies can all be tied up too close together when ready for lessons. They tolerate uneducated hands pulling on their mouths, flapping legs and constant chatter from the children, they can be hot and sweaty from the previous lesson. I think at this point their level of tolerance can vastly decrease.
While a professional horseman can at least help his horse to have a high level of toleration during training by communicating properly, many other owners are handling animals that have an ever-decreasing level of tolerance. There is definitely a scale and when a horse reaches zero tolerance the manure hits the fan and unfortunately the horse gets the blame.
A horse doesn’t love or hate, like or dislike, or favour one person over another. A horse is aware of its resources and its surroundings, pain, discomfort, hunger, feeling cold/hot/thirsty, other horses and its own instincts. Your horse has no concept of being naughty, bad, silly or good. The level of tolerance a horse can obtain can also be negative or positive. That horse you see in the barn standing alone, head down and ignoring the world has a high level of negative tolerance. He’s so tolerant of people and his surroundings that he’s switched off. He’s not deaf or old, he’s not sulking, anti-social, or a ‘funny old boy’, what he wants is for you to go away with your bad communication, screaming kids and terrible riders and to be turned out in a field where he can finally feel some comfort with his own kind.
The top dressage horse you have just seen perform perfectly on the tv has a high level of positive tolerance. But achieved by someone of Carl Hester standard, who has communicated well. The horse is not confused and understands what is being asked of him. However, this horse is not enjoying himself, he’s merely tolerating being ridden and would without a doubt rather be grazing in a quiet pasture.
Be mindful of your actions on and around horses, strive to communicate effectively in a way the horse can understand, and while we are all very busy exploiting these magnificent animals, aim for your horse to have a high level of positive tolerance.