Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Semi-Annual PSA

Ok, I swear I will calm down about Dixie's feet unless she actually, you know, goes lame. They're fine. I know where the room for improvement is. I have a good local trimmer, and some great internet trimmers, and a rasp. She'll be fine.

Today I rode for a bit and took (and even printed!) some pics for her upcoming brand inspection thing. She looks like a yak, but at least she has a nicely combed fluffy mane. But that's another post - this is my PSA post.

If you haven't read it before, please read Animals in Translation. Your library probably has it, and if not, it's available used on Amazon for under five dollars. When else will you find a truly useful horse item for under five friggin dollars, yall?

There are tons of books that do a very good job of explaining horse behavior. There are lots of free scholarly articles about horse anatomy. This is the only book I ever read that really helped me understand how they think - not herd dynamics, and not vision and flight response stuff, but how their little brains process what they see. Temple Grandin has a convincing argument that animals perceive the world in a similar way to how autistic humans see the world. She didn't write a horse-training book - she's worked with cows way more than horses - but I've developed such a kind understanding of what horses go through from her book.

I am afraid I'll misrepresent something if I try to explain the book, so I'll just tell you about my ride and how it could've gone differently.

Dixie was peacefully snoozing in the snow when I got there. The other horses were standing guard as normal, and it was just her turn to take a nap. She was pretty pleased to see me, and walked about halfway to meet me! That's unusual for her - usually I have to walk up to her and hold out the halter, then she sticks her nose in it and follows me politely. I led her out of the gate and she got very excited. I walked her around and let her nose the earth moving equipment, the muddy gravel, and the snowy areas for a while. Then I saddled up, mounted, and we rode out.

It took a long time to get out of the gate. She needed to stop and stare way more often than usual, and she had to drop her head and nuzzle the snow every few steps. She wasn't trying to panic and turn around for home, and she wasn't terrified - just very inquisitive and unwilling to barge on ahead. When we got to the road, I asked her to walk down the cleared muddy gravel road, instead of on the verge where we usually walk. I didn't want her to step in a hole I'd forgotten and feel trapped and freak out. She really wanted to walk in the snow, and we kept renegotiating. She kept doing the very strange nuzzle the ground and look around thing.

We moseyed very slowly down the road to where the trail branches off. I knew we weren't going to get far, but I asked her to walk off into the snow on the trail (like she wanted to do all along!) We got just a few strides off the road and the whole thing got to be too much for her, and she started getting nervous. I asked her to turn around and walk home really calmly, and she did. I had to half-halt like 17 times in a row at first, but then she settled in to a nice calm fast walk home.

Here's what I saw today: The exact same place we've been riding, almost every day, for the last three months. There was snow, but all the landmarks were clearly visible, and the road was even uncovered.

Here's what she saw: Something completely different. An alien world covered in alien white stuff, and a road that didn't look or smell or feel like the road she's used to.

I could've gotten mad, because the damn horse was so complacent about the damn snow that she was laying down in it! And we barely got out of sight of her buddies! This trip was so close to home that there's just no WAY she could really be afraid! Argh stupid hateful yak of a horse, always ruining my fun!

But I didn't get mad. As soon as I led her out of the paddock and she started acting so peculiar and curious, I realized I wasn't seeing what she was seeing. Horses don't generalize well, and they don't seem to remember the way we do, and it was a different world for her. She was used to the snow in the pasture, but that didn't generalize to snow outside of the pasture. Nothing smelled the same. Nothing looked the same. Everything was covered in white stuff that didn't taste like anything. Even the road, which might have been familiar, was wet - a state she has never before seen it in.

Once I looked at the day from her point of view, she was a fantastic companion. She wasn't scared! She got nervous when we walked into the snow, but before that, she wasn't even remotely upset about it. She needed a lot of extra time to process what she was seeing and smelling and hearing, but she wasn't upset. That is a huge improvement for us. I am so very happy with both of us!

Anyway, the book does a really good job of giving you a paradigm to view your horse's behavior through. Temple Grandin is, of course, a human, so her book isn't any more infallible than anyone else's. Nobody will ever know what horses really ARE seeing, smelling, thinking. But Grandin's "thinking in pictures" paradigm holds up pretty well to my real world experiences with real live horses, and I bet it would hold up to yours too.


  1. It is a good book - and nice post! It's always best if we can understand what the horse is doing from their point of view, instead of just imposing our own opinions - works with people too, now if I was just better about that part!

  2. I suspect people are more frustrating because we can talk to each other. We think we understand what the other person is saying, but often we don't.


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