From the Mirriam-Webster Dictionary online:
: a state of tranquility or quiet: such asa : freedom from civil disturbance <Peace and order were finally restored in the town.>b : a state of security or order within a community provided for by law or custom <a breach of the peace>
2 : freedom from disquieting or oppressive thoughts or emotions <I have been in perfect peace and contentment — J. H. Newman>
3 : harmony in personal relations <The sisters are at peace with each other.>
4a : a state or period of mutual concord between governments <There was a peace of 50 years before war broke out again.>b : a pact or agreement to end hostilities between those who have been at war or in a state of enmity <offered the possibility of a negotiated peace — New York Times>
5 —used interjectionally to ask for silence or calm or as a greeting or farewell
: in a state of concord or tranquility <The problem was settled and his mind was at peace.>
The horse, whatever he does, is seeking peace. Think about that. WHATEVER he does, he is seeking peace. Peace like the definition of “at peace: in a state of concord and tranquility,” that kind of peace.
Now, that sounds nice, it sounds kind of soft and fluffy and touchy-feely and we like that. So we are attracted to this idea. We say, “Yes, the horse is seeking peace, and I’m good at providing him with it, or I’m working on getting good at it.” But there’s actually a lot more to it than simply “not bothering” your horse.
What brings a horse peace is different than what brings a human peace, and humans are about the most self-centered creatures out there. As much as we try, it’s hard to “walk a mile in someone else’s shoes”, and the greater the species divide, the harder it gets. It’s easier to anthropomorphize, to simply attribute human actions, thoughts and emotions to the horse. But that is a grave error, as it actually deprives the horse of the peace he seeks while, ironically, delivering peace to the human.
So what brings a horse peace? Well, there are two sources of peace for the horse, as I see it. We’ve got what naturally or instinctively brings him peace, and then we’ve got what learned behavior has taught him will bring him peace.
Where instinct is concerned, it’s important to understand that the horse is a herd and a prey animal, so he is going to naturally find peace in being in community with other horses, and he’s going to find peace in his ability to run away if he feels threatened or scared. If we take a moment to think about that, many to most of the things we want to do with horses go against these two instincts. We don’t want him to be attached to other horses, and we don’t want him to flee if he’s scared. So really, we’re in the business of taking his peace away from the get-go.
There are two solutions to this problem. We can just do nothing with our horses and just leave them in the field so they can experience peace. That would work, in that it would likely bring the horse peace. But frankly, that’s not why many of us have horses. Ray Hunt once said, “I’m just trying to see how much I can do with a horse without troubling him”. Some of us are more like that. We want to see what all we can do with a horse (not how LITTLE, but how MUCH) and not trouble him. That’s the discussion and the work I enjoy exploring. If I’m not going to just leave the horse in the field, how to I help him find peace in a world where all his peace cannot come from these instinctive places?
That brings us to the other place a horse can seek and experience peace, and that’s through what I’d call “learned behaviors”. These are the ways that humans teach a horse (intentionally or unintentionally) that he can achieve a state of peace and tranquility. Now, as a person who works with horses for the general public, I can safely say that one of the biggest things we do in that work is to move the peace and tranquility to more appropriate places. What I mean by that is that it is easy to teach a horse that he will get peace from rearing, pawing, being anxious, running away, pulling back, bucking, biting, pushing, dragging, bracing, etc. That’s why I can say that whatever a horse does, he’s seeking peace. A horse who is dragging someone away from a horse trailer is simply seeking peace. Experience has shown him that he’s more likely to get peace further away from the trailer than in it, so that’s where he’s trying to go. All he’s doing is seeking peace.
It is hard to imagine that a horse would spend so much what we see as “negative” energy to achieve something allegedly “peaceful”. But that’s how horses and humans are different. The horse seeks peace, and he’s willing to pay just about anything for it. He will do things that cause injury and illness to himself if he believes it will bring him peace. We can literally teach a horse anything if he thinks it will bring him peace. He does not distinguish “good” from “bad” like we do. If biting you brings him peace (he bites you and you leave him alone, or he bites you and you give him a treat), he WILL do it again, seeking that peace.
So what does this mean, at the end of the day, for those of us who want to DO SOMETHING with our horses? First of all, when it comes to the horse seeking instinctive peace in his herd and flight behaviors, I’m going to work to moderate (not eliminate, as then he wouldn’t be a horse anymore) those responses through progressive and rational preparation and training. I’m going to help him learn how to be confident in me and in himself in situations when he wants to get back to his buddies or to flee. I am going to honor the fact that those things are in him and that my job, as his guardian (and “trainer”, if you like) is to prepare him for the way things are going to be in the world we have constructed for him. None of our horses jumped into our pastures! We bear a profound responsibility to prepare them for what we want them to do. Horses are very adaptable and teachable, so this stuff just takes work, not magic.
Then there’s the weird ways that humans have allowed and enabled horses to gain peace. This stuff can be hard to change, and it can be hard to chase down in a horse just because it’s so bizarre. There are horses that when you pet them, they get excited. Not fearful but excited, as in elevated mentally. Now, that’s not peace. Excited is something humans like to see, in our dogs, our kids, our horses, our sports teams, you name it. We like to see things excited. But in the horse world, “excited” is basically equivalent to “anxious”. If we show up and our horse gets “excited”, then he’s no longer in a state of peace, and it’s our presence that took that away from him. I don’t want to be “that person” in my horse’s life. So what I’ll do is I will shape things, in our everyday life and in our work sessions so that my horse gains peace in the “right” places. I will give him peace (and peace is not petting if petting scares or excites him) when he’s doing something I think is good, or when he’s doing something I will need in the future.
I will watch carefully for places where my horse lacks peacefulness and try to help him with that. Sometimes a horse just needs to do something a few times to gain the confidence that will give him peace, and sometimes I’ll need to more assertively tell him what he needs to do to get that peace, and then make sure the peace is there for him.
Eventually, I want my presence in his proximity to bring my horse peace, not because I give him sweeties, but because in his horse way, he understands how we interact and where he stands in my presence and in the relationship. Then, I want him to gain peace in his work with me until he understands that by working for me and doing things that are not his idea, he actually gains peace and tranquility.
I’m thinking that’s a lot to ask, a lot to achieve, and a lot to strive for. It’s past pressure and release, past positive and negative reinforcement and past conditioned responses. It might include all of that or none of that, but what I’m talking about is the honest attempt to be able to identify what actually gives a horse true peace and separate it from what makes us feel good. Then the greatest challenge is to turn the job we want him to do into a source of peace for both of us.
This article first appeared in Horsemanship Magazine in the UK, which can be found here: http://www.horsemanshipmagazine.co.uk/