Watch Your Mouth!


“Your words matter” is something we have all heard. And words do matter, they do now and they always have. Google it. They’ve done lots of studies on it, actually. I feel like words are kind of “everyman’s super power”. It’s kind of wild how powerful words are.

I studied English at University. I did not finish my degree due to a health issue that caused me to drop out of school, but I chose to study English because when I looked at the list of majors that the university offered, English was the only thing I thought I could do for four years and physically and mentally survive. I love words and language. I struggle with it, like anyone else, but I really enjoy it. My mother used to read “It Pays To Enrich Your Word Power” to me every month when our Reader’s Digest would come in the mail. Kids called me “the human dictionary” at school. I didn’t mind that.

The first level of meaning in a word is, in my mind, its dictionary definition. But that’s only the place to start. Words mean much, much more than just what their dictionary definitions dictate. They can reveal our attitudes, our prejudices, our loves, our experience level, our level of education, where we grew up, how we grew up, how much we’ve traveled, etc, etc. It is truly mind-boggling.

But let’s bring this whole thing in a bit smaller. Let’s talk about horse people. Horse people share a language. We learn a language from other horse people, people who teach us, people we hang out with and people we’re just exposed to. So we learn a language, and maybe as we learn it, we don’t really think that much about it. We just use the language like the others around us do.

What I want to talk about here is some of the language that horse people (and I’m using that term very broadly, of course) use. We, as horse people, have adopted, without much thought, some HORRIBLE words, phrases and “sayings” that we continue to mindlessly repeat. I’ve been keeping track of them. You can go out and hear them today. This needs to stop, and I’ll show you why. Here are some “rules” that will help explain the “why”.

First rule: I think we can all agree that horses are a herd and a prey animal. That’s just what they are. They have less cerebral cortex in their brain (the part the human has a lot more of, that’s responsible for complex thoughts and emotions) and most of their brain is dedicated to motor skills and sensory perception, compared to humans. Sounds like a prey animal, right? Those things right there, they’re facts, not opinions. That’s provable science, so not much to argue with there.

Rule number 2: most of these words, phrases and sayings are going to fall into one of three categories of horribleness:

  1. Excuses/horrible explanations for behavior
  2. Anthrophorphism (attributing human traits to the horse)
  3. Gross ignorance

Rule the Third: a horse, any horse, at any time, can only do one of two things:

1.He can do what instinct dictates

2. He can do what he’s been taught (“learned behavior”)

That’s it. That’s all he’s got. There really isn’t anything else for him. Everything the horse does falls into one of those two motivations.

So here goes. I am not going to cover them ALL here, there are just too many, but this is the list I collected in my cell phone notes over the past year or so that really stick in my craw.

“He’s lazy,” and/or he’s stubborn.” We use this to describe everything from gate-sourness to lameness, to tripping, to being behind the leg, to being dull as dirt and overly desensitized, or old and crippled, you get the picture. Of course the horse is “lazy”. He’s lazy by nature! Prey animals are basically wired to conserve energy, so if a predator does come out, they have plenty of energy to flee. A routinely tired horse would soon be a dead horse in a natural setting. So yes, horses are “lazy” in that they are programmed to conserve energy as a species. What is it that the horse is doing that causes us to accuse him of being “lazy” or “stubborn”? From a training perspective, this is what I’m most interested in. “Lazy” doesn’t tell me anything useful. Is he just a quiet horse? Is he in a state of Learned Helplessness? Is he behind the leg because he’s been released for not responding to the leg? Is he “stubborn” because every time he’s disagreed with the human, he got a release for it? Remember, it’s either instinct, or it’s learned behavior. I’d put this one in category B, Anthropmorphism. It’s HUMANS who don’t like to go to school, it’s humans who don’t like to work. It’s humans who are always trying to get out of things. It’s humans who are lazy.

“He’s doing that out of spite(US)!” or “Oh, he’s taking the micky/piss!(UK)” Okay, let’s get this out of the way right away. We all need to read the small but important book “Evidence-Based Horsemanship” by Dr. Stephen Peters and Martin Black. In this book, the authors detail very carefully how a horse’s brain differs structurally from the human brain, and what that means for us as horsemen. See First Rule above. So no, your horse is not doing that out of “spite” because he does not have the grey matter that would enable him to understand the human concept of “spite”. Your horse did something. You looked at what he did as if a HUMAN had done it. As a trainer, I say again, what did he DO (or not do) that made you say this? Now we can get somewhere.

“My horse is claustrophobic.” Yes, dear, horses are prey animals, and prey animals are claustrophobic by nature. Being claustrophobic does not make your horse special, it makes him normal. I would chalk this one up in Category C: Just Plain Ignorance. Horses can be trained to tolerate and be more comfortable in small spaces. They can also be inadvertently taught to be more claustrophobic than is natural. But by saying, “My horse is claustrophobic,” like it’s a permanent character trait, we absolve ourselves of any responsibility to try to help him with it.

“Quirks,” as in, “My horse has quirks.” As a horse trainer, that word is a red flag for me. “Quirks” can be anything from a harmless mannerism, to a vice, to a downright dangerous behavior. When you say “quirk”, I don’t know what that is. The use of the word “quirk”, though, does tell me that the speaker doesn’t think they can change it and they’ve accepted it.

“Don’t let him get away with that!” Okay, I know that when we say that, it really FEELS like the horse is “getting away” with something. But again, review the cerebral cortex deal in the First Rule, and think about it. A horse will do what benefits him, or what’s benefitted him in the past. Horses seek peace, and it’s amazing where some horses have found peace before. He’s not “getting away” with anything, not in his mind. What he’s doing is either learned behavior or instinct (Rule the Third). If he’s doing this because of instinct, he needs more training to moderate and direct his instincts. If he’s doing it because it’s a learned behavior, he needs Retraining. So you may feel like he’s “getting away” with something, but he’s just doing something he thinks is right.

“My horse is so excited about doing _______________________ that I can hardly control him!” I just don’t know about this, because really, if we opened all the gates, all our horses would leave. And likely never come back. They’d just go be horses. My question about this, from a training perspective is, is there any chance what we’re interpreting as “enthusiasm” is actually “anxiety”? I think it’s always most helpful, with horses, to pick the simplest description of an emotion that goes with what we’re seeing (see First Rule). Humans tend to complicate things needlessly (see First Rule, see Ockham’s Razor), so it can be helpful, when dealing with behaviors, if we just pick the simplest word that describes what we’re seeing. If that horse is anxious, then maybe we need to do something about it. Maybe he can still do that job, but without the anxiety, and maybe he’d actually be better at it (and we’d be safer!). If you’re one of those people who thinks that high physical performance and being out of control have to go hand-in-hand in a horse, watch cutting horses work. What you’ll see them do is be calm, go in the herd, pick a few cows, move them out slowly. Then as soon as they’ve got their one cow isolated and the rider puts their hand down, that horse explodes. He carries on until the rider picks their hand up, and he’s in a flat-footed walk again so he can go back in the herd. It really is amazing. So it’s possible.

“He’s bored.” Yes, because if you weren’t here, trying to do something with him, he’d be standing in a stall, staring at a blank wall. So clearly, he’s bored. This is another thing we do – pay attention, and usually people will say their horse is “bored” when he’s acting up (really?), misbehaving, or checking out. So what do they do? They stop doing that, leaving the horse in a bad place, and go do something else. Describe what he’s doing with different words. DESCRIBE it, don’t just blame it on bad character. “Bored” is one of those horse world words we bandy about carelessly. What does it MEAN? What did he DO? Then did you reinforce it by giving him some sort of release or relief? And if he IS truly bored, then you have a whole other set of issues and you need to figure out how to branch out and build your horse up instead of doing the same few things the same ways over and over again. But mostly, when people say their horse is “bored”, they’re describing something totally different.

“Needs to be in a program.” I love this one, because I grew up with it. In other words, if we don’t work this horse every day, he comes untrained. So either we need to keep this horse tired, in a state of Learned Helplessness, or otherwise cowed. The other possibility is that our training isn’t sticking because it’s not making any sense to the horse. I’ve seen this when I’ve tried to bring a horse along that has no foundation. Until I go back and shore up that foundation, it’s like nothing will stick if he has a couple days off. What I do now is go back and do all the foundation, make sure that he knows the first things, then the second things, then the third things, etc. When it’s done this way, built from the bottom up, it seems to stick really well. I can (and so can my friends who train this way) routinely take even young horses and work them irregularly and they pick up right where they left off. I’ll say it again, this jargon-y phrase tells me that we’re blaming the horse for the fact that he doesn’t have a foundation, or that he’s over-fed and under-worked, or that he just isn’t understanding what he’s being shown. I think all that needs to be on us.

“He’ll test you.” This one actually kind of gets my blood boiling, because it demonstrates a complete misunderstanding of horses, period (Category C). Horses are gregarious, curious, very smart, and have a long history of helping mankind advance our civilization through their willingness to work for us. They are “plastic”, in that they are always observing their surroundings and figuring things out (like, the best way to get to a water hole, or how to get through a slot canyon to really good grass). So yes, they WILL “test you” because that’s what they do. They are figuring you out. I have a friend whose horse would use the whiskers on his nose to feel if the electric fence was on. He was “testing” that fence. Does that make him a “bad” horse? No, that makes him a HORSE. But we also need to know that the only reason that horse is “testing” that fence is because he has found it off in the past. If that fence was on every time that horse “tested” it, he’d stop testing it and just take it for granted it was on. So if a horse is “testing” the humans in his life a lot, I assume that “testing” has paid off in the past, and that’s on the humans again, not the horse.

It’s also possible that this “testing” horse has been taught to fight with humans and be contradictory. Say he was handled and ridden by someone with marginal knowledge and skills, and every time that horse contradicted the human or followed his own idea forcefully, the person gave him a release, because they didn’t know what else to do. That could create a horse who would do those things with more and more confidence and expectation of a release. It could look to someone else that he was “testing” the rider. But he’d been taught that. See Rule the Third.

“He’s got a mind of his own.” Yes, dear, a horse is a sentient being. He has his own thoughts and feelings, absolutely. But usually horse people say this when the horse is disagreeing with them, doing something they don’t want or otherwise displeasing the human. Again, from a training perspective, what is he DOING or not doing that makes us say this? This doesn’t really tell me anything.

I could keep going here, and maybe I’ll collect a bunch more and carry on with it. But this is my point: please, please, horse people!!!!!!! THINK about what you’re saying when you use these familiar words and phrases. Are they accurate? Are they educated? Is that REALLY what you mean? Is it degrading to the horse? Is it unhelpful to the training? Is there blame in it? Is it a veiled insult? Does it make us sound like we don’t know anything about horses?

Seriously, the way some horse people talk, you’d think horses were lying, lazy, dead-beat, freeloading, deceptive, suspicious, LAZY, worthless, conniving SOBs. And if that really is how we feel about horses, if that’s really what we believe they are, then we need to find a new vocation.

And here’s another part of this, folks, that I truly believe. I have seen it, and I will see it again. People who believe that horses by nature have terrible character, well, they tend to make horses who become self-fulfilling prophecies and end up proving their point. I’ve bought quite a few. I don’t buy from those people any more. It’s important to know how a horse was made, because that horse will reflect the beliefs of the people who made it. Might sound a bit woo-woo, but I’ve seen it. Too many times.

So yes, our words matter. Let’s try to sound like we know a thing or two about horses by rephrasing, reframing and expanding our vocabulary. We can do better.

And remember, as my husband Glenn would say, “Show me your friends and I’ll show you your future.” Language WILL rub off on you, as will attitudes. Be careful who you hang out with. And for heaven’s sake, if you are trying to get help from your instructor or trainer with your horse, throw out all these phrases (and more!) and figure out how to draw a word picture for your trainer or instructor of exactly what you’re seeing or feeling. They will be very grateful, and will do a much better job for you!