Human and Equine: Meeting Halfway

This is a segue of sorts from the Space Equinoids thought experiment, back toward terrestrial horses and the humans who live and work with them. I often call my horses Space Aliens in horse suits, and refer to them as aliens in the pasture. They’re very much their own creatures; even humans for whom they’re nothing but sports equipment or transport will have to understand the basics of equine psychology. Horses are just too big, too strong, and too self-willed to take for granted.

No matter how dominant the human, the horse still outweighs him, and horse instincts and psychology will rule unless the human finds ways to work with them. As the adage says, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.”

You can, however, ask him to do so. And make drinking a desirable activity. If he’s been working and he’s thirsty, it’s its own reward. Teach him a signal, then—a word, a gesture, a splashing in the water (the last of which actually speaks his language)—and he’ll learn to do it on request.

Certain human values and demands will directly violate a horse’s instincts and, if you will, her moral code. A horse alone is dangerously vulnerable. Her safety is the herd, and her instinct is to blend herself in with it, to present a very large, unified creature to the hunting predator. The individual can be pulled down. The herd, en masse, moving together and protecting the weak or the young inside it, is a much more intimidating target.

In the horse’s world, the lone hero, the solitary adventurer, is a perversion of nature. There are horses in captivity who tolerate and even seem to prefer solitude, but all those I’ve met have been in some way emotionally damaged. Poorly socialized in youth or isolated and confined until they essentially break, and either never learn or turn against their herd instincts.

So how does the lone adventurer manage to ride out on his trusty horse? To the horse, he is the herd. The horse bonds with him and follows his lead. It’s seldom totally satisfactory—if other horses appear, old Silver will gravitate toward them—but it’s a decent example of how human conditioning can overcome equine instinct.

Riding itself is another challenge to the horse’s natural inclinations. A predator on a horse’s back, in the wild, is death. The human who wants to ride a horse has to approach it with care, and either so overwhelm the horse that he breaks and submits—the old cowboy way, slam the tack on, add bronc rider, buck him to a standstill—or train him slowly and carefully to accept the human on his back.

I like the theory that the first rider was an adventurous kid in the meat-and-milk herd, climbing on an old broodmare. Broodmares are used to being climbed on, between the stallion breeding them and the foals clambering all over them. If a human kid does the same, and she’s too busy eating or napping to care, she might tolerate it to the extent of letting the kid push her around and tell her what to do, though probably it will be a process. Kid falls off or gets bucked off, gets back on (because stubborn and because wow does the world look cooler from up there), keeps persisting until she heaves a long-suffering sigh and decides to put up with it.

Stallions are tougher, because anybody climbing on them will not have good intentions, but win their trust and treat them fairly and you can win them over. You’ll probably pick up a lot of bruises and might get broken, but again, the world is a grand place from the back of a horse, and you can move so much faster and with so much less effort than you can on your own feet.

It’s possible that humans drove horses before they rode—and possibly started with another form of equine, the donkey, rather than the larger, stronger, more obstreperous horse. Invention of the wheel led to invention of chariot, and equines were tamed to pull the chariot. There’s a lot of tech involved there, between the design of wheel, box, and shafts, not to mention the harness that connects the animal to it, and the bridle and reins that allow the driver to control the animal.

And through all of this, you have a high-strung flight animal not only letting itself be harnessed but allowing itself to be attached to a heavy, noisy object that chases the animal incessantly. This is a huge testimony to the fundamentally cooperative nature of the equine—whether donkey or horse.

That’s where the human-equine interface is: in the equine’s nature as a herd animal. Prey instincts are strong, but herd instincts can overcome them. The inclination, indeed need, to connect with others in the herd; the bone-deep understanding that the herd is safe if it stays together, moves together, even thinks together.

The horse will have its own individual opinions, feelings and reactions, but the urge to cooperate is powerful. Horses, say the trainers’ wisdom, are fundamentally good-natured, and they want to get along. Training by force works to a point, but training through trust—through diplomacy, if you will—lasts longer and sticks better.

Trust is key. Horses want a leader: a confident individual who makes decisions that the horse can trust will be in the best interests of the herd (even if it’s a herd of two, the human and the horse). Leadership is earned, and the process is ongoing. But the perceptive human can persuade the trusting horse to suppress his instincts to a remarkable degree. Literally, the horse will go through fire for the human he trusts.

In the world of horses, human definitions of bravery are not necessarily a virtue. The horse who runs into the fire rather than away from it has a death wish. So does the one who leaves the herd in the company of a predator. And the one who allows that predator on her back in the first place.

It amazes me that horses will do this, and so many of them will do it willingly. Give them a choice between hanging with the herd and going out for a ride with the human, and the horse will often pick the human. Horses are bright animals, and curious. They like variety. They seem to enjoy interspecies interactions.

It’s as if they’ve decided over millennia of symbiosis that humans are part of the herd. Especially humans who make an honest effort to communicate with horses on their own terms. A highly verbal biped can’t replicate the subtleties of an intensely kinesthetic quadruped, but it’s amazing how wide the middle ground is, and how willing the equines are to meet humans in it.

It’s a gift. It’s not just humans using horses for their own purposes. Horses get something out of it, too, even beyond care and feeding. It really is a partnership between the species.

Judith Tarr is a lifelong horse person. She supports her habit by writing works of fantasy and science fiction as well as historical novels, many of which have been published as ebooks by Book View Cafe. Her most recent short novel, Dragons in the Earth, features a herd of magical horses, and her space opera, Forgotten Suns, features both terrestrial horses and an alien horselike species (and space whales!). She lives near Tucson, Arizona with a herd of Lipizzans, a clowder of cats, and a blue-eyed dog.

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