Understanding Horses: Trust Between Human and Animal

As I write this, my one and only non-equine sports fandom is in the midst of the premier event of its season: the Iditarod, also known as The Last Great Race. This more or less thousand-mile wilderness trek across Alaska stars some of the most remarkable athletes on the planet: teams of sled dogs, fourteen each at the start, with one human musher per team.

What’s remarkable to me as a horse person, all the seriously cool science stuff aside, and all the lovable floofage and the happy happy leaping wow let’s run!, is that there’s nothing at all to force them to go, and no direct control of any kind.

No whip or spur. No bit or bridle. They wear harnesses and are hooked a main line, the gangline, that runs from the sled to the front of the team. The sled has a brake, and there’s a snow hook, which can be thrown out to (one hopes) anchor the sled. But everything else depends on the musher’s voice and, to a lesser extent, their movements on and off the sled.

That’s it. The dogs run or they don’t. (Mostly they do.) The team follows the lead dog or dogs, and those figure out the trail, execute the musher’s verbal commands, and to a not insignificant extent control where and how the team goes.

If there’s a problem with the leaders, the team isn’t going anywhere. As many a musher has lamented when forced to scratch from a race, “They all wanted to run, but nobody wanted to lead!” One heroic person, near the end of a recent Iditarod, got into this situation, and decided to lead the team herself. She walked 150 miles, step by step, with the dogs following, and by damn she made it to Nome. She didn’t come in last, either.

Unlike a hitch of horses, a team of dogs isn’t held in place. The lines are loose enough that dogs can jump over and under each other, and they can perfectly well decide to go chase that rabbit or hare off after that caribou. If they decide they’re taking that trail, and the musher wants this one, it’s fourteen to one and the human probably won’t win the argument.

What keeps the whole operation from turning into chaos is a simple and yet profoundly complex thing: Trust. Over years of care and cooperation, and many miles on the trail, dogs and human learn to trust each other literally with their lives. The dogs rely on the human to feed them, manage them, look after their health and safety. The human relies on the dogs to pull the sled through any and all conditions, to break trail when needed, to work together as a team. To run, to stop; to turn at a word, with next to no means of compulsion.

This is an ideal of horsemanship as well: for the horse to respond so willingly to the human, whether ridden, driven, or worked in hand, that the interaction between them is almost subliminal. A touch, a look, a shift of the body. But with a horse, the potential for coercion is stronger than for a sled dog. The presence of bit and bridle ups the ante, as does the use of whip or spur.

Bits and spurs when used as guides and tools are painless for the horse, can even be supportive, and serve as refinements of the human’s instructions. But it’s all too easy to abuse them, and thereby to abuse the horse’s trust. (Yes, people ride bitless and even bridleless, and I don’t even remember where I put my spurs. I’m talking here about the standard means of controlling a horse.)

Seeing how much trust a musher needs, how powerful even a very small dog team is, and how easily the team can overwhelm the human’s will, has been an inspiration for me as a horse person. A single horse has so much power and can be so dangerous without even meaning to, but if I earn their trust and they earn mine, there’s no need for any kind of force, and no need for fear or aggression. We can work together. We can share willing cooperation. Our communication can be soft and quiet and free of tension. We can do what we’re meant to do: to dance together, to ride a trail, to race the wind.

Judith Tarr’s first novel, The Isle of Glass, appeared in 1985. Since then she’s written novels and shorter works of historical fiction and historical fantasy and epic fantasy and space opera and contemporary fantasy, many of which have been reborn as ebooks. She has even written a primer for writers: Writing Horses: The Fine Art of Getting It Right. She has won the Crawford Award, and been a finalist for the World Fantasy Award and the Locus Award. She lives in Arizona with an assortment of cats, a blue-eyed dog, and a herd of Lipizzan horses.

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