Through Other Eyes
By Betsy Kelleher
Ever wonder how horses think about the world around them? Search amazon.com for “how horses think” and you’ll find hundreds of books about a horse’s perceptions. Cherry Hill’s “How to Think Like a Horse” was rated #1 in horse books when I last checked.
Consider this scenerio: while riding down the road, I see a picturesque big rock ahead—while my horse sees a hiding place for a hungry predator! I can’t change the way he sees things, but understanding his perspective helps me to deal with his fears. I definitely do not want to punish him for being fearful or do something that will end up hurting him. But I can walk him all around the rock at a safe distance and give him time to think about it. With my own calm, patient leadership, I can help him relax and become more confident. I can help him learn to trust me beyond his own natural instincts, as he learns to “see” things through my perspective.
Teaching trust is both simple and complicated. It simply requires our gentle firmness, patience and consistent persistence—but the process is complicated by the past experiences and habits of both horse and human. Habits become ingrained by repetition. That’s precisely why horse training involves lots of repetition, doing something over and over again and doing it right so that it becomes a habit of doing the right thing.
We may need to deal with our own fears and change some of our own habits before working on our horse. We also need to take small steps toward any goal, breaking it down into little pieces that are easy to handle by both horse and human, with lots of ground work. I used to think John Lyons went too far in his lesson plans, but he had the right idea. Take one step at a time, do whatever the horse can accept quietly, move on slowly and in the long run you will get there with much less damage.
Rocky used to spook at tarps. A few years ago, he would stop wide-eyed at the sound or sight of a tarp, and sometimes push me aside or drag me several feet in a sudden lunge backward. His stall is only a few feet from several tarps and pieces of plastic that now cover piles of hay across the aisle. He has constant exposure to them. Sometimes a tarp is moved by a breeze coming down the aisle from the open doorway, or by a cat, or when someone pulls back a tarp to get to their hay. You’d think he would be totally used to the sound and movement by now. But as I lead him from his stall to his paddock, walking past several tarp-covered piles of hay, I still need to be alert. I try to always think “forward” instead of looking at the tarps. If he looks at some tarp sticking out into the aisle and starts to move sideways, I simply tell him “uh-uh” and apply pressure on his halter and he goes on. He seems to need that reminder that I say it’s OK. The fact that he responds to my touch and voice and walks on past is evidence to me that he has some trust in my perspective.
It’s taken a lot of sessions with the tarp, dragging it in front of him, letting him smell it, folding it up in a small piece then unfolding it into larger and larger visual chunks, touching him with it carefully, walking around it and over it. Again and again and again. And then starting over at the next session. Patience and persistence, remember? I’ve laid a tarp over his back several times, but he allows it with that uncertain look in his eye. I even fed him his hay on a tarp for awhile.
All that ground work does pay off and it helps for later experiences under saddle on the trail. When Rocky sees something, he may stop and look, and I can give him a moment to think about it, then a squeeze of my leg for him to go on. Rocky is smart and he is curious, and he makes his own decisions—but he is also learning to trust me and he is becoming more confident at his older age of nine!
Building a horse’s trust and confidence sometimes takes a lot of patience and effort. It can start with simple grooming. The time you take to groom your horse not only helps circulation and produces a healthy shine, but it also helps the bond and it builds trust. The way you handle your horse and the way you treat him—all of it says something to him about you and your ability to be his leader. Also, riding once or twice a week may be enough for an older well-trained horse, but not for a younger animal. Clinton Anderson recommends working a young horse three days a week or more, in succession for the most effective training. Being an on-again off-again type of rider, I can see why my efforts sometimes aren’t as effective as they could be if I was more consistent. I appreciate learning from professional trainers through weekly email “tips.”
I also appreciate the wisdom from a devotional booklet called In Touch, by Rev. Charles Stanley. For example: “It’s important to view things from God’s perspective rather than from the world’s.” Watching TV overloads our minds with the economic crisis, especially when we see millions of people losing their jobs! And then we deal with the cost of hay and grain and gas and everything else. Beyond these frustrating and sometimes catastrophic daily realities, however, is the power and wisdom of a Sovereign God who loves us and cares for us. Like a horse that spooks at a garbage can piled high with plastic bags with the lid rattling in a gust of wind, we often see our own spooky visions of this world—and we need the understanding of God’s perspective. Just as the horse’s perception might not be whole truth; our own perceptions are subject to that same possibility.
Jesus knows what it is like to be human in this world because He experienced it through human eyes. We seek His perspective by spending time in prayer and by studying His Word—but we need to seek not just the knowledge in a book, we need to seek Him. I especially like the prayer in Ephesians 1:18, “…that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and his incomparably great power for us who believe.”
As we study God’s Word, we learn how different His ways are from the world’s. He tells us to forgive instead of taking revenge and to love our enemies and pray for them (Matthew 5:44). He offers wisdom in dealing with evil and He says to “stand firm” against it in the power of the Holy Spirit. In Proverbs 3:5, we are told to “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding,” and verse 7 adds, “Do not be wise in your own eyes.”
We are to live in submission to His Sovereign wisdom and authority, knowing and trusting that He understands our human perspective with all its frightening scenes—and He is able to lead us through whatever He allows. We cannot live a God-centered life if we are depending only on self-centered human resources. May we see a strong vision of His empowering Spirit living within us, and His unconditional love in his gift of salvation. May we learn to see our world from God’s perspective rather than our own.
(Originally published in the August 2009 issue of the Illinois Horse Network)