Horses respond to their own map of reality, their senses are on a different scale to ours and they have different priorities. It’s our job to understand them as horses not as less intelligent human beings. Wendy Jago, a List 3 Dressage Judge, NLP Master Practitioner and coach, discusses basic ‘horse sense’ presupposition in the first of a series of articles about developing successful human-equine partnerships

Once you get past its mechanistic-sounding name, the discipline now known as NLP (Neuro-Linguistic Programming) has a lot to offer us as riders.

NLP began in America in the 1970s, when some bright young people wanted to find out if outstanding therapeutic practitioners, who described their theories in different ways, had anything in common. This was the start: “What really makes for excellence?”And it’s one I’ll return to later on in this series.

At the heart of their practical investigations was the answer to the question “How do they do that?” The detailed answers turned out to apply to every discipline, not just therapy. If you ask the same question about surgeons, builders, novelists or riders, and if you investigate it as thoroughly as they did, you’ll always come up with the essential actions and the beliefs, attitudes and concepts, that make for outstanding practice.

What underpins excellence in any field is not just what someone does but what assumptions they make about others. These “presuppositions” are not truths: they are “useful fictions”. In other words, evidence demonstrates that Acting on useful fictions as if they were true has better results.

In this series I’m going to look at a number of these presuppositions, and show how they can help us with our riding. The first presupposition gives us a valuable foundation for every interaction we are involved in, including those with our horses. And it’s this: Other living creatures respond to their map of reality and not to our reality.

One of my favourite personal horse stories illustrates this clearly. Many years ago I went down to the school with our old horse, Lolly. We had had him years and schooled him regularly. I started as usual with an on-the-buckle walk clockwise from the gate. It was summer and wild plants were growing along the edges of the school both inside and out. As we got to the far end of the school Lolly suddenly shied. A plant which had certainly been there yesterday had come into flower today: white daisies were brightly blooming where yesterday there had been only green leaves. I laughed and circled him a couple of times, telling him what an idiot he was to be alarmed. Then I turned him round and approached from the other direction. Another shy because ‘it’s different this way, and I’m seeing it with my other eye’. More laughter, more circles. By now he had decided the daisies were part of the scenery and not terrifying after all. Minutes later I saw our friend Debby coming down the track on her horse Merlin.

‘Watch out for the dangerous daisies!’ I called. And she did — but Merlin reacted just as Lolly had. In a horse’s map of reality, a change is a potential danger. That’s what has helped keep the species alive through thousands of years. If you assume he is being naughty, or difficult, when he shies, then your short route option is punishment. Debby and I reacted with laughter partly because the situation was funny, but also because we both know ‘that’s horses’.

Take a more complicated example. Our current horse, Mouse, is not happy hacking on his own. When he is out with another horse, he relaxes and will pass most everyday objects including quite large agricultural machines. But if he is hacking alone, he will sometimes just stop. This may be because something suspicious has come into view, or because something that was in view has disappeared, or for no apparent reason. He rarely turns and spins: mostly he just sticks. If you use your heels or a whip, he will make it clear by bouncing on the spot that he could rear or buck if you went on asking. As he is 17.hh and quite powerful, we have learnt not to do this.

Is he being naughty? Or disobedient? No. One way to tell this is that he doesn’t do it in the same place — he hasn’t learnt to nap. He is genuinely concerned — within his own map of the world. How to respond? Sometimes he will keep going if you growl. If you get off, he will usually let you lead him past the danger place, or you can sit and wait until whatever-it-is comes into view. It may take five or more minutes before the man with the dog emerges from that wood, or the strange horse comes round that distant corner, or the pair of elderly ladies that were counting tree species behind that distant hedge stand up… Only then will he move forward again.

It’s a real nuisance, but it makes sense — to him. And the answer is to work with it rather than arguing.

Riders and trainers often talk about ‘evasions’ as though the horse is deliberately refusing to do what’s being asked. The very word ‘evasion’ in its human context presupposes a kind of knowing, conscious deceit. So using it about a horse implies forethought on his part and a quasi-human awareness of consequences. Horses don’t think this way. He may indeed be trying to avoid something, but it is an in-the-moment response to something he finds difficult, confusing or even painful. If we assume the evasion has a human sort of meaning, we go down one route in our responses.

If we assume that avoidance or refusal tells us about the horse’s experience here and now, we have information that may be valuable — even invaluable — in the way we immediately respond and the strategies we consider for his training in the future.

I’ve often heard even knowledgeable horsey people saying that a new horse was very amenable when he first came to the yard, but became less so ‘once he had got his feet under the table’. There’s an implication here that somehow the horse had started to take advantage once he had settled in. Horses don’t think like that. How differently would you feel, perhaps, if you put his initial quietness down to anxiety about being in a new situation (and having to become part of a herd of strangers)? And his change in behaviour either to feeling more at home or to a rather adolescent ‘seeking of boundaries’? You might indeed have to be firmer with him so as to clarify the new ‘house rules’, but I think you would feel less irritated, disappointed, or even challenged if your basic presupposition was that his actions all made sense to him and that it’s your job to understand that, not his to read your mind.

This fundamental presupposition applies to how you judge and interpret your trainer, the judge who judges you, your colleagues and family as well. And also to how you understand yourself… What sense does it make?

© Out and About Dressage Ltd, 18 November 2017

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