Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Cranky or Complaining?

Is Your Horse’s Bad Attitude a Sign of Discomfort?

I am an expert in misinterpreting my horses' behaviors.  Truly.  I've been at this for more than 50 years, and I willingly admit that I have made a lot of mistakes based, in part, on the Halo Effect (which, for my gamer friends, has nothing to do with the awesome RPG of the same name).

The Halo Effect is also known in psych circles as cognitive bias.  If you don't get the whole "bias" thing, let's go there first.  Those in the know can skip this part.

Bias means prejudice.  Prejudice means the act of prejudging, or making assumptions based on limited information.  When you see that the new family moving in next door is towing a brand-new Jaguar behind the van, you may jump to the conclusion that someone in the family is a car buff, a car racing aficionado, or has money oozing out his or her pores.  You may be right, or you may be wrong.  But odds are that going forward, at least for a while, you will approach the new folks with an attitude colored by your expectation in one of those directions.

Cognitive means thought-related.  It's the creepy stuff that goes on in your brain that causes you to do most of what you do.  You learn cognitively.  So following the above scenario, you will have just taught your brain a way of thinking about this new bunch of humans.  Your cognition (thought process) has been biased (farkled beyond belief) by your assumptions.

"Just being a toddler," or really wanted
to be a dragon for Halloween?

The Halo Effect, then, is that odd quirk of human cognition that allows the brain to attribute qualities to something without the something necessarily having those qualities.  We do this all the time.  When I was a college kid, all the trendy dweebs wore Fair Isle sweaters, a style that should have been banned rather than applauded.  They were itchy wool sweaters with some sort of Scandinavian or British Isles design knitted in in an arc just below the collar with the lower edge at mid-boob for most of us.  Someone created the meme that Fair Isle style equated with 1) moneyed parents, 2) intellectual snobbery, and 3) some connection to the term "Preppy", meaning having graduated from an exclusive, private secondary school.

Most all of that was as wrong as the meme that said that any male with long hair (this was, after all, the mid-60's) and wire-rimmed glasses was probably on drugs and could play a musical instrument.

Could we humans be any weirder?

With horses, the memes abound.  Mares, in particular, get a bad rap.  If a horse acts up, and that horse happens to have ovaries, it's just "mare stuff".  If a gelding acts up, he's bad, evil, "got your number", and so on.  Once the halo is in place, it's very difficult to dislodge.
Clipping jumps because she's
"mare-ish", or because a farrier
made do with a too-small shoe
and messed up her breakover?

Years of being involved with horses have taught me a lot, and the biggest lesson has been that there's almost always a reason for a horse behaving in a way we'd prefer it not.

Sure, there's always the chance that the horse just has a "bad mind", but that's generally not the case.  We humans are far more likely to be disturbed or mentally ill than our horses are.  And there's always the chance that our horse is reflecting our mental illness.  That's a favored meme right now in horse discussion forums, that our horses are mirrors.  There's a modicum of truth to that.  If you're a nervous person, your horse may well also be nervous because he senses (they are very sensitive to odors, vibrations, body language) that something is awry and isn't sure whether his life is in danger.  S/he's not just reflecting your nervous "spirit"; s/he's reacting to impending danger.

Similarly, if you are a bully, you may turn your horse into one as s/he is forced to defend himself against you.  If you are a coward, s/he may feel s/he has to take the lead in your relationship as s/he can't trust you to protect him.  

But underlying all of it is the possibility that you're missing a huge message from your horse that s/he's frightened, cold, hot, in pain, confused, in distress from being asked to perform movements or behaviors beyond his/her ability, unhappy in his/her living situation, angry with another horse in the herd, and so on.

It takes some effort to remove the halo and assess your horse's behavior (and your own) objectively, but it's an absolute must-try.  I had a problem figuring out that my mare was hurting.  I bought her foundered and pregnant, and though she was working sound, she gave indications of soreness whenever her shoeing was overdue.  But often the signs were confusing.  I attributed some of them to things I knew about her that were actually unrelated to her current behavior.  As a result, I sometimes aggravated an already aggravating situation for the poor horse.  And when Zip had a minor accident (with a horse who was adept at flinging his body onto the ground from great heights, a small slip didn't seem noteworthy), it didn't register that his sudden complete change in behavior signaled something other than Zip being Zip and "having my number", as two vets and two trainers diagnosed.  It took a third vet and a third trainer to figure out that he had an ortho issue that was creating significant problems.

Separating the individual from the halo you've chosen to apply isn't easy, but it's the only way to ensure that you are working with and not against your horse.  You can't fix something you don't know about.  Make it your job to know.

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