The Horse-Human Interface

Here we are, a day late but not, we hope, a dollar short. Technical difficulties laid Book View Cafe low over the weekend, and then I had my own Fun With Computers.

Whenever my brain is about to explode with the frustrations of technology, I find it useful to reboot in a classic, very low-tech way. Not that horses can’t drive one batwhackers too, but it’s a different kind of bats and a quite physical form of whackage. (The hand that got kicked, then strained hauling heavy horse blankets, and finally jabbed with cactus spines in the course of removing same from an understandably not very cooperative horse’s lip, will recover. As will the horse.)

Mostly however, horses are very calming. Soothing. And, in the case of my Space Aliens in horse suits, highly interactive.

Animals, like humans, tend to be more responsive to human interactions if those interactions are [a] positive, [b] frequent, and [c] comprehensible. There’s a clear range of intelligence, of course, and different animals have different levels and types thereof, but in the case of a domestic animal that has been living with humans for several millennia at least, there’s been clear selection for individuals with traits that mesh well with humans.

Wild Mustangs are feral–that is, not truly wild (as in animals that were never, as a species, domesticated) but descended from domesticated stock. Natural selection has favored a strong constitution and high intelligence–but that intelligence is concentrated on survival. The person who tames a Mustang has to first convince the Mustang that humans are trustworthy, then use that trust to teach the horse to cooperate with humans–from being led and tied to being ridden or driven.

A newborn foal has the same instincts as the Mustang, and requires much the same methods and attitudes from the human trainers. No horse is born trained, though there are some who earn that designation by being extremely cooperative and seeming, sometimes, to be hardwired for the kind of work the trainer is asking.

That’s what domestication does. Horses that are naturally uncooperative are seldom chosen for breeding unless that lack of cooperation is useful in some way–rodeo broncs, very fast racehorses, etc. For the most part, breeders look for animals that are easy to handle and train, and will pass on these traits both genetically and through nurture. Babies learn by observation, and if mom trusts the wobbly little two-legs, baby will generally decide to trust it, too.

Do this long enough (centuries, even millennia) and with enough focus on intelligence and trainability, and be ruthless enough in culling individuals that don’t measure up, and you get, basically, Space Aliens. Horses that are genetically engineered to cooperate with humans; that incorporate humans easily into their herd structure and still manage to make the distinction between Horse: Can Beat Up With Impunity and Human: Little, Squishy, Handle With Care.

This isn’t necessarily easy to teach, even when the genetics are there. Horse instinct, at first snap or kick, still trumps horse-with-human instinct. But instinct can be overcome by training, and new behaviors can overlay the default programming.

It’s especially helpful if the horse has what amounts to a tropism toward humans. The horse is drawn toward them; it’s inclined to interact. It may even, if these traits are strong enough, be drawn toward a specific human to the exclusion of others: the one-man-dog effect.

Which is all by way of explaining how we’re able to do Herd Yoga at my farm. This is Not something that’s advisable or safe to do in any random group of equines. It needs a closely related and long-standing herd of highly huiman-focused horses–horses that choose on their own to interact with humans, and enjoy that interaction. It also needs close supervision by humans the herd knows well, who know what each horse is likely to do. As I said, sometimes a horse will be a horse, and if the human gets in the way, the human gets squished.

What’s striking about yoga is how actively the horses participate. They seem to understand what’s being done, and they’ll act like teachers or guides, correcting the humans’ positions and showing them how to improve their mental attitudes.

Like this. The human yoga teacher receives instruction from an equine teacher, with another teacher watching (she can see through the mask; she’s allergic to flies).

Or they’ll just Be There while the humans go all warrior on them.

And sometimes the human and horse teach each other.

Or the horse wants the humans to give it a nice massage, and the other  humans come to watch, and suddenly the horse is the center of attention. Horses love being adored by cadres of acolytes.

When everyone is done, it’s polite to say, “Namaste!”

And maybe go for a nice mutual hug. There’s not much that compares with being hugged by half a ton of intelligent alien.

Photos by Traci Castleberry

Namaste, Jenny Kendall and the DHF Lipizzans: Camilla, Capria, Carrma, Ephiny, Gabriella, Khepera, Pandora, Pooka, and Tia

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The Horse-Human Interface — 7 Comments

  1. Alas, that you will not be at the Nebulas this year! We are doing an Aliens panel, and someone to talk about aliens in horse suits would be perfect.

  2. What a pity they didn’t get more pictures of the mustangs. I wonder what they were thinking, while the drumming was going on?

  3. This reminds me of a composing for radio performance and arts seminar el Vaquero taught in Breuklyn, Netherlands (outside of Amsterdam) one year. It was in a huge 17th century estate with gardens and so on. There the divisions of properties tended to be small canals, rather than hedges or fences. Across from the back grounds of the estate was a field with horses.

    One evening el V and I were strolling out there after dinner. He had a radio with short wave capacity with him. He managed to pull in a station that was playing Country and Western. When Dolly Parton’s voice came in, thin but true, through the radio waves, all the horses in the pasture galloped over to the edge of the canal that divided the property. They stood there, ears pricked forward, through all of Dolly and what followed, until the station fell out. Then they drifted away, back to their hay.

    Love, C.

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