Every time I mount a horse, I’ve started do this new thing.
It began with my own horse, back in the early days when I was newly pregnant, and he was an athletically inclined seven-year-old. Shortly after mounting, before we picked up the trot or started our work, I would run a hand down his neck and give him a couple of kind words and a momentary scratch under the mane.
Back then, it was more of a Hail Mary; we were still getting to know one another, and it was a quick way to check-in and try to get him on my side. A little, Hi, remember me, I’m your mom. I’m counting on you, and I’m glad to be here with you. But I’ve since continued the practice, with him and other horses, every time I mount up at a horse show, take a lesson, or ride a horse that’s new to me.
Not only is it a common sense way to reassure a new (or old) flight animal friend, it’s also become a reminder for my own private moment of reflection. I know I’m grateful, especially given the current demands of my life, every time I’m able to find the time to swing a leg over a horse. And in the same way my Apple Watch Health app pings my wrist daily to remind me to pause, reflect, and take a moment to be present, I like to think of this as the equestrian equivalent.
More than that, it’s been my experience that it works.
According to a study published in The Royal Society in 2016, domesticated horses can both read and recognize the emotional state of humans. For example, when a horse in the study was shown a picture of a man looking angry, that horse reached a maximum heart rate more quickly than if the picture it was looking at was of the same man smiling.
This indicates an emotional intelligence reserved for only a small number of non-human species that we know of, dogs included. And it suggests that either this trait is more widespread among animal species than we’d previously thought, or that, like dogs, horses have learned to read our behavior through thousands of years of co-evolution.
In any case, it just makes sense that a little kindness and a few soft words can go a long way toward getting your partnership off on the right foot. And why not?
When you think about all that our horses do for us, from the extreme of clearing a seven foot puissance wall, to the hundreds of mundane tasks we ask them to do for us every day, there are so many that go against their very nature. Standing still while a predator species climbs onto their backs, for one. But also the more incredible tasks—completing a piaffe or half-pass, jumping around a course of fences, or skillfully taking care of a small child passenger they could easily dislodge.
If I’ve learned anything from my time in this sport, it’s that the generosity of horses is both bottomless and endlessly surprising. When you consider just how little a 1,200-pound horse actually has to do of what we ask, compared to the extremes that they bravely undertake on our behalf, it near boggles the mind.
I often think what a wonderful place the world would be if people were more like their horses. But while we wait for that day to come, a scratch on the neck and a brief moment to pause, and say thank you, seems like a small price to pay for even the briefest admission into their worlds.
In this season of gratitude, it bears being a little more mindful, not just of all the things our horses give to us, but of the truly generous spirit in which they’re given.