The chocolate dentist…

I’m not saying my dentist is made of chocolate – that just wouldn’t be practical, would it? But I do wonder as I sit there, my mouth wedged open, blinded by a very bright light, and deafened by drills, whether I’d have a different view of the dentist’s surgery if it was a tastefully appointed chocolatier? Especially if I only encountered the drills every 5th or 6th visit!

Last week, I was thinking about how we learn positive associations with places – and those associations are about how we feel when we’re there as well as how we feel when we think about the place. So many of the actions we take are ones we don’t think about but which are driven by our feelings and associations: my steps are drawn magnetically towards the cosy café in last week’s post, but I’m also repelled from the dentist’s surgery.

The way we feel about places is built up from our experience. Most places, we feel pretty neutral about: I don’t linger in the station on the way to work, but I don’t avoid it either. Our brains store up information about each experience we have with a place, and over time we form mental maps of good and bad places to be. We’re like the ball in a pinball machine – drawn to some places, but pinged away from others! And when our brain forms those mental maps, it prepares itself to learn new things. Not only that, but our brains are biased – once we have even a slight negative association with a place, it’s negatives we seem to see when we’re next there.

Places can feel really good, and they can feel terrifying – but they can also feel just slightly wrong. It’s those places I’m thinking about today. Usually, we don’t remember any specific event. There’s the cosy café, and then there’s the one across the road I don’t visit much. It’s draughty! Nothing too bad, just that a few times I’ve been there, I’ve felt a bit cold.

Have you ever noticed your horse speed up or slow down on a hack at specific places? Are there places you ride past, and you suddenly notice your horse has been tense, but has now relaxed… they might sigh, or just slow down. They might have been a bit spookier, but now their head drops and they look around in an interested, rather than riveted way?

Like us, horses have associations with places, and these places evoke the same emotion every time. With horses – and with us – there’s also something called “preparedness”. Each species has things they learn much more quickly – the things that it’s really useful for them to know to survive. These things mean that some places, by their very nature, are set up to be scary! I run a few times a week along a track I also ride along… and there’s a place my horse doesn’t like. The track is narrow, and goes between high, wooded banks. It’s darker, and there’s a bend in the track so you can’t see the way out until you’re more than half way in. Horses are “prepared” to dislike places where a predator could lie in wait and jump on their backs. Have you ever seen a horse at liberty run through a narrow gap or through a tunnel? They often speed up just as they exit, and then buck: of course! They are making sure that anything that’s jumped on their back is dislodged immediately. Their eyes also adapt more slowly than ours to changes in ambient light levels – so emerging from a shady “tunnel” of trees to bright sunshine means they’re more likely to assume a predator they can’t see is waiting!


We’re prepared to dislike places too: we experience claustrophobia (a dislike of very small spaces), and we also often run when we’re just escaping confinement: think of small children going into the playground at break time!

I think there’s a similarity between how my horse feels about trailers and how I feel about dentists. Nothing awful has ever happened to either of us in these places, but we’ve built up a negative history from small annoyances and discomforts – and we were already prepared not to like small dark boxes or situations where we lie our backs with our mouths open. Horses whose early experiences of trailers are as places where a trail of tasty carrots lead to a delicious bucket tend to be the ones with the least problems later – and I am sure I would visit the dentist more often if my early experiences had been at a ratio of five chocolate purchases to one scale and polish! We can become more sensitive to how our horses feel about different places by putting ourselves in their place – and we can make sure that their early experiences with places we will want to visit a lot in the future are positive ones, and not “trips to the dentist”.


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