In my first job after school, I worked for a very clever, but very precise man. His desk, unlike mine, was a model of pristine organisation with everything in its place. The stapler was just a little to the left of the silver pen holder, the blotter (yes it was that long ago!) was lined up squarely with the centre of the desk, the silver letter opener was to the right. And we noticed that he would meticulously realign everything any time he used or moved things.
I am slightly ashamed to admit that we used to sometimes nip in when he was out and move the pen holder about two inches to the left, or shift the blotter slightly so that it didn’t line up with the edge of the desk. We’d watch through the glass divider when he came back in, and we could see that he knew immediately that something was not right – we could see the irritation as he realigned not just the thing that was out of place, but everything else on the desk.
If you didn’t know him, though, you’d just see a cross and unsettled man (who, by the way was generally a nice and easy going person) sitting at a perfectly clean and organised desk.
We have a very precise sort of memory for the world around us – in humans, this memory tends to use mostly (but not exclusively) visual information. We need to know where things are in order to find our way to different places, we use landmarks to navigate. And we get a bit cross and unsettled if things that should be in a certain place have somehow got themselves out of place.
Despite this, we often fail to understand when our horses respond to similar situations. Many people report their horses being spooky or unsettled “for no good reason” – and when we can’t find a reason that makes sense to us, we say they’re just being silly.
But horses, like us, are very sensitive to changes in their world. There is a way, though, that they differ from us, and that’s in terms of the importance and relevance of this information to a horse. From an early age, humans are, quite literally, movers and shakers. We’re like the mole and the beaver – if something about our surroundings doesn’t appeal to us, we change it. We are active agents of change in our environment – like my old boss, we can just pick things up and put them back into the place where we’d like them, and if something in our environment suddenly goes missing, we have the ability to reason: we know that people can lift, shove, push, bury and otherwise sculpt the environment.
A horse doesn’t have that kind of understanding of the world. Horses sculpt their world in a much slower and more organic way. They nibble long grass down to form lawns, their hooves slowly wear preferred pathways that get them from rolling spots to grazing spots to drinking spots, by going around obstacles. They don’t pick things up and carry them to a new place (or, at least, they don’t often do that – my horse has stolen my car keys a few times…). They use a special form of memory – sometimes called eidetic memory or a memory “picture” made up of information from their senses – to form a map of their world. They don’t understand sudden changes the way we do, because as a species, they don’t cause sudden changes.
If a fallen tree, a large rock, a hedge is there on Monday, but completely absent when you pass that way on Tuesday, many times we humans don’t notice its absence. It’s not relevant to us, and even if we do notice, we just rationalise that another human must have moved it.
To a horse, though, it’s a whole different story. Change or movement of landmarks implies danger – why did they move? Landslip? Flood? Predator movement? Is it safe to go that way now? The ground may be unstable, the trees may be more liable to fall, escape from predators is more difficult when your familiar escape route no longer looks familiar.
When a horse is suddenly spooky or unsettled “for no good reason”, we need to think of the times when we’re also unsettled, and think of how we look to an outsider looking in. A year or two ago, I went to the station to get my usual train, which leaves from the usual platform at the usual time. The train was sitting there waiting… but it was the wrong train! It wasn’t the normal model of train. A whole platform full of regular commuters was acting like a herd of spooked horses. You could see the whites of their rolling eyes, and almost hear the alarmed snorting. Normally confident individuals were standing beside the train, refusing to get on. They were all watching other commuters, and when someone was brave enough to get on, they followed, but everybody stood just inside the door, ready to run at the first sign that this strange train was going to take them to an unknown and terrifying destination. Nobody was able to sit down, nobody was able to read their newspaper.
Yet the noticeboard beside the train quite clearly stated where it was going, so someone who didn’t normally get that train would have been baffled by the herd of people “just acting silly”! There was a sense of palpable panic as the train doors closed, trapping us all inside! Nobody settled until the driver announced the destination over the intercom, and even then there was a residual feeling of anxiety for the entire trip.
What should we do when our horses respond to “invisible spook monsters”? Firstly, we need not to act like superior beings: the same thing can happen to us, and we’d not appreciate being dismissed for what we felt were justifiable fears. It is easy to put ourselves in the position of one of the commuters on the wrong train – how would you feel if, regardless of your concerns, your friend took you by the sleeve and started dragging you towards the train? That’s unlikely to deal with your concerns, and it’s also likely to cause you to resist! In these kinds of situations, we need to direct our horse’s attention to the routine and the familiar, we need to reassure rather than increase adrenalin by correcting or rushing them, and we need to listen to them and allow them to tell us that something’s different, something to them seems wrong. If we do that, maybe one day our horse’s ability to detect changes will help keep us and them out of a situation that we can’t see: rather than assuming we’re right and they’re wrong, we should remember that one plus one can sometimes equal more than two. We’re better together!