We all have things we want, places we would like to be, goals we would like to achieve. We also recognise that getting what we want often involves working with other people. Many of us realise that people are more likely to work with us when they too get something out of it, especially when they enjoy the experience.
A good few years ago, I got my first university job and started trying to find my feet in a large academic environment. Fortunately, there was a group of similar aged researchers, postgrads and lecturers who would congregate in each other’s offices for morning coffee, and who used to go out together after work from time to time. Joining them seemed a good way to fit in. I kept bumping into one person in particular, because she and I seemed to have very similar work hours. We would find ourselves waiting for the kettle to boil in the kitchen at about the same time every morning, and we were often part of the larger group heading to the pub after work or going clubbing together at weekends.
Although I am confident when it comes to standing up and delivering a lecture to 400 students, I’m quite shy in small social groups. I find it difficult to break into conversations and when groups are larger or noisy, I’m often very quiet. As if to make up for this, my colleague was bubbly, chatty and outgoing. During our coffee breaks, she chatted a lot and I learned quite a bit about her life, her romances and her family. There was also a benefit for me – in work social situations if I was with her, I didn’t have to struggle to be heard. I could just smile and nod and fade quietly into the background. She was sharp and witty and enjoyed banter and slightly malicious gossip about workmates.
Things change, workplaces change and people change. After I’d settled in, I got to know a different group of people. They’re people who are still my valued friends even though I don’t see all of them very often now. They were colleagues, fellow postgrads, even my students who themselves became postgrads and then staff. When I met up with them, I realised that I was really enjoying myself. They were good listeners and we exchanged information about our lives. Gossip was lighthearted rather than mean, and we did fun, silly things together and laughed a lot. One of these new friends turned out to share my love of horses. She and I found a local riding stables and we both began riding again after a long break.
At the same time, I found myself more and more in demand with the first person I’d met, but now I was more aware that it felt a bit uncomfortable. She’d seek me out, but when we chatted there wasn’t much fun or laughing, it was more about her problems and people she disliked. She wanted me to listen to her but she didn’t want to listen to me in return. I noticed how negative and spiteful she could be. She hadn’t changed, but I’d become more aware that I had a social alternative that was more rewarding and more positive.
So I started to avoid her. At first, it wasn’t done consciously. I just made my coffee earlier, or spent more time in the library. I changed my in-office hours. Despite this, one day she caught me in the corridor. I felt cornered and I couldn’t wait to get away. I realised what I’d been doing; I felt guilty and rather shallow (the confessional power of the blog!). Despite this, I was more determined to avoid her, because I came away from each encounter feeling miserable and a bit drained.
Time’s moved on. We both moved to new jobs and I haven’t seen her for a decade. Despite the time passing, I know I’d still walk in the other direction if I saw her coming although she never did anything bad to me. She spent time with me, she often bought me small gifts and her presence made my first weeks and months in a new job easier. We never fell out or argued, yet I still have a deep down urge to avoid her.
What on earth does this have to do with horses? Well, I read last week about someone who had a pony who had become more and more difficult to catch. They pointed out that they had always been lovely to the pony, they’d never hit it, never neglected it, fed it occasional tasty treats and yet when they walked into the field, the pony would walk (and run) in the other direction as if repelled from them by some kind of magnetic force.
There’s a force at work in humans and other animals that’s almost like magnetism. With some individuals, we are pulled towards them, we’re attracted to them. With others, we’re pinged away like trying to bring two similarly charged magnets together. Have you ever done the school experiment where you used a magnet to magnetise a paperclip? To begin with, there’s nothing magnetic about the paperclip, but once magnetised, it starts to attract other paperclips… The things (and people, and horses) we are attracted to can pass that charge on to other things. The things we do with people we like are things we come to enjoy in their own right: I enjoy snowboarding mainly because how I feel about the friends who were with me when I was learning, but even when they’re not there any more, I still love the sport. The magnetic charge is the emotion that’s automatically triggered by people, events and situations.
Back to horses again. The human trying to catch the pony had built up a magnetic charge that meant the pony took evasive action whenever he saw them coming. Maybe the human was the original source of the problem, or maybe the problem was with something else (stable, riders, tack, previous owners) but had become associated with that particular human: the process can go both ways. Whichever it was, it probably wasn’t something that was going to be overcome by the human offering random small presents any more than that helped with overcoming how I felt about my work colleague. You can change a negative emotional response, but you need repeated positive associations during a period when you make sure no negative associations are triggered. This process is called counter conditioning, and I’ll write more about it in a future post.
As well as negative associations, ponies and horses form positive associations with us. Where they find something attractive (a tasty feed), they can also start to find the things associated with the tasty feed pleasant and attractive in their own right. So ponies come to have pleasant associations with, for example, stables, people who feed them and even the sounds of familiar cars. Like the magnetised paperclips, these things hold their positive emotional charge even when the original magnet isn’t around: if your pony runs over when they see you even when you don’t have feed, it’s because they really are pleased to see you.
The lovely horse in the photo at the top of this post is Tor. Tor lives out on a Spanish mountain with a small band of mares and has pretty much no contact with humans for 11 months of the year. Despite this, when his owner and I appeared he came straight over. He was happy for me to ride him bareback and in a headcollar for several miles up a steep rocky mountainside to help round up another group of horses and bring them to his owner’s farm. Tor finds people pleasant and interesting. Even though he’d never met me, the strong positive association he had with his owner rubbed off on me, and he was happy to spend time with me even when she wasn’t there. In turn, I made sure I did my best to keep biting flies off him, to scratch his itchy bits and to leave him grazing in a nice pasture.
This “magnetism” isn’t magic. It’s a part of the science of learning called Classical Conditioning. Many people know this because they’ve heard of Ivan Pavlov, and his dogs who would start drooling when they heard a bell that signalled the arrival of food. It’s what causes us to experience positive or negative emotions in specific situations, even when we can’t remember what originally triggered the feeling. Classical conditioning is something we can harness when training our horses. A horse who feels positive about you wants to be with you because of how that makes them feel. There’s a reserve of tolerance and acceptance, and a strong “positive charge” can help when dealing with situations they don’t like.
Classical conditioning can be a powerful took, although we never have complete control over it. We’re part of a world that’s full of overlapping “magnetic fields” that we can’t see. At different times of the year with our horses we’re in competition with the attraction of green grass or playful buddies, or with the repellent effect of swarms of flies or muddy gateways. Because of this, we can’t take it for granted.
We need to make sure we keep checking that our magnetic charge will attract our horses, and that we’re topping it up regularly. Just like with the magnetised paperclip, if we do nothing the charge will diminish over time.
When you next stand at the gate of your field, think for a moment about the magnetic forces that are at work. How strongly is your horse or pony attracted to you? Are there times when they can’t seem to come or when they have to leave? What have you done recently that’s strengthened or weakened your pull? Are you relying on a charge you built up but that’s now leaking away?
There’s a last word on human relationships too. If you feel uncomfortable, unhappy or vaguely ill at ease with someone and what they say and do, there’s probably a very good reason for it. An encounter with a true friend will leave both of you feeling recharged, so seek them out, treasure them, and may the force be with you, your good friends and your horses!
p.s. don’t use this example to illustrate your physics homework – I’m a psychologist, not a physics teacher 😉