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Touching the Wild Heart of Horses

Updated: Jan 6, 2023

Picture © Jean Sinclair

Article 4/6:

I trim the hooves of wild horses. Itʼs my specialised niche where I feel most alive. My body knows the work. During the 20 years Iʼve worked as an Equine Podiatrist Iʼve trimmed thousands of hooves. So my muscle memory can take over, allowing me to focus on staying as aware and in harmony with them as I can be.

Horses who live life on their own terms are so completely in tune with themselves, each other and their environment that working with them is always an extraordinarily grounding experience.

I work with them in pens or open fields but wherever we are they are free to choose to be with me or not. Standing unhaltered and allowing the work to take place in a way that feels safe for them. This, of course is the end result, the photo opportunity. The foundational work leading up to this moment may look less remarkable but this is where the trust is earned and the relationship built. This is where the magic happens.

I also work with domestic horses and those lucky enough to be involved in the “work” of regenerative grazing. Whatever type of equine I am interacting with my goal is to recognise and respect their innate being, touching their wild heart.

My work is all about building trust. This involves training, both for me and the horses but it feels far more nuanced than training in the conventional sense. So in an attempt to help myself better understand the process Iʼve started to pick it apart a bit.

Training Redefined

The dictionary definition of to train is; to develop or form habits, thoughts or behaviour by discipline and instruction. The miserable experience I had at school with discipline and instruction goes a long way to explaining why I would be resistant to imposing this on others. A more accurate description of how I work is by encouraging communication and interaction. I do so by building

trust and connection whilst working towards flexible objectives.

Picture © Shela Ryan

My two biggest influences have come from what I have learnt from equines themselves and Equine Ethology (The study of the behaviour of equines in their natural habitat). I do my best to combine my experience and common sense with intellectual knowledge. My work is almost always equine led, allowing them to shape and direct our interactions. I have a plan but I donʼt get attached to it and take the long term view of its accomplishment.

Picture © Jean Sinclair

Picture © Jean Sinclair

The information I learn through regular ethological field studies is the bedrock of my work. It has given me wonderful insights into why horses do what they do. Free living populations give us a window through which we can view natural behaviour. When we look at equine behaviour from an ethological perspective (through a horse lens) we can really choose to take what we have learnt about them into consideration in all our interactions. We can then find answers that can enlighten us about how to create a high quality life for them.

I was very fortunate when I first started researching natural animal behaviour to come across the book ʻTouching the Wildʼ written by the remarkable Ethologist Joe Hutto, in whose honour my work is named. This book is about his experiences over the nine years he spent living with Mule Deer. Every day he would pack a lunch and go out with the herd, experiencing as well as observing their lives. This is what Joe has to say about his ethological work, “The observations Iʼve made are not complex. If I have a gift, itʼs for recognising the obvious. But unless you become a part of the lives of these animals and put in the days and months and years, these observations will elude you. Iʼm like a cultural anthropologist, studying the animalsʼ social lives”.

I had a moment of epiphany when reading his book. He describes the first contact between the deer and himself which was instigated by the deer. I had experienced the same with free living ponies and I thought it was just an anomaly. It was a revelation to think that this could in fact be a more pure expression of natural behaviour than running away. The more I study free living equines the clearer it becomes to me that by nature they are curious and

social animals who choose to seek company, even with another species. It is the most natural thing in the world for an unhandled equine with no prior bad experience of humans to be curious about us, approach and then interact.

I believe the starting point for any interactions, before we get anywhere near equines is to study their species in depth. If we can get our heads around their innate behaviours, we can then understand not just their physical needs but also their social, emotional and cognitive ones too. I don't claim to know their inner lives but I do my best to learn from their subtle communication

and behaviour and to attempt to interpret and respond appropriately. I think it is our responsibility and privilege to study them as a species and then to get to know them as individuals. Then the decisions we make about how they live their lives more closely aligns with what nature and evolution has equipped them for. This in turn creates a well balanced animal who feel safe in their world because it makes sense to them. The brilliant work of the lifelong Equine Ethologist Lucy Rees is thoroughly researched and comprehensive. Her book ʻHorses in Companyʼ is the best source of information about horse behaviour that I know. Itʼs my equine behaviour bible.

Picture © Jean Sinclair

Horses are a social species who do their best to get along. Being in a group equals safety on a very fundamental level, so they have strong motivation to adapt their behaviour to those around them. Even though I may be making a request of them one of my goals is to help them find the easiest way to do that. I prioritise calmness and confident engagement. It helps that they are so curious. I always allow them choice in their responses so that they can be as

comfortable and accepting with what is being asked of them as they can possibly be.

As I write this I realise that it so important to question everything (this included!) With so much information at our fingertips we need to remember to be discerning, and also to incorporate the wisdom gleaned from our own life experience. I always look into the credentials and ethos of the people whose teachings I may take on board and my preference is to meet them in person to see if the practice what they preach. Science is often used to establish credibility, but there is a large variation in the quality of scientific studies, so again this is an area where we need to do our own research. We owe it to our equines to be like gold panners and sift through information to find the nuggets.

When we have sound information and understanding we can look from the equine perspective, through a horse lens. Millions years of evolution has provided them with a blueprint for survival. They are hardwired to behave in certain ways. They have an innate need to express these behaviours and when they are unable to, due to our influence, it creates long term stress which leads to multiple physical and behavioural problems. Equines who express natural

behaviours lead a fulfilled life, which in turn creates confidence and contentment. This means that we when interact with them there is a good chance that it will be calm, safe and straightforward.

Horses are often referred to as a prey species and this does indeed shape their behaviour. However knowing that a far bigger part of a horses life is devoted to developing and maintaining strong social bonds, I choose to work with their sociability and curiosity. Through first considering and addressing their intrinsic needs, I work towards having shared experiences and reciprocal attention

to form a connection. Once this is established we end up as two beings who confidently and happily spend time and interact with each other. Iʼm constantly astounded by what is possible once this foundation is in place.

I have many tools in my equine toolbox, but in the end I always take my lead from them. This is my priority which I combine with the concepts I've outlined. I base my ʻtrainingʼ on this foundation.

This is part of a blog series:

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