My trainer has always maintained that long-term horse and human partners are a lot like one another in personality. I agree, as I’ve seen it so many times in the people around me. Stubborn, sassy people and stubborn, sassy horses. Quiet, steady horses and their quiet, steady people. And more subtle similarities: hiding anxiety in bravado, or masking mistakes with annoyance. Weirdly overreactive, explosively opinionated, slightly crazy with a penchant for cheekiness… nope not talking about anyone specific here. My trainer and our friends always tease me about it when Murray and I are clashing, or when we’re at a show and I’m like “I can’t eat I’m going to puke” and Murray is all “DON’T ANYBODY TOUCH ME I’M GOING TO EXPLODE”.
And then when talking about making a match between a young horse and prospective buyers, my trainer dropped another bomb on me. With young horses, she hypothesized, they become like the people who ride them the most. They take on aspects of their human’s personality. Trainer smiled apologetically at me while she said it. At first I was like “no WAY did I make Murray what he is, he was always a beastie!” but then I stopped to think about it.
Research suggests that we tend to get along with people that we understand, and we tend to have friends that have similar personalities to ourselves (this is a whole chapter of my thesis, just trust me on this one). Sure, we have friends with complementary or differing personalities, but the vast majority of literature suggests that similarity attracts in terms of friendships.
But research also suggests that as people spend time together their personalities may converge. Are long-time friends similar because they were always similar and that’s the strength of their friendship, or are they similar because over time they became more and more like one another?
Maybe this is like astrology. Maybe if you are just broad enough in your statements there’s enough similarity between any horse-person pair that you can make this statement true. But I’m not so sure. The similarities between me and Murray are what make us a great pair. He’s silly and ridiculous and a little bit naughty – and I can appreciate that. I like to be silly and ridiculous and a little bit naughty myself, so how can I fault the guy when he is? When he’s overstimulated and just needs quiet time, well, more often than not I need some quiet time too. I can’t eat anything more than goldfish crackers at shows, and Murray breaks away from the trailer. We both have a problem with waistbands: I habitually eat too much and need to undo my pants – even in pubic – and Murray hates having a girth put on. And we both love a little Biggie Smalls for pump up music.
Silly superficial similarities aside, sometimes these things are what make us clash so strongly. If I’m being a little bit lazy and not riding quite right and Murray isn’t responding to me, it’s because he has taken the opportunity to be a little bit lazy too. And when I stubbornly insist on doing something my way and only win half the time, it’s because someone just as stubborn insisted that we were going to do it his way instead. I don’t mind too much. Most of the time, it’s a flattering mirror I look into.
Let’s take my RBF (riding best friend!) and her new baby horse, G, as a case study on changing together. When RBF and I went to meet G he was still a colt, and he was sweet and kind and goofy. RBF was coming out of a really hard failed vet check on the horse she’d just been trying, and wasn’t quite herself. Once we moved him over to our barn and started to learn more about him, G proved himself to be the happiest horse I’ve ever met – he’s seriously never had a bad day. As RBF got happier, so did G. Did his cheerful personality help her? Probably. But if she weren’t inclined to smile at his silly horse antics they wouldn’t have worked anyway. G likes to play with anything and everything, and is brave to a point. Even if he doesn’t really understand what you’re asking of him he’s willing to give it a go – and when our trainer tells me RBF to do something she’s a little doubtful of you won’t hear her saying “I can’t” or “no”.
Recently, G discovered that he looooves to play under saddle. Not all the time, but especially out on cross country where the blood is up and excitement is high, G has decided that he’s more than happy to throw his athletic “little” body around for fun. RBF has a great sense of humor, so when G plays around and rolls his back and broncs a little on cross country, she just laughs it off. After all, what does a little play hurt anyone if you don’t have another fence rushing up? I would even go so far as to say my RBF enjoys the playful antics, as an expression of G’s joy.
But what if RBF had more workmanlike goals in mind and didn’t want the play? Probably she’d shut it down fairly quickly and move him along to the next thing. G is a smart boy. He’d learn pretty quickly that RBF doesn’t enjoy his playtime and that one little leap or buck of amusement is all he could get out of her.
Taking it even further, if G’s playing around made my RBF legitimately uncomfortable, even just a little bit? When she stopped him from playing, it might be with just a little more force than was necessary. And G might learn that cross country fences are a little more scary than he originally anticipated. Probably they would be fine for a while, and for the things they are both confident about, everything would be peachy keen. But when G felt like celebrating, he’d be told in no uncertain terms that he couldn’t. RBF would get anxious that he would celebrate, and G would get anxious that he couldn’t celebrate. And then suddenly that anxiety would always be there.
It may seem a little farfetched, but I’ve watched it happen to a couple of horse and rider pairs. I’m sure it could happen to an older horse too, with enough time, but young horses are probably more susceptible – and you notice it more. Probably some personalities are more susceptible than others. And on the other hand, think of the good things your horse might impress upon you.
I, for one, have learned not to give a fuck where I shit. Trust, for a start. If Murray can lay so much trust in my hands, then I ought to be able to do the same for him. He makes me brave when I would otherwise not be, because he remembers how to do something even if I don’t.
Good or bad, day/month/quarter/year, my horse is a mirror. Whether I want to or not, what I’m getting from him is a reflection of myself. So damn if I’m not going to work to make sure it’s the best reflection I’ve ever seen.