The Fifty-Year Old Baby and Other Examples: Why to Avoid Anthropomorphism with Horses

white horse yawning and showing teeth
Horse yawning - which people often misconstrue from photos as laughter.

It's your Ten Dollar Word of the Day - but don't skip reading about it because it's long. Your horse wants you to know this!

Anthropomorphism: an·thro·po·mor·phism /ˌanTHrəpəˈmôrfizəm/

noun the attribution of human characteristics or behavior to a god, animal, or object.

If you've ever read children's books or watched movies or shows about talking animals - that's classic anthropomorphism. And normally it's fine - it's fun, it's oftentimes educational for young children, and it's entertaining for everyone else.

But how does it apply to the equestrian world?

I often see examples of anthropomorphism when people talk about their horses. Sometimes, out of an abundance of love and endearment, they'll refer to their horses as babies - even if the horse is 50 in human years (I always imagine what the horse would say if they could understand. Like, "I'm a grown woman! Who you calling baby?"). Not a terrible thing, of course - it's out of love and relatively harmless. (And I myself will fully admit to baby-talking to my horses on occasion - it happens!).

I also hear people discuss their horses' behavior in very human terms. They'll say their horse is "being dramatic" or "trying to take advantage of them". They'll speak to their horses in an exasperated tone as if they're speaking to a human toddler: "Ugh would you just stop? Come on now, quit it". (Horses don't understand these long phrases). But in even more subtle ways, we humans often assume that horses share our feelings on certain topics. It's a common trope that horses "want a job to do", for example (a questionable assumption, since horses were literally designed to eat and rest a majority of their day). A SUPER common example is that of personal space and touching as a form of affection. Most of us will agree that being physically close and petting our horses is a very rewarding feeling and it makes us feel loved by them if they choose to be close to us. However, horses actually value personal space more highly than physical closeness - as a form of respect and affection, they will often turn their heads away to "make space" for another horse, for example. If we assume that horses view physical affection the same way we do, we set ourselves up for a lot of hurt feelings and misunderstandings. A turned head can seem like a snub, when it's in fact the opposite. (I, myself have been caught feeling mopey about the fact that Lilly is not a fan of me physically touching her - but she has her own ways of showing affection, and it's something I have to continually remind myself).

Here's the thing: it's really important to acknowledge that horses have emotions and thoughts. But it's less than helpful to them for us to assume that they think and feel the same as human beings. The equine brain is different enough from our own that we can't simply assume what their thought processes and intentions are. A horse that appears to just want to "walk all over you" may simply not understand the cues you're giving her (usually a fault of the trainer). When a horse doesn't appear to listen to pleas of, "Ughhhhh would you just listen/move over/stop it/fill-in-the-blank" it's probably because he doesn't understand the stream of words coming at him, combined with some very confusing physical cues. When we anthropomorphize - assign human ways of thinking and feeling to horses - we assume that all of their behavior stems from the same intentions as ours does, and it makes it all too easy to want to punish them for misbehavior.

Overall, no matter how close we feel with our equine pals, it's important to always remember that they are horses, first and foremost. Rather than trying to interpret their behavior through the human lens, we need to switch lenses completely and try to understand the equine's perspective. In order to do that, we have to avoid anthropomorphism where possible, and instead ask ourselves, "What is the possible natural motive for my horse acting this way? How would this situation be interpreted by another horse?". Doing so will help us to be fairer, kinder and to work with our horses more effectively.