Tony Vagneur: Saddle Sore
December 31, 2011
It has been said that certain breeds of dogs, such as border collies, can recognize up to 160 different words, as though that would somehow be a measure of intelligence. That’s not many words, if you think about it, considering what these dogs are capable of in the area of stock handling. It would literally take thousands upon thousands of human words to adequately describe what simple commands to a dog can initiate, setting in motion complex routines that a dog understands through instinct, body language and sound from a single command or whistle.
If there’s one thing that makes us feel superior in intelligence to other species, it’s our ability to speak and comprehend languages. Animals thus are looked at disparagingly when the subject comes up, even trying as hard as we might to erroneously impart language capabilities on chimpanzees. Consequently, we walk away from the subject too soon, failing to make the distinction between “animal language” and “animal communication,” selling the intelligence of our natural world companions far short.
Horses, too, have an ability to understand certain words, particularly their own names and certain other communications, such as “Whoa,” “Back,” “Gee” and “Haw.” A skilled teamster can work a well-trained horse or team of horses from a distance without having hands-on contact with them, strictly using voice commands.
Dogs and horses are better at understanding us than we are at understanding them, which in the context of reality, makes their lives much more difficult. Most of our meaningful communication with dogs and horses is of the nonverbal kind, and body stance, facial expression, eye contact and posture generally have far more meaning than words ever could. Many times we give the wrong impression of what we expect; for instance, comforting a dog aggressive toward others. Giving such comfort tells the dog we appreciate his ferociousness, and we wonder why the hell he keeps it up.
But, think of the poor horse that gets an inexperienced rider on its back. It can be the difference between dead weight and blissfulness. From the horse’s perspective, is the weight of the person in the proper place or is it too far back, too far forward, is there enough weight in the stirrups, enthusiasm in the pose? “A horse can sense your fear,” is a knowing statement, for he can immediately become suspicious of your tightening grip on the reins, the petrified feel of your muscles against his body, and the saliva-starved sound of your voice.
“This horse has a mind of its own,” is the most common complaint heard from neophytes after a riding experience with a horse more knowledgeable than they. The only answer is, “Of course he does, and it appears you underestimated it.”
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It’s easy for most people to understand that getting and taking care of a horse might require some prior knowledge, or at least a wholehearted willingness to quickly learn. Not always so with dogs, as people take them home from cardboard boxes in front of the grocery store or from a pet store without any idea of what they’re getting into. The Aspen Animal Shelter diligently tries to steer people in the proper direction with adoptions but still, many of us think our loving anthropomorphism will compensate for any communication deficiencies we have.
Unfortunately, without some wisdom concerning the process, we make mindless movements toward our animals that they consider with mindful absorption, giving them counterintuitive impressions of what good behavior might be, and before you know it, our pets have developed bad habits or obsessive behaviors that we can’t correct. Sometimes, in a sorry attempt to explain away such deficiencies, we vindicate aberrant compulsiveness as “cute.”
Thousands of years ago, we entered into a solemn bond with those animals we domesticated to forever take care of them, and it remains our obligation to do so in an intelligent and caring manner.
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