We spent two whole days at the Western States Horse Expo this weekend and feel like we barely saw anything, but we saw everything we most wanted to see (except, alas, the perfect pair of ranch work boots).
Our highlight was Robert M. Miller, DVM. Miller has a lifetime of experience as an equine vet and as a zoo vet, and during his talks would say things casually, like, “my wife and I were on a veterinary safari in Africa…” as if that’s part of real life and not something amazing out of a novel.
First, we caught most of his talk about the connection between horsemanship and artistic talent, which he wrote about in his book The Passion For Horses & Artistic Talent.
He believes that people who love horses also often express themselves in art, without even realizing that their “little hobby” is actually art. He said that the popularity and critical recognition of Western art and cowboy poetry are growing disproportionately to other artistic segments, and he wrote this book to celebrate this and increase awareness of the connection between horses and art.
Jan and I thought that it’s possible that we all have artistic tendencies and that he just happens to be looking at horse people. But the thing about horses is you see their beauty, when they are still and when they are in motion. And to bond with horses you need to open up, and be willing to listen, and to express, and to accept that the default human way might not be the best approach. Miller said that he’s rarely met a farrier who didn’t also do metal art
Then we sat spellbound for an hour for his main lecture of the day, “Understanding the Horse’s Mind.” He is not a showy speaker, but his information is compelling, and his stories are wonderful. I found myself wanting to make slides with photos and bullet-point text for those who can’t learn just from listening. Jan and I can both learn from reading, so we took notes as we listened, and read as we wrote, and have spent the past two days blurting out things like “quick! the 10 essential things to remember about a horse’s mind!” and seeing if we can get them all.
One of the things that made his talk so great was that he illustrated every point with stories from a lifetime of working not just as an equine vet but as a zoo vet. He gave examples from other species to show how horses are different, or how horses are similar but to a different degree, or how horses are the same.
This talk inspired me to buy his book Natural Horsemanship Explained: From Heart to Hands, because he went into detail about what happens in the brain of the horse, not just in the mind. Having read several layperson-friendly books in recent years about neurobiology and neuroplasticity and “the brain and the mind,” we’ve become increasing intrigued by the physical changes in the brain that occur in response to changes in mental and emotional fitness (and, in fact, overall physical fitness as well). Miller says that he wrote this book for people who are already familiar with natural horsemanship, including top-level clinicians, to explain why it works — what is actually going on in the horse’s brain that causes things like the 7 Games to be so effective for horse and human partnership.
For example, one of the 10 things to know about the horse’s mind is that horses are not innately afraid of predators. They are afraid of predatory behavior. Thus, horses can partner with humans, befriend dogs, bond with barn cats. A “dangerous” or “problem” horse with one owner can become an athletic, calm, responsive partner with another owner. Or with the same owner, when the owner changes, as Linda discovered with Regalo.
Jan and I discussed this at some length and realized that when horses drive each other, they exhibit some characteristics of “predatory” behavior. Head low to protect the throat, ears flat, eyes hard and intense, slow stalk that can escalate into a sprint if need be. The other horses might not be “afraid” of the dominant horse’s drive, but they sure can scoot out of the way fast.
Can you guess the other nine of the 10 most important things to know? I’ll share my notes, but I’ll put them after the More link so you can think about it first.