Empathy and Anthropomorphism

Empathy and Anthropomorphism

These two, for me, have very different meanings.  However, for same people, the lines are blurred.  Yesterday, Bat Cat, (the kitten who is currently allowing me to share her space and wisdom) reminded me.

Her life, to a degree, revolves around food.  And bugs.  And getting into trouble.  As a tiny baby, she got milk from a syringe, progressed to two tiny ketchup serving dishes, and then, last month (when I decided she was actually going to survive) I bought her three very kitsch, shiny plastic dishes.  Purple for water, yellow for biscuits and green for squishy.  This past week, she kind of stopped eating her squishy meat.  She seemed well, playful, happy, but not eating meat.  Biscuits yes, but half the time she spills then out of her bowl, then chases and hunts them, adding to the fun.  Then, it dawned on me, as I watched her picking at her breakfast.  The bowl is high and narrow.  Now her head is cat size, not kitten size, it must be hard to get her head down to eat, without rubbing her whiskers.  I bought her a flatter saucer yesterday, and guess what? She ravenously attacked her squishy meat.

When I went to the shop, the people I was with laughed when I told them that Bat didn’t like her bowl – honestly, that cat is spoilt.  If I’d said she didn’t like the colour, yes.  But, watching her trying to fit her whiskers in…  Imagine trying to cut your food with a knife, if the handle rubbed your hand?  We could have gone through buying different types of meat, cooking chicken, vet check, vitamin injection, when all she needed was a better shaped plate.    That’s empathy – understanding how a person or an animal might be feeling physical, emotional or mental stress, discomfort, joy, hunger, grief…  Understanding, and empathising that the bowl must be catching on her whiskers.

Anthropomorphism is a very different.  It’s giving an animal human emotion.  If I’d said, Bat doesn’t like her bowl because it’s green, and we don’t like green, or, she wants to have something new, that’s anthropomorphism.  “A horse must live in a stable in winter to keep him warm, cosy, dry… I wouldn’t like to be outside, poor pony doesn’t, either.”  Most horses, given adequate hay and a rug / winter coat / open field shelter, are far happier and healthier living out.  Given the choice, they only come inside during the heat of the day to avoid flies.  But, we see a thick straw bed and feel happy, so our horses must agree.  A horse sees confinement in a cage, the loss of freedom and choice if we are empathetic to his needs.  We see comfort, and impose that, and again, that is anthropomorphism.

I was also reminded, explaining to a young volunteer recently, how horses get flooded by too much stress and shut down, how to read the warning body language, and how to help them back from learned helplessness.  It always surprises me when people don’t just know – and it’s something I need to be more aware of….  “This horse is naughty….”  No, really, truly, he isn’t, he’s stressed or scared, asking for time and empathy.

Touch is vital for horses - they communicate between themselves through body language as well as all the other six senses, but touch is for companionship, friendship and bonding.
Touch is vital for horses – they communicate between themselves through body language as well as all the other six senses, but touch is for companionship, friendship and bonding.

In a few of the yards where I have worked, we’ve welcomed school groups, some very young (4, 5, 6-year olds) and I always seemed to end up showing these groups around.  It’s pretty scary, being a knee high 5-year-old and looking at a big old horse, with enormous teeth, bearing down on you.  I figured out the best strategy.  I’d pull out the oldest, sweetest, hopefully small pony, who would happily sleep for an hour.  Once pony was parked, I’d sit cross legged on the floor next to the pony, (yes I know, health and safety – it’s as scary, being talked at by a big, tall, scary foreigner, as being by the pony, the most important thing for me, is getting to eye level with the kids, to help them talk WITH me, and regain a little bit of their confidence) and we’d look, really look, at the pony.

Put your hand in front of your nose, can you feel your breath?  Who wants to put their hand in front of Dex’s nose and feel his breath?  Can you all see his nose move? See his ribs move?  Put your hand on your ribs, feel how they move too?  Ponies breathe just like us!

Who wants to go stand over there and clap their hands?  See how, when little Johnny claps, Dex lifted his head and moved his ears forwards?  He hears, just like you!  Who wants to feel Dex’s ears as he’s moving them back and forth?

Who wants to feel how soft his nose is? Feel his whiskers?  His whiskers are his extra eyes, to feel things in the dark and know where he might bump his nose…  Hold you hand out like this.  Move towards the wall, without looking…  Feel when your fingers bump into the wall?  That is how Dex’s whiskers work…

This is called a stethoscope, it’s magic because you can hear your heart….  We can take some turns, who wants to hear their heart? And then, once you’ve heard the lub dub of your heart, can you hear Dex’s heart?

Feel how, when you lie your arm over Dex’s neck / shoulders just here, he likes it, goes more relaxed?  That’s where his mom would have rested over him when he was a baby, it makes him feel safe.

Scratch him here, on this part called his withers.  See his nose wriggling?  How he wants to scratch you back? That’s how he’s making friends with you…

This is the famous Dex, on one of our school group tours.  How do you say thank you to your pony?  You give him a great big hug....  You don't want to hug him?  It's OK, I'll hug him for you...
This is the famous Dex, on one of our school group tours. How do you say thank you to your pony? You give him a great big hug…. You don’t want to hug him? It’s OK, I’ll hug him for you…

And guess what?  The twinkles are enthralled and forget to be scared, because the pony is just like them in so many ways.  We teach empathy, we teach respect, we teach them that ponies are sentient beings.  Isn’t that better than saying, yes, Star loves his green blanket, just like you love your green socks….  Anthropomorphism has little place in learning to understand and truly respect your four-legged friends….

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Gym Sounds

Gym Sounds

It’s funny what speaks to you, isn’t it?  What really gets into your brain.

A few years ago I was talking to a school teacher who also plays and teaches music.  I said to her, I’m utterly tone deaf.  I just couldn’t learn to play music, even hitting the triangle at the right moment in school was a challenge.  I think it’s why I can’t learn languages too – someone will tell me a word.  I’ll repeat it, they’ll say no, it’s a R not an L…  I try again, and again.  After 5 attempts they say – well, kind of.  And within 5 minutes, I’ve forgotten the word entirely.  Language just doesn’t seep into my brain.

This teacher though, said no, no one is totally tone deaf and cannot learn.  “If your phone rings (think good old land lines, without caller ID) and you answer, do you recognise the person talking?”

“Well, if I know them, of course…”

“That means, you’re not tone deaf and could learn…”

It’s an interesting theory, and one that I’m still not utterly convinced about.  I still can’t remember the Bahasa words that Joni tried to teach me this morning.

Many years ago, I had a brilliant vet.  One of the first times that I saw him visiting a horse, it was a mystery lameness.  As the horse was standing at the end of the driveway, groom attached to the end of the lead rope, this vet turned his back, and looked out over the paddocks.  The groom started running, the horse trotting, and still the vet seemed to be ignoring them.

“Uh”, I said – “the horse is, uh, trotting.”

“Mmmm” he replied.

The horse got to the end of the driveway, turned and came back.  When he reached us, the vet turned, walked to the horse, picked up the lame leg (that he hadn’t seen) and pressed straight onto the root of the problem.  Impressive.  He taught me so much, that vet, but this was one of the first and most important lessons – trust your ears before you trust your eyes.  He always, without fail, dealt with a lame horse with his ears, then his hands to feel, and only then his eyes.  Eyes and vision lie, ears generally don’t.

I found this video years ago and still love it – can you recognise the sounds before you watch it?

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=suPDB-lCjPc&sns=em

Why am I thinking about this now?  I’m currently sitting on Gili Trawangan, a small island in Indonesia.  The only transport here is horse cart or bicycle – there are no cars or motorbikes.  And very quickly, I could recognise the hoofbeats of different horses coming before I could see them.  Here comes the grey who swings his right hind wide.  There is the chestnut who lands so much heavier on the left fore.  I didn’t fully appreciate just how ingrained it is in me.

I do know, when I’m teaching I’m watching the horse, but I’m also listening to him.

Whenever I start a lesson, I ask, if I had a magic wand, what would you like to change, improve, fix?  What are you working on, what’s the issue?  And usually, the answer I am given would be the answer the horse would give too.

“My horse is like a worm – he just wiggles all the time”

If I could ask the horse?

“This rider doesn’t sit straight or ride straight – their weight is right, their right leg kicks me left, it’s like carrying a sack full of kittens…”

Or…

“My horse lacks energy – he just won’t go forward”.

As the rider sits there, like a sack of potatoes, with no tensegrity or movement herself…

Horse?  “This rider is heavy and soggy.  If I move, she’ll fall off, so I’ll just match her energy level and keep her on board…”

But, this is the most common…

“Useless horse has no rhythm…  He’s fast, slow, 2 beat, 3 beat, hopping and skipping, nothing is regular”

And the horse?

“Useless rider has no rhythm…  She’s fast, slow, 2 beat, 3 beat, hopping and skipping, nothing is regular”

Fix?  If the rider hears and feels the beat, they become the leader of the dance.

So, when I’m teaching, especially if I have more than one horse in a group lesson, I’m listening.  If I’m watching horse and rider number one, I’m listening to horse and rider number two as my back is to them.  I’m listening to hear the regularity of the steps, and if one hoof is harder, lighter, twisting as it lands.  And, I’m listening to how hard he lands on all four hooves.  A light and balanced horse could trot across a sheet of ice or glass without cracking it…  Think of a ballerina dancing across a stage.  An unbalanced horse clunks and thumps like a sluggish tortoise, crashing through the glass or ice sheet.  If the rider is light, rhythmic, balanced, so is the horse.  If they’re lacking rhythm or landing with a thud, guess what?  So will the horse.

How to develop this feel?  Ride with a metronome.  Ride to music.  Just start to pay attention, use your ears as much as your eyes and feel…

Consequences

Consequences

It’s funny, isn’t it, how we accept that there are consequences about some things but not others.  If you don’t do your work assignment you will get a letter of warning and quite possibly fired.  We still procrastinate about getting it done, but understand the risks.  We know there will be a consequence, but…  If we over-eat during lockdown, when we put our work clothes back on, they may well have shrunk mysteriously, but…

Clicker training done right is awesome, but the consequences can be a horse who is too busy, pushy or won’t settle.
Clicker training done right is awesome, but the consequences can be a horse who is too busy, pushy or won’t settle.

And, how many of us think of consequences when we are co-living with animals?  We allow the kitten on the tables because it’s cute, and easier for us to feed him up there so the dogs don’t steal his food.  Ah, now he’s a big cat, we chase him when he pinches food off a plate, that sits exactly where his bowl was when he was a kitten.  We let the puppy crawl into our beds at night to stop her crying, but as an adult dog, shedding hair and with bone breath, she gets chased.    How can we have one rule once, and another rule later?

What about with our horses.  I had a young horse in for backing years ago.  When you put her on a lunge line, she would run at you and rear up, trying to stand on you with her front feet.  She had been doing this to her owner, which is why she was sent to me.  I later found out that as a foal, she had been taught to put her hooves on her owner’s shoulders to “give them a cuddle” and this behaviour had become firmly engrained.  Just because you think it is nice and cute today, or that it’s something you want, really think about it long term.

Another long ago client wanted to teach her horse a trick while the horse was off work for some reason, and she still wanted to train something.  She taught her horse to say please, asking for a carrot.  The thing that the horse had to do, was hold her front leg in the air, like a dog asking to shake paws.  When the horse was back in work and I went to school her, do you know how irritating it was to groom, tack up and lead the horse, when she kept pawing at you with her front hoof, asking for carrots?  If you are going to train a behaviour, you need to make absolutely certain that you have thought it through.  And, it’s a huge problem in ridden horses.

An unplanned, and really interesting issue was with a little riding school horse.  He’d been privately owned by a teenager who was a nervous rider.  They would all, as a group of friends, ride to the beach quite often and as soon as the horse’s hooves hit the sand, the braver kids would kick into canter.  Our nervous rider would be coming along at the back, knowing this would happen.  As she saw the first riders get to the sand, she’d grab a hold of a big chunk of her horse’s mane.  He’d lurch into canter after his buddies, and they’d be off, at speed, down the beach.  I met the horse several years later.  He had been sold to a riding school and I was teaching a school client on him.  As I was about to start the lesson, one of the regular instructors shouted out to me – just don’t let the rider grab his mane….  When he had arrived at the school, the instructors had discovered an issue.  Anytime a novice rider was a bit wobbly going into trot or canter, or had lost a stirrup, this horse would suddenly canter off.  They worked out – the rider would feel insecure, and either the instructor would yell, “grab the mane” or the rider would instinctively catch a hold of something.  And, all those years of cantering off on the beach…  You know what the horse had learnt?  If the rider grabs the mane, the job of the horse is to go into canter…  That nervous teenager had taught the horse a cue, and the cue had a consequence.

There is one horse who, when I teach his human, I stand outside the fence.  I refuse to go into the arena with him.  He’s dangerous and unpredictable, and when he is pushed a little harder and asked for something which he feels is challenging, such as a turn on the forehand in both directions, having to move both the right and the left hind, he barges in towards the person on the ground and tries to run them over.  It’s a nasty behaviour and very deliberate.  And the reason he does it?  He was taught to roll over a yoga ball as a natural horsemanship game, and since then knows if he threatens to roll over the person, the person runs out of the way.  A very dangerous consequence…

If you ask for go, you might just get go….
If you ask for go, you might just get go….

Now, one of the most common issues.  We, as riders either prefer a horse with more whoa, or more go.  I’m a lazy rider, I hate having to use my leg, so would rather have a horse who will take me forwards.  Other, more cautious riders feel unsafe on these horses and would rather one who, if in doubt, stops.  I had a horse, again many years ago, who looked wild and impressive.  He was a massive black Thoroughbred, big-boned and broad for a TB, was very forward going, and would gently dance his way along the roads when I hacked him.  One of my staff, an instructor who taught the beginners, coveted this horse and desperately wanted to ride him.  One day, I let her hack him out and she came back almost in tears.  The fire breathing dragon horse, who I enjoyed, was terrifying for her when she was on top.  She stuck to the steadier horses after that ride, actually figured out she preferred more whoa.

What’s this got to do with consequences?  Recently I was teaching a lady on her horse, who lacked go.  He’d become dead to the leg and the “go” button was a bit broken.  Please, please, she begged, I really want him to go forwards with more impulsion and less work from me.  And so, what did we focus on?  We got the horse travelling forward.  DON’T use more leg, get more reaction from LESS leg, was the lesson aim.  Transitions, exercises, moving him around.  Do less, be stiller and lighter, allow the horse freedom to travel more forwards.  It worked like a charm.  The horse suddenly found the hand brake off, he lifted his back, stretched into the rein and travelled forward beautifully.

“Whoa” cried his rider – “he’s running away with me”.

“Uh, no”, was my reply, all he is doing is travelling actively forward, lightly on his feet, having found go.

The lesson’s hour came to an end with a worried rider who was convinced that her dull horse was running away uncontrollably, when actually, he was just moving out well, doing exactly what she had asked for.  The consequence of asking for go?  You get go….

By all means, train your horse, teach him things, refine your own skills and riding abilities, but….  Think carefully about what it is that you are training.  Are you really ready for the consequences?