In commenting upon the death of Steve Irwin, Trey Givens discussed the obvious but often ignored fact that even wild animals have particular identities, meaning that they act in predictable ways that permit humans to interact with them safely. (Of course, he does it with his usual humor, which I shall not ruin by quoting the juicy bits.)
Although I don’t have much up-close-and-personal experience with wild beasts, I’ve long been fascinated by the fact that I clearly see so much in the behavior of horses that is either mysterious to or unnoticed by novices. I’m not claiming any great expertise with horse behavior; I simply grew up on a horse farm, meaning that I rode and tended the horses regularly.
Unlike with dogs and cats, a person must understand some of the subtleties of horse psychology in order to work safely around them. Although they’re not malicious creatures unless abused, horses can be quite dangerous. They’re large and strong: my mare probably weighs just over 1000 pounds. They’re “flight” creatures, meaning that they can startle and bolt at slight provocations, sometimes without much concern for the obstacles in their path. They can and do kick, e.g. when threatened, when playing, when pissed. If shod (i.e. with horse shoes, usually steel), they can do substantial damage without much effort. So to safely work around horses, a person needs to be constantly aware of what the horse is doing — and what the horse likely to do in the next few seconds. The person needs to be able to avert trouble while it’s still brewing.
To do that, a person needs to be able to “read” a horse, i.e. discern his mood based upon outward behavior. Horses telegraph everything, so that’s easy to do so long as you know the language. To me, that language is as obvious as basic English, if not more so. It’s totally automatized; I don’t even remember learning it. I’m only really aware of it because of Paul: although he’s been routinely feeding the horses with me for the past few years, I’ll notice that he’s totally insensitive to facts that leap out at me.
Moreover, more skills are involved in dealing safely with horses than merely reading the behavior of the horse. Most obviously, a person needs to know how to deal with any brewing trouble and how to extract himself if caught in the middle of it. More generally, safety requires constant vigilance about your position in relation to the horse. That doesn’t come automatically, but must be engrained as a habit. For example, if I’m tending a wound on my horse’s leg, I’m not going to settle into the most comfortable position; I have to be ready to move in an instant. Novices often fail to even consider that, opting instead for the best angle. Similarly, whenever I’m in the barn, I’m super-alert to any movement in the periphery of my vision, often leaping out of the way in advance of seeing anything clearly. If I did that in normal life, I’d seem about as sane as the local crazy bum.
Interestingly, these skills enable me to safely break some of the standard rules in dealing with horses — or at least in dealing with my own horses. I can safely take action that others regard as dangerous — and that would be dangerous for them to do. That’s true of any experienced, sensible horse owner. Since we understand the full context of the principles of safety, most notably the reasons for them, we’re able to discern in a far more fine-grained way when they’re applicable and when they’re not. That’s generally true of experts in relation to the principles of their field, I think.
I have absolutely no grand conclusion to come to in this blog post. I have a longstanding interest in issues of skills and habits, so I’m always interested in working through good examples.