The 3 Languages of Horse Love
Back in the 1990s, Dr. Gary Chapman wrote a book titled The 5 Love Languages that indicates people express their love in five distinct ways, depending on the individual. Some folks use words of affirmation, others do acts of service, and so on. Since then, it’s become trendy to talk about languages of love, and not just in touchy feeling conversations but in everyday chatter on the sidewalk. It’s almost as commonplace as talking about the weather. Several other hardcover books have since been published on this topic. Likewise, weekend couples’ workshops charging hefty fees for love diagnoses are popping up around the country. Apparently, we humans are plenty eager to plunk down a big chunk of cash on products that promise to psychologically analyze how we treat people with whom we’re smitten.
Folks with tangled heart strings could save themselves quite a bit of money and confusion, though, by spending time with a local horse trainer. Trust me, horse trainers have been witnessing the languages of love for centuries. We are no strangers to the expression, expectations, and reception of the nebulous subject of Love. This unfolds nowhere more consistently than in a typical day at the barn in interactions between man and horse.
As a warm-up to this conversation, let’s analyze your scribe first. Most psychologists would define my affection, as demonstrated for our purposes in caring for my horses, as a masculine or male style of expression. You see, men bond by doing activities together (read as: sitting silently in a fishing boat, walking through the woods, watching a sports game), whereas women have a need for more measurable connection like eye contact, conversation, expressing their feelings. For a guy, so long as two people are in the same place doing the same activity, they’re bonding, no touchy feely about it. Hence, this male version of affection sums up my approach to horses. It’s just how I’m wired, I can’t help it. What says you love something more than getting out and exercising together? No coddling, no feeding treats, no special grooming. Just some good silent activity.
So, now that we’ve begun our Horse-Trainer-Turned-Psychologist analyzing, we should acknowledge that there are a few more nuances than just masculine versus feminine languages of love. For your reference and study, I have outlined the major ones. Read closely as you will not find these in a fancy manual at your bookstore.
The Bran Mashers
This is the crowd that likes to bestow affection by adding value to their horses. They spend a hefty sum each month for fancy supplements, powders, minerals, and vitamins that they read or heard somewhere will make their steeds’ lives healthier and therefore happier. You will never find them feeding plain old grain and hay, as if those things were only for underprivileged horses without access to a better lifestyle. Instead, this type of owner usually has a supply of the newest organic equine cookie brand on the market in frilly packaging that looks like it came from a bakery. They are quick to buy any edible product that promises to make their horse happier or better in some way, regardless of the science (or lack thereof) behind it.
These folks commonly spend more time mixing up their horse’s mid-day meal than they do riding. They will assemble this meal each day from an array of little plastic containers filled with formulas for better hair texture, joint function, digestive processes, attitudes. You name it, these equestrians have a supplement for it.
If questioned, they will swear their horse absolutely cannot function without these supplements, suggesting that it was his good fortune to have ended up with owners like themselves. With every scoop of Grand Skin Formula and MegaFlex Supreme, they pour a little of their love into this beast. So, while the feeding/supplementing routine replaces riding time for this group, it leaves the Bran Mashers with the same satisfaction. For them, soaking a pail of beet pulp and scooping flax powder and dicing apple chunks provides the same enjoyment of horse ownership that the rest of us might get from galloping around in the sunset.
When I bought my first new car, I wanted to take the best possible care of it so that it would last forever. Since I knew zilch about engines, maintenance, or repairs, my desire translated into obsessively washing the car at frequent intervals. I soaped and waxed it every three days for the first summer, feeling the pride of a new mother with each buff. I applied my affection with sponges and window cleaner, and spent more time standing back admiring the spot-free vehicle gleaming in the sun than I did actually driving it. I’m not sure where I got the idea, but it seemed I now equated “taking care” of something with scrubbing, wiping, and polishing it.
A group of equestrians– that I call The Bathers– treat their horses the same way. A loved horse is a clean horse, in their mind, and to them, nothing says affection like a bottle of tail detangler and coat sheen.
A Bather’s horse spends as much, if not more, time in the wash stall as it does in the arena. For Bathers, discovering a new grooming product at the tack shop is on par with the excitement of learning new skills in the saddle. When asked how their horse is doing or how its training is advancing, they answer with names of new shampoos and hoof polishes. To their barnmates, they giggle and share the satisfaction of their relationship with their horse like a schoolgirl with a crush, except instead of mushy anecdotes they chatter about clean rumps and silky manes. At lunch with their friends, they recount the day’s whisker removal and ear trimming, adding a cute story about how their ‘adorable’ and ‘funny’ horse tried to nibble the clippers or put his lips on the hose.
After investing an hour or more of her day to the horse’s bath, a Bather will spend another hour holding him outside in the sunshine to dry and then selecting a blanket from his extensive wardrobe to cover his clean body until tomorrow’s grooming session. Phone calls will be held, whining children will be ignored. No matter how stressful or busy the Bather’s life is on a given day, the bathing ritual goes uninterrupted. Otherwise, the Bather would be at a loss for how to speak her love and this particular horse-human relationship would stagger.
Many folks, particularly those new to horse ownership, possess the Reciprocater style of love for their steeds. These are the poor souls that dole out affection generously with the expectation that it will come back to them in kind. They are the ones standing in the barn aisle with a dejected expression asking their horses why he just stepped on their feet or bit their arms or walked into them and pushed them aside. Why did he just do that? And what they mean, of course, is how could he have just done that after all the love and kindness they give him? How could he possibly be so ungrateful? And while they’re at it, they want to know why he bucked them off yesterday or spooked and bolted after seeing that spot of nothingness in the arena?
Even though they knew better, the Reciprocaters get caught up thinking the horse deeply contemplates every action before doing it. Thus, if he loved his owner as he should, he would NOT have bucked in the arena and acted like an imbecile. Rather, he would treat his owner with the same unbridled kindness and affection that she bestows on him. Reciprocaters generally believe that new behavior problems from their steeds are the result of not enough affection, even though they may already spend half their days engaged in spoiling these beasts. Thus, as ill-mannered antics crop up, the Reciprocater heaps on even more “love” in the form of cookie treats, grooming, purchasing stall toys, using lovey dovey talk. And of course this only leads to further bad behavior from the horse, leaving a very angst ridden Reciprocater asking him just what his problem is. Doesn’t he know how good he has it? Why is he acting like a spoiled brat and not showing his owner a little more gratitude?
I am able to speak authoritatively about Reciprocaters, given that I myself conducted my early equine relationships with this language of love. My childhood pony “Sheba,” who many believed to be a she-devil incarnated, held very few positive feelings towards humankind. In fact, she was so ornery that she possessed few actual likable traits. I adored her. I doted on her day and night. I turned down invitations for sleepovers at friends’ houses in order to spend even more time with this little black mare who always wanted to bite me on top of my head and pull out a mouthful of hair. The more she bit me, the more I fed her carrots and curried her. The more she bucked me off, the more I begged my mom for a fancier saddle for her. When she kicked the neighbor kid in the face, I made a list of excuses and reasons why his mother shouldn’t be upset. I wrote in my diary about Sheba and penned school papers about her. All these years later, I can report with certainty that she never returned even a fraction of such affection to me. In fact, I’m not even sure she liked me very much. Nowadays, I’d probably recognize that and compromise for a strictly working relationship with her, settling for a decent ride on a regular basis and skipping all that affectionate stuff.
But I wouldn’t choose to turn back the clock and change anything. Having recognized the different languages of love, I now know that you can’t force any equestrian to conduct herself in any other way than the one that feels right to her. If that means giving a spoiled horse more carrots, then so be it. If it means bathing him to the point of getting bald patches, so it is. With all this in mind, consider sidling up and plunking yourself down on a hay bale next to a horse trainer the next time your head or heart or mate puzzles you. You will not have a need for costly books or weekend couples’ seminars. Just sit there long enough and the language of the barn will inform you just as much.