What Play Means to a Horse

The master of dance and play.
Carolyn Resnick is someone I admire greatly on many levels, especially in her mastery of the art of dancing with horses. It really is an art.

Recently she wrote the blog post I wish I’d read six years ago when I was green and thoroughly smitten with the horse I had just rescued. Before Dodger came into my life, my experience of horses had been limited to those on dude ranch strings and one fluke Montana prairie gallop I managed to live through. I had no clue what I didn’t know, and like many situations I’ve entered in life when I had no reference point, I found it by looking around at how many who were doing it successfully and thought, “How hard can it be?”

When my first trainer saw me running around the outside of the round pen to entice my horse to chase me from the inside, he ran out of his house to say, “Don’t play with that horse!” No reason why, just “Don’t.” I was crushed. Really? My dream had been to dance with him some day. How were we going to do that if we couldn’t even play? I had no idea he and I didn’t see “play” the same way.

I wish I could’ve read then what Carolyn wrote:

When we feel a deep love for horses we can forget to maintain our leadership role. Animals see play having purpose and we see play as having no purpose…When a horse takes charge of our play games social order is lost and at the same time they lose respect for our leadership…Horses are not toys and they are not going to be good and faithful companions just because your heart is loving…A horse is not like a book that the story stays the same once written. Horses are living breathing animals that are easily changeable by how we go about our “play” with them.

Don’t try this at home.
Looking back, I can honestly say that my journey of learning by immersion in an amorphous situation with hundreds of unknown variables and a dominant horse is not recommended. For Star Trek fans, it was a little like training the Borg. As an orphan foal, raised in isolation in a busy, junkyard-like environment with no clear boundaries around humans, it took a lot to impress him and keep him out of my space. Creativity and rewards kept his mind on me for more than a nanosecond but if my boundaries weren’t clear or I wasn’t consistent and extremely fair, I could have a horse in my face. On days his gas tank started out empty, I learned to anticipate a quick switch to a reserve tank without notice. I had to master intense focus without putting out any agenda energy.

Every playground has some rules.
Each horse is different, and if you love the idea of playing with yours, tell us in the comments below what you’ve learned about “play.” And don’t forget to read Carolyn’s post!

2 thoughts on “What Play Means to a Horse

  1. Well, I “play” with my now 23 year old mare on a regular basis. She never steps over the line I set up years ago and respects me as her family leader. She loves dancing around and galopp with me next to her through the indoor or outdoor arena. She acts like a filly and hops around like a young thing and she is having a very good time. If I say stop at any time, she immediately stops and comes up to me with trust, not taking the maybe too rough play any farther. She respects the outline rules and that gives her the freedom to fool around and play freely. We trust each other now for 22 years and I hope I can enjoy seeing my old lady playfor many years to comee. Greetz, Chris

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