Anthropomorphism is defined as;
"the attribution of human form or other characteristics to anything other than a human being"
We've all seen this, all the time, in the horse industry. And a lot of the time it's just us being cute lovey dovey mums to our horses; but sometimes we are doing our horses harm. And we don't even know it.
"Oh my little baby shnookums needs another blanket before it drops to 0 tonight!"
Here are some examples:
1) Assumption of Learning
We assume our horses are capable of learning the same way we do. That if they do something one day, they must be capable of it another day with the same result. This leaves room for unmet expectations and often leads to unnecessary discipline or punishment to the horse.
2) Expectations of Emotional Stability
We often assume our horses should be able to handle their fear the same way we do. But it has been studied widely and proven that horses (and other prey animal species) experience "fear" much differently than we do. Therefore we need to act appropriately when our horses experience fear while in training; so we can calm them instead of light them up.
We also often assume that since our horses can perform in certain situations; they should be able to perform in other environments without issue. This again leads to unnecessary discipline or punishment.
3) Ability to Adapt to "Solitude" Lifestyles
This one I see far too often. "My horse enjoys his alone time, just like I do." Unfortunately, as nice as this may seem; as if we are doing our horses a favour by giving them time off in a stall. But the truth is that horses have evolved to live in a herd for a reason; to avoid predation. They feel comfortable and "good" in a herd, because it means they are safe. The only time a horse leaves a social herd is when they are driven out, they are sick/dying or they are giving birth. Yes, our horses eventually adapt by "learned helplessness"; but this is not to be confused with them being comfortable.
"My horse is on individual turnout so it doesn't get injured by other horses; but it can still see and hear other horses. That's good enough." Again, this is us thinking we would be ok with this idea. We are a language leading species; meaning we use our verbal language as the #1 way to communicate with our fellow human beings. Horses use body language and touch. They stand close together, they mutually groom and yes they bite, kick and chase each other. That's part of their lifestyle. But a well socialized herd of horses do not "injure" each other on any kind of regular basis. They keep each other safe, in shape and healthy because it benefits everyone in the herd to have such a strong band of horses.
Horses don't live in caves. Wild horses don't even go nears caves, know why? That's where predators live. Like us! Another reason we think we are doing horses a favour. "It's ok little horsey, come live in this dark cave with me!"
"But my horse loves to come inside to their very own stall!" Of course they do, they get fed grain in there, they get positive attention in there and have an easy access to feed in there. But if you were to leave the stall door open after they ate their grain, the next place they would find is another horse to socialize with.
Removing a horse from the ability of touching another horse is like making a human wear ear plugs for the rest of their life. You are removed of your basic communication skills and ways to comfort yourself with others. Horse to horse contact has been studied to be one of the most important enrichments in a horse's mental well being and stability.
1) Thinking Natural is "Barbaric"
Just because humans are an evolved species who live indoors, and wear clothing; does not mean horses are. Yes, it's nice to think that we are doing them a favour by taking them out of the cold and into cozy individual stalls. But the truth is that we aren't doing them any favours. If you are blanketing your horse for the winter; consider the "why". For the horse, not for you. If you are clipping your horse for show, a blanket is an obvious necessity. But if you have horses living out and don't work "hard" all winter; why would you stress their natural lifestyles by blanketing them? As long as they have a free choice shelter and the appropriate feeding options; a horse is happier and healthier without a blanket to as low as -15C (though many have success with healthy horses down to as low as -30C)
Again, horses learn to "adapt" to live in dark places, and small confined places; but they are not "happy" to be there. Open the barn door, and see where they choose to be in bad weather, hot weather, good days and bad days. Horses are not fools, they do know how to care for themselves when given the option and they know how to find their "safe" place. An unhappy horse with the option to, will seek a happier environment.
2) "I wear shoes so my horse should wear shoes too"
I won't push this one too far, you get the idea. But this comes down to a complete lack in understanding of hoof mechanism and the ability for a horse's hoof to grow callous. Management is the number one reason for this idea. I encourage anyone who doesn't believe every horse can go barefoot to look up Jaime Jackson, and everything related to a Paddock Paradise system. The research and proof are strongly rooted that barefoot is not only possible, but meant to be. Horses are healthier, happier and safer barefoot. Shoes are the barbaric way of the past.
3) "I like sugar, so my horse must like sugar as a treat too!"
Sugar is something horses learn to like. And unfortunately end up thinking they like it too, the same way we do. (Yes, processed sugar is actually really bad for us... but way worse for our horses) Anyone who has had to deal with a laminitic horse understands why sugar is bad. But there are still many who feed sugary feeds (for "energy") and sugary treats on a regular basis thinking their horses like them for it. Unfortunately the reality of this treatment is stress to the digestive system and harm to their hooves.
Talk to an equine nutritionist about sugar in your horses diet if you don't believe me. There are many PhD's and vets out there now pushing us to feed our horses as if they were sugar intolerant. Basically as if they were diabetic/insulin resistant. This means free choice forage grass hay and minerals.
Check out "Feed Your Horse Like a Horse" by Dr. Getty. It's an incredible and eye opening study and has endless information on how to feed your horse safely and to the best of their digestive system!
There is another side to this idea of anthropomorphism that I want to touch on. One of a uniting idea. I often see those who are in the show world guilty of the physical applications of anthropomorphism, judging the "pet owner" side of being guilty of the mental applications. And vice versa. The fact is that everyone in this industry is guilty of some part of anthropomorphism; the important thing is not to point fingers. But to educate ourselves to what our horses really "want" and "need" to be the healthiest they can be. Not to be as convenient and accessible as we want them to be. Not to be as safe and cozy as we would want to be if we were horses; but as free and healthy as they want and need to be as the horses that their genetics dictates.
It is there where we will unlock the true potential of our equine partners and athletes.