A Horse is a Horse…of Course

Finding Common Ground in Your Training Philosophy

by Allison Trimble, Willfully Guided Horsemanship


I discourage people from anthropomorphizing their horses. “Anthropomorphizing” is attribution of human motivation, characteristics, or behavior to inanimate objects or animals. I discourage it because people are usually bringing their own emotions to the table and that is rarely a positive thing. Horses operate from instinct and conditioned responses. I take issue with people who try to work with horses as though they are two horses working together. Instead, I encourage them to behave as a human with the understanding of horse behavior. That said, I believe in the power of the horse/human relationship. I have a number of special horses in my life to which I attribute much of my success; they are not simply a vehicle to championships. Horses have given me strength and my entire life is built around helping others to nurture and value the horse/human relationship.

Whether private or professional, life is a process of becoming. This is the time of year to reflect on what the past year has taught us and plan for the next. There is always room for greater appreciation, knowledge, and understanding. The power to understand most often comes from the ability to liken the concept to something that is familiar—find common ground. To be effective as a trainer, I have to draw on my own journey, as well as that of the horse I am working with. This is not always an easy task because it challenges me to deal with my past failures as well as successes. Sometimes I don’t like what I see, but it gives me an opportunity to change.

Allison and Sox. Photo credit Coastal Equine

People who know me would classify me as passionate, emotional, and logical and I struggle with my own less attractive traits as much as anyone. Though I do not find value in anthropomorphizing a horse, I often do the opposite by sympathizing with my horse, Sox. I think of us as having this similarity of being very talented and giving 110%, but sometimes being a little finely wired and hard to get around. Over time I began trying to explain my emotions and responses to life events in horse terminology, as though somehow this would soften the “Allison-ness” of it. Perhaps my behavior would be better accepted by humans if they could just think of me as a high spirited filly! It seems I have moved from trying to explain horse training philosophy with life analogies, to explaining my life as though I was a horse. Though I emphasize the differences between humans and horses—and believe this is the best foundation on which to build a training philosophy—it can be helpful to examine the common ground we do share with the animal we love.

When I compared myself to Sox I referred to myself as hyper-reactionary. My emotions/reactions are not specific to the moment in which I am feeling them; my emotion is developed largely because of my experiences up to that point. The trial I am going through is going to become a part of my emotional composite that will have an effect on how I react when I am in a similar situation in the future. This is common ground we share with horses and can be helpful in a training environment. Our feelings are nothing more than a conditioned response to our life to that point. These experiences can be so profound as to be crippling in our relationships and our lives as a whole. Emotional experience is the core of what makes a person unique.

I often remind people we are training our horses in this moment for the future, not for today. Conditioned response is the basis of how we train. A horse only knows what it has been exposed to, which is very similar to our human experience. Think of a certain emotional event in your life and you will have some gut-level feeling associated with it. This is the same for a horse. When they are presented with something, they either associate the stimulus with something they know, and with that comes a reaction, or it is something they don’t know and they draw on past experiences with you, or humans in general.

Rather than putting your own emotions onto the horse, as in anthropomorphizing, it is more helpful to use the understanding of your own emotional experiences, and how they have shaped you, to enable compassion for your horse as you train him thoughtfully and logically.



Published January 2013 Issue

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