You Can’t Hug a Horse

I love horses. As young as I can remember I was collecting model horses, setting up jumping trails, learning forelocks from fetlocks, doodling Appaloosas and Oldenburgs in the margins of all my written assignments.

These days, most of my writing takes the shape of design documents and scripts, and there’s less room for horses in the margins. But back then I wanted nothing more than riding lessons – not sit-on-the-pony-at-the-party, but real, honest-to-goodness horseback riding lessons.

At age five in November in Massachusetts, I had my first riding lesson, on a palomino mare named Princess. She had withers that stretched above my head, a trot that nearly bumped me off, and after 45 frozen minutes, I huddled in the back seat driving home, hands raw with cold, knowing not to complain because all I wanted was to ride again. I watched the cars slush by in the early snow. Something had changed. With that time in the saddle, cold and brief as it was, I had become a serious horse person. “I love riding,” I announced.

My mom leaned over from the front seat. “Did you hug Princess goodbye until next time?” She asked.

It was a silly question appropriate for a silly girl. And I was now a serious horse person. “Horses need different love. They need you to pick their feet and not scrape the frog, and to curry where it’s soft but not bony. You need to check the girth and ask with your legs, listen with your hands, and not pull. That’s how you love them. You can’t hug a horse.”

So now I’m an instructional designer and still a serious horse person, and in the years from then to now, I learned that in point of fact, you can hug a horse. But a successful relationship cannot subsist on hugs. Nor can it subsist on force, on molly-coddling, wheedling, bullying, or pandering. It doesn’t suffer foolish questions gladly. It is built of communication, and requires the most earnest effort to listen. You must believe that everything your horse says – by give to inside rein, flex in outside shoulder, follow-through in left hind – is fundamentally worth hearing.

My learners are not a field of Princesses, though I have hugged a few of them. But the relationship is not hug love. It’s not silly questions, Click “Next” to move on, or All of the above. It’s not true-or-false. It’s not whatever you say or my-way-or-the-highway. As with horses, it’s a sophisticated communication from top to tail, from the first greeting to final rollout, and every iteration in between. It is, in process and product, an interactivity that’s fun, challenging, and provides a sense of reward far more sophisticated than an embrace. It’s asking as best you can, shutting up when you’re cold, believing, and really, really listening.

Dr. Shadoian is an Instructional Strategist at Enspire Studios, and a senior member of the Studios medical practice.