Friday, June 15, 2012

Nature vs Nurture

During my rambling rides on Relish (say that four times quickly) and while I am doing barn chores, my mind often wanders.  Sometimes I think about a topic for Equestrian Ink. Since nothing exciting happens in my life that involves horses (and knock on wood and throw salt over my shoulder that it stays that way) dredging up cool topics to write about is challenging. At some point, I will write about writing since I have such vast knowledge (ie: I am old) but I am not ready yet. I am still in the burned-out stage but occasionally a flicker of the old excitement returns. Anyway, I am rambling as Relish and I do, but since I did think up a topic this morning, I need to get to it: nature vs nurture.

There have been many great posts and comments on finding a steady and safe horse and finding the right horse. The right horse means too many things to mention. Obviously, the right horse for a kid who loves to trail ride is completely different from the right horse for a rider wanting to compete at the Olympic level.  Size, breed, training, conformation, personality, age, gender, and health are all crucial factors that add to the mix. But how much is influenced by nature and how much by nurture?

Women I know who raise boys are always amazed how their sons seem to be geared toward 'boy' things despite their influence. My son's first word was 'tractor.' My daughter's was 'kitten.'  I was the same mother to both. In the same way, I have owned many horses. My riding and training techniques have not changed hugely. Yet every horse I have owned has turned out differently.  My recent mare (who I owned from birth) was pissy, hormonal and sensitive. Relish (who I've owned since he was two) is naughty, sweet and usually steady. So is nature more of an influence on the way a horse turns out?

Perhaps in my case since I have always been kind and respectful around horses, allowing them their individuality while quietly insisting they respect me. Certainly any horse who is mistreated whether out of ignorance or anger or one who does not receive adequate food, shelter, or care is affected by nurture. But in most cases, it seems to me that nature plays an even bigger part especially since man has genetically altered the horse to create breeds suitable for certain sports.

Relish is big bodied with spongy pasterns. He would have broken down if forced to jump. (And I do mean "forced." He is not a horse motivated to exert himself.) He's comfortable to ride yet his rangy gaits are unsuitable for pleasure classes, and forget bending and flexing for dressage  or any western sport that requires agility.  I often wonder what would have happened to him in the hands of a rider determined to show or compete. Would his personality have changed from naughty and sweet to stubborn and resistant? Would health issues have turned him sour?

My daughter's friend, Rachel, a rider, is taking care of our horses while we are in Arkansas. She was telling me about her cousin's horse, a mare, who constantly bucks. They lunge her and ride her in circles for hours etc etc and still she bucks. No one likes her and obviously this is an unsafe horse for the cousin, who is thirteen, and they are working her to sell at a big sale where she will end up in the hands of . . .who knows. Later, I started thinking about the mare and wondered if they'd ever checked her back for soreness and made sure the saddle fit correctly.  I'd buck too if I was constantly in pain, and I began to feel sorry for the horse. At the same time, I have friends who had a mare who exploded and they tried everything--hormones, special pads, massage yet the mare continued to be unsafe. Nature or nurture?

Obviously it's a mix of both. Horses are as different as humans, and if we can find the right partner, it's a great 'ride.'


Laura Crum said...

Alison--I have definitely experienced the effects of nature--or genetics--on the trainability of horses. Sometimes you can do all the right things, but if the horse does not have the right nature to become a cooperative, reliable riding horse, well, it just won't become one. Some horses will always be dangerous to handle and ride. On the other hand, poor training, particularly not being firm enough, can turn the nicest horse into a "monster". As a general rule, if you let them dominate you, they mostly will. Though certainly many good horses are ruined by overly harsh training. For me the bottom line is that the horse's nature must first be suitable to make a good riding horse and then the rider/trainer has to be competent enough not to mess the horse up. Nature and nurture combined.

Susan said...

I believe a lot of horses have ended up branded as outlaws and/or sold to bucking strings because of sore backs. Cranky horses are generally in pain.

Val said...

Finding the right horse is definitely a mixture of ingredients, but without a definite recipe and NOT without a little luck.

I agree that it is impossible to train a horse who is not comfortable in his tack or is hurting for some other reason. Even a really unbalanced or inexperienced rider can be the culprit. Some horses just seem intolerant of carrying an inconsistent rider, while others seem to be gifted with endless patience. This is why finding the right horse is such a grand thing. :)