Trust your instincts? Well, it depends……


Someone commented recently that I seem to do a lot of what I do based on “gut feel”.  Someone else said I have a “natural gift” for what I do.

Hmmmm.  That reminded me of a quote attributed to a famous golfer when someone commented on how lucky he was with a golf shot. He replied “The more I practice, the luckier I get”

To say I work on “gut feel” or that what I do is based on a “natural gifts” is a great compliment, and I take it that way – but it does kind of ignore the years of work I have done with people and horses – and the years of hard work and study I have put into where I am now.

And this leads to an interesting question:  WHEN is it a good idea to trust your instincts?

We hear a lot about trusting instincts, going with our feelings, and following our heart or gut.  However, this CAN get us into lots of trouble.

An acquaintance of mine saw that her horse liked grass, and to her it “felt right” to allow her horse plenty of grass, and “felt wrong” to bring her off the grass.  Unfortunately, her horse was overweight, and ended up developing laminitis.

Another had to deal with problems after over-rugging her horse in warm weather….

And another couldn’t understand why her horse didn’t love his cosy stable and kicked to be out of it in the mornings, when he was so happy to go into it in the evenings when she arrived at the yard and was standing at the gate, asking to come in.

While these might seem to be simplistic examples, they all make a valid point:  following your instincts is only a good idea if your instincts are INFORMED instincts.

Once you know about the relationship between grass and laminitis – and that many livery yards have fields that were originally seeded and fertilised for dairy cows, who need a lot of sugar for milk production – well now your instinct will tell you that regardless of your horse’s eagerness to eat the lush grass, you need to restrict their access.

Once you know that horse’s can be highly food driven and so are happy to come in for the food and hay – but that when the food runs out it is much more appealing to be back out with the herd in the field – then you start to see the “waiting at the gate” and “eagerness to be in his stable” in a different light.

In fact, once you have that knowledge, it seems “obvious” and hard to imagine NOT knowing it.

And that is just one challenge with working with instincts – our instincts can be influenced by what we do and do NOT know.

So knowledge about horses is a prerequisite for informed instincts.

But it’s not just knowledge about their physical needs.  How much do you know about their emotional and mental needs?

I have a pony living in my herd called Bailey.  He is a lovely, adorable pony.  But, if I listened to everything he said and acted on it as he wanted – well, he would be walking all over me, as fat as anything and never wearing any tack.

Knowing that his happiness in the world depends on him being a “good citizen” means I can help him understand that….  so although my instincts are that he would prefer things one way, my responsibility to him and his future are to help him be happy with things another way….

If I didn’t know how to do that, or that this was necessary – then I might be tempted to go along with the “gut feel” that he is happier running things his own way – and then leave him in the treble situation of trying to find a home as just one more bargey pony that can’t be trusted.

Helping him find the emotional and mental balance to get along in the horse/human world is part of my job.  It’s part of all our jobs as the ones responsible for our horse’s welfare.

Back to the working on instincts side of things:

Knowledge helps us work on INFORMED instincts and makes our instincts more trustworthy.

What makes our instincts LESS trustworthy?

There are three main things that make relying on instincts less trustworthy – and in fact dangerous

Many of us, when we are not well informed re horse psychology, horse lifestyles and the HORSE point of view, tend to think of our horse in human terms.  Whilst in many ways this can be fun, and a useful shorthand for describing a horse’s behaviour – it can also be very dangerous.  We call a horse “naughty” when the horse is just being a horse, responding like a horse – by calling it naughty we set up a dynamic where we either laugh and call it cute, ignoring a possibly risky behaviour – or we can get annoyed and irritated at the naughtiness, and that can lead to frustration – and well, that was the topic of last week’s blog.
Using human terms to describe horse behaviour can lead us to wrong conclusions.  Seeing a horse as naughty or bad when really, if we looked at their behaviour as that of a horse we would more easily see other causes

A friend of mine had a horse she called naughty, evil, a monster who always tried to get her off, he didn’t like her.  When I looked at him, I saw a horse who WAS trying to get her off, which is in fact a very unusual behaviour for horses, herd animals whose primary goal is to get along with their partners.  And, if you read his face, you could see he was in pain.  When investigated, he had a back problem that was causing him tremendous pain and it was amazing he hadn’t done worse.  In this case the tendency to humanise the horse, led to totally the wrong instinct about what was going on….with the consequence that the horse had to behave in extreme ways to preserve himself.

2.Magical thinking
I wrote a post on this recently – it is human nature to make up stories to explain things.  In many cases we are right, and the stories help us understand the world.  However, making up stories seldom works well with horses.  One friend told me “my horse is head shy, he must have been abused or hit with a whip”. While there is nothing inherently wrong with this thinking, her horse MIGHT have been abused or hit with a whip – the thing is, that this thinking led her to “feel” that it was wrong to use a stick or whip around her horse.  So she didn’t.  So then one day she was at a clinic where other people DID use whips and sticks (not to inflict pain I hasten to add!) and her horse was not able to cope, almost trampling her in his frightened exit from the arena.   This is a bit of a cautionary tale, but is an example of how our need to EXPLAIN things can lead us to focus on creating believable story when, really – all we need to do is focus on the horse in front of us.

Coblet is very very scared of ropes.  Yes, there IS a back story.  But you know – all I really need to know is that he is very very scared of ropes – and it’s my job to help him change that.

3.  Ego/Guru syndrome
It is very appealing for me to believe I have a natural gift.  That there is something special and unique about me that means I can do what I do with humans and horses.  It is very seductive – because then I feel special, unique – irreplaceable.  This is why many teachers and instructors not only encourage their students to see them as “gurus” or unique sources of instruction, they actually believe it themselves.  How much easier is it to think that I have a mystical link with horses that enables me to do what I do – than accept its the result of hard work, study – and that I need to do MORE hard work and study to keep progressing.

The problem with this is that the person who starts believing in their “feel” or “instinct” risks making dangerous choices.

A friend of mine had a firm belief that her horses would never want to hurt her.  That was fine and in fact I agreed with her – her horses did not WANT to hurt her.  However, her instinct was that she would never be hurt by her horse s—and that, unfortunately was not true – and she found that out the hard way when leading her horse out of the field one day when he was badly spooked by a sudden noise (wind blowing part of a wall against a metal roof) and jumped on top of her. She WAS hurt because she had allowed her instinct to overule the basic safety issues of being around horses…

Another acquaintance really thought her instructor was the best thing ever: and so blindly followed her advice even when it was obvious to others that this was not a good thing for her horse – it’s as if the guru syndrome leads to us turning off our own ability to learn, analyse and judge…..

So what’s the answer? Do we ignore our gut? Our feel? Our instincts?

Certainly not – our gut, heart, soul – has a lot to tell us and can be a very useful and insightful guide in our horsemanship journey – and make a great contribution to our confidence.

However, we need to find ways to make sure our instincts are as INFORMED as possible – take the time to do our research, learn about ourselves, our horses – and how to separate OUR needs and choices from our HORSE’s needs and choices.  This is one reason I suggest to anyone to go and WATCH as many clinics and teachers as possible – the wider your range of knowledge, the more “qualified” your choices will be.  Go along and listen, learn HOW and WHY they do things the way they do – and then compare and contrast the different approaches.  Look for what is the SAME underlying all good horsemanship – and use this to inform your own decisions, to develop your own INFORMED INSTINCTS.  Knowledge means our instincts are rising from a solid foundation…

AND we can do another thing:  we can learn to set things up so if our instincts are right – all goes well, but also so that if our instincts are NOT on target, we are also safe!

Can you set things up so that if you ARE right – or wrong – you and your horse are both in a good place?

For example, when I approach a strange horse and want to see if he can move his shoulder away from me on request – I might have an instinct that he is a kind horse that doesn’t mean me any harm – -BUT I will position myself so that IF he were to swing his head round to bite, my arm would protect me, and his nose would run into my elbow.  That way, if I am right and he won’t do anything – -then we are fine – and if he DOES feel the need to protect himself, nothing bad is going to happen to either of us.

This is why you will often see me doing things in certain places (in a round pen, an arena, a field) or with certain tools (a halter and long rope, a longer rope) or in a certain way  — when it might seem un-necessary.

By doing these things, I am listening to my instincts, and giving the horse the chance to be the perfect horse – while at the same time, keeping myself AND my horse safe just in case my instincts aren’t as informed as they need to be in this particular case.

One last thing that often gets in the way of our human instincts being useful is that we often don’t know what a positive, responsive horse actually looks or feels like. Many of us have only had experience with our own horses, or less than ideal examples.  So, in my view, what IS a “good equine citizen”?

In general, I would like to be able to ask my horse to move left, right, forwards, backwards, on the ground and under saddle with a positive  response as if he is saying “you want me to do that?  Yep, sure – I can do that!  Let me show you how WELL I can do that!  There ya go – what did you think of that then? Not bad eh?”  — and if he is unsure of anything I want him to say “I’m happy to give that a go – -but could you help me understand that a bit better?”  – and when he is worried about something I want him to say “hey, can you give me a hand here? Thanks”

But I will probably write more about that on another blog!

So – let me know – in fact let US know what helps you keep your instincts informed and useful…..

Yours, in confidence



9 thoughts on “Trust your instincts? Well, it depends……

  1. I’ve actually never thought of ‘follow your gut instincts’ in cases of management approaches, etc. When it comes to nutrition and general horse keeping practices I am all about researching and evaluating stuff 😉
    I usually think of ‘gut feeling’ decision making when it feels like a horse seems off either emotionally or physically from his usual self. Or when you observe something and it just feels wrong but you go along with it because the person doing it is more experienced than you.
    Or when trouble arises and you wonder: should I get off or stick it out?
    You know the kind of thing where decision making is based on ‘at the moment’ observation in a specific situation rather than general knowledge based.
    Does that make sense?

  2. I agree instinct, intuition etc comes from a deep rooted knowledge of a subject. As a nurse I could tell which patient was likely to have a particular problem with out having to sit down and analyse the situation and if asked I could always say why that was – but it was years or experience and knowledge. It is the learning cycle coming into play conscious incompetence – unconscious incompetence – conscious competence and finally unconscious competence.
    So many experienced horse people will instinctively when their horse is ill even though they may not consciously have to look for symptoms. That so called instinct is knowledge based and the problem for the less knowledgeable is that they may make decisions based on incorrect knowledge.

    • See I had quite the opposite experience. By now I have owned horses for over a decade but even early on (when I wasn’t experienced) I had situations where I felt ‘this feels wrong’ but instead of following my gut there I followed the expert’s opinion and lived to regret it.
      The two things I most regret in my time as horse owner over the last ten years both were instances where I felt ‘this doesn’t seem right to me’ but I discounted my intuition because I put more stock in somebody else’s (more extensive) experience.
      Now again I am not talking about: oh this horse shows xyz symptoms, I think it’s a likely prospect for insuline resitance or whatever but rather situations where I was reading my horse differently from how the ‘experts’ were evaluating it.
      (In one case I was a horse owner for only a couple of weeks and in another case I had owned the horse for 7 years)
      In both cases I feel now that I should have listened to my intuition of something being wrong rather than discount it because I had less experience.
      I think if nothing else if we (even the less experienced) have misgivings about something we should at least investigate it rather than completely hand over the reins. 😉

      • Yes Karin — in fact that is the GURU syndrome I talk about — the time it IS good to trust your instincts is when you are reading your horse and what you see in your horse goes AGAINST what your “expert” says — and if your expert can’t explain HOW what they say works, then definitely run away!!!


  3. Your article reminds me of an old Arab proverb, “Trust in Allah, but tie your camel”! Lovely article, and some very sensible advice. The thing that has boosted my confidence most in the end has been more knowledge, but most importantly from a variety of sources, then you begin to be able to think for yourself, and keep safe whilst sharing previously unimagined experiences with your horse. Thanks Cathy 🙂

    • Love the proverb!!! Thanks Jess- -and thanks for commenting, it makes a difference seeing people respond to articles and inspires me to keep writing!


  4. I really enjoyed reading this blog. I particularly like how you mention that watching as many different professionals and clinics helps us to make more qualified choices. I personally have found the more clinics i attend the wider my pool of knowledge and the choices i make now are definately based on informed instincts. Great blog.

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