Do Labels Shape Our Relationships?

He’s difficult, she’s stubborn, he doesn’t listen, she’s naughty, he’s impatient. You could overhear sentiments like these about horses at any farm, or even taking it out of the context of horses, anywhere. 

You’ve probably also said them yourself. I know I have. I don’t believe that labels are always inherently bad, even ones we deem as negative. They can help us understand the world, categorizing and labeling is how the brain comprehends our environment. We have instead evolved the ability to detect the higher-level structure of experiences, the commonalities across them that allow us to group experiences into meaningful categories and concepts. This process imbues the world with meaning. (Seger & Miller, 2010). However, as useful as they are, they can also cause us to not see the forest for the trees. 

Some labels can have positive meaning tied to them. He’s smart, she’s honest, he’s a quick learner, she’s brave, he’s sensitive. But even positive labels can lead to a slippery slope. What happens when our brave horse isn’t eager to take on a new obstacle? What about when our quick learner has trouble with a new concept? 

Using a label to define someone, human or horse, can easily turn into a generalization of their character as a whole and can limit our understanding and can shape our expectations. When we ask questions instead of assign labels we can find more common ground through understanding.  

Finding the Root Cause vs. Addressing the Symptoms

What if instead of labeling our horse based on observable behaviors we try to find the source, the why behind their behavior? We can simply try to address the bad behavior or negative symptoms that the horse shows us and ask them, or tell them not to show those symptoms. But if there is an underlying issue causing the behavior we can accidentally end up teaching our horse that their voice does not matter and that they are better off suffering in silence. 

Pain is a very common cause of unwanted behavior in horses. Ranging from sore muscles to abscesses to ill-fitting tack, to ulcers to other very painful injuries that can cause unwanted behavior. If we punish our horse for letting us know when they are in pain what does that do to our relationship and how does that shape how our horse views us? 

Another cause of unwanted behavior could be stress due to change of living environment or losing a herd member, this is very common in boarding situations where horses come and go or are often moved to different pastures or barns separating our horses from their friends. How do we feel when we can’t be with those that mean the most to us? 

Unclear communication can also cause unwanted behaviors. Ever have a horse that shows unwanted behavior for you but not for the trainer? When we label a horse as ‘stubborn’ or naughty’ in this instance we completely shift the blame to the horse and we are no longer in a partnership.

Using Labels to Define Ourselves

Horses aren’t the only ones who we label. It’s easy to start up the negative self-talk when things aren’t going ‘right’ in our training with our horse. We may not even realize it’s happening until we are sliding into a spiral of shame and guilt. It’s not easy to get back on track when we have labeled ourselves. I tend to go into that ‘should have’ spiral. ‘I should have set him up for success by not training at feeding time, I should have realized he was off in the hind, I should have closed the stall door, I should have delivered that cue with better timing, I should have xyz. This can go on and on until you are questioning whether or not you even deserve to be working with this horse.

While taking ownership for mistakes is important to help us avoid them in the future, beating yourself up isn’t productive. Would you talk to your best friend that way? If not, maybe you shouldn’t talk to yourself that way. It’s okay to give yourself a break, maybe you are also going through something that is distracting you from performing like you feel you should, this could be a time to ask yourself, what is really going on that has caused me to talk to label myself in this way?

Forming a Pathway for Trust and Understanding

We have only scratched the surface on this topic today.  Instead of automatically labeling behavior we should question what is happening with our horses and ask if there is something else going on that might be causing the behavior. When we start to look for the root cause of issues within our relationships with our horses instead of looking at behavior at a surface level we create a pathway for understanding and open communication. We give our horses a voice and give ourselves the ability to see from a new perspective.

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