Sunday, August 14, 2011

Hey Jealousy...

I recall having a conversation with a friend of mine a while ago about whether horses got jealous. I do not think that that we were really able to come up to a satisfactory conclusion, because I believe the trouble with these types of conversations and questions is that we as humans have a difficult time with using words that describe human emotions to describe animal emotions. Having some recent jealous sparks fly up in my own life, I as usual try to look to my horses for their lessons on the matter.

A phenomenon that I have noticed as my relationship with my horse, Lucy, has grown has raised questions for me on the issue. Many times when I go out to the pasture, I see Lucy standing in the middle of her (usually) male herdmates, quite calmly basking in the day or swatting flies off of one another. When I entered the pasture and the herd, Lucy suddenly became cranky, making a lot of mean faces and semi-threatening gestures. It took a great deal of observation and confidence in my relationship with her for me to know that his crankiness was not meant for me. It does seem, however, that is was about me.  

We often use the word jealousy in the wrong way. “Jealousy” is defined as a secondary emotion and typically refers to the negative thoughts and feelings of insecurity, fear, and anxiety over an anticipated loss of something that the person values. Sometimes we confuse this with the word “Covet” which means to desire what belongs to another. So if you think about it, in any given situation, there may be one who covets, and the other who is jealous over protecting what is theirs.

Horses, and animals in general, do not own things as we do. The things that they value and desire to protect are typically limited to their space, their food, and their relationships.  When I entered Lucy’s comfortable herd, I added the tension of her feeling the need to protect her space and relationship from her herdmates who would sneakily awake, wanting their own attention from me. Space is one of the major conversations that horses have with one another. Two horses will fight until bloodied over a small patch of ground. However, it is not about the ground itself. It is about the conversation, about the relationship, and about order.

Humans seem to see space differently, but not so much so. As predators, we are born to snuggle with our mothers and our littermates for safety. Horses are born to be ready to run from danger in an instant.  As we all grow older, however, the need to protect our space becomes a necessary function of survival. The question of space becomes a strange conversation in a horse and human relationship.

One of my herdmates, Buddy, and I often have conversations about space.  Buddy is a horse who in his past life had little respect for other’s space, whether they be horse or human. He reportedly was always a nudge as a baby, and as he grew older, and rather large, his disrespect became quite dangerous.  Through some strict boundaries and gentle teaching, however, Buddy has made much improvement. Yet the conversation of space continues to happen. And just as in our human relationships, it is a delicate one.

Buddy continues to like to be close to a person, and he loves attention. He also is still a nudge, and likes to get into things. My conversations with Buddy, I realized began to be nothing but sending him away. We became quite good at it and I would only have to look at him to send him packing.  However,  one day I realized that my jealousy over my space had been taken to the extreme and had affected our relationship when I went to try to halter this horse who is usually the easiest to catch, and he ran away from me.  An overactive sense of jealousy can have the adverse effect of pushing people away from you.

My game had to change with Buddy, and I needed to recognize his needs. He has needs for affection and attention and relationship that I was not acknowledging. My rules stayed the same, but my approach became different.  I began to set clear boundaries at the beginning of a conversation, knowing that he got my drift, and then being softer and  trusting him to respond more in future requests. This has resulted in a horse who I can simply speak his name to manage which bucket he eats out of, still send away if needed with a look, but with an understanding relationship not  fear.  I was able to protect what I needed to, but still maintain my relationship with and the dignity of this horse.

Our concept of jealousy is often painted in an evil light. Yet the “green-eyed monster” is quite valuable when managed appropriately. It is an easy thing, though, to allow to get out of control. We may think that jealousy may have no place in a primitive or communal society, that owning nothing would mean no jealousy. It seems to me however, that every time I experience or observe jealousy that it is a very primal emotion. It is based on the very sense that we must protect what is vital to us, and this is an emotion common to all animals. Perhaps as humans we add more drama to it because of our over-thinking and over-verbalizing brains. But as with any emotion, it is information for us about our program for survival.

So yes, I believe that horses do get “jealous”, meaning that they still feel a fiery need to protect what is vital to them. They lack the amount of fear, worry and drama that we get along with it, but for them, in it’s pure form, it works. It helps them to develop their community. When jealousy goes too far, it can destroy community.

On a side note, I think horses covet too. But when they want something, they usually just go after it. Then they either get it or they don’t, and then they move on. How’s that for a lesson….