Beating a dead horse

Bay Horse and White Dog by George Stubbs

Horses (and dogs) are animals that humans have domesticated, and domestication is essentially the process by which we as a species become responsible for another species for our own (occasionally mutual) benefit. It’s interesting to see that in the English language we have two opposing idioms regarding horse behavior:

1. You can bring a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink – which is a wonderful way to illustrate the fact that you can offer someone advice, but you can’t make them take it to heart.

2. X is beating a dead horse – which is conventionally stated when one is trying to make changes to an issue that’s already considered decided.

On the surface, both of these seem to be highlighting the idea that horses are willful creatures.

According to the first, one would think horses are stubborn and that’s essentially what that phrase is trying to drive home: it’s not possible to make a horse do anything it doesn’t already want to do. Which makes it an interesting juxtaposition with the second phrase, which is tossed around when something is considered impossibly pointless, as would be the case of beating anything dead, because it likely won’t respond. As is noted by veterinarians, it is indeed possible to work a horse to the point of exhaustion and/or death. If it’s possible to work a horse to death, then it can’t be possible that they’re as willful as one imagines, right?

Which brings me to what I want to discuss: motivation. Horses and dogs are both considered valuable animals to those that own them and work with them because of their ability to be dedicated to the person(s) that are handling them. The value of a well-trained dog or horse lies in the fact that is responsive to the commands that are given to it, and it will perform the task it is given with aplomb.

Watch this young border collie doing what it was bred to do with minimal instruction:

Or this one of Secretariat winning the 1973 Belmont Stakes (linking because embedding’s disabled for that video). These animals are performing tasks that come naturally to them in part because of their breeding, but also because their humans are able to see the potential in the animal to bring out the best in them. Although a greyhound is also a dog, trying to get it to want to herd sheep wouldn’t come naturally to it, just as a Clydesdale horse would not be a likely candidate to win the Kentucky Derby. Could a greyhound be trained to herd, or could a draft horse ever outrun a race horse? It might be possible, but would be highly unlikely given that those tasks aren’t ones that those animals are intrinsically wanting to accomplish on their own. Anyone working with the animal will want to encourage it to perform the task it was meant to do, because not doing so will leave you with a frustrated animal on your hands, and this is a problem because a frustrated animal is an unresponsive animal.

Horse and dog.

The loyalty that arises out of the trust that develops in the relationship forged between human and animal should occur in the process of training them. The goal is to work with your animal and not against your animal, because in the case of horses they’re creatures much larger than their handlers and if they would decide not to move, it would become physically daunting to attempt to move them by force. Similarly, although a dog is not as large as a horse, an upset dog could still react negatively and bite. You avoid the negative outcomes by building trust with the animal, and this is accomplished by showing it that you have an understanding of its wants and needs and will reward them. When you are training a dog or horse, you want to know what it is that best motivates them to act in the way that you want because it’s often a balance of the carrot and stick: you strive to reward the desirable behavior, and ignore or punish the undesirable behavior. With the dogs I’ve had, it’s been interesting to see what it is that makes them want to do what I am asking them to do, because it’s never quite the same across the board. A treat that one dog absolutely loved would be completely ignored by another, and another dog responded best to having its ears scratched and hearing praise lavished upon it. Even though one might want to think a dog is just a dog, the reality is each one has their own unique personality and traits and as a sentient creature does have wants and needs, and when those needs are met they will respond by performing as is requested of them – and this is where it becomes possible that one could work a horse to death, as it will want to keep doing its task until it is physically impossible for it to continue to do so. While we now have laws that attempt to prevent animal abuse, it is not far-fetched to envision the past where a person would have been flogging a horse to keep it moving, until the point that one is left beating a dead horse.

This is important to keep in mind because understanding that this is the case with horses and dogs leads one to gain an appreciation for the fact that this can also be applied to humans. We have all had experiences with terrible management in the various stages of employment, and it is likely the case that the reason why we felt unhappy at the time was because our managers were failing to see what it was that motivated us to perform our best. The most common motivator for people seems to be money, and this is likely because we live in a capitalistic society, and money is the means by which we gain access to the ends we desire.

However, there are other methods by which one can effectively motivate people, and that is essentially by grasping what it is that is important to them. This requires one to understand the wants and needs of the person, and to do that you need to be able to listen openly. Again, I believe that listening is an active as opposed to passive activity, because you ought to strive to actually hear what it is that the other person is saying. When you do so, you will be better able to speak to them to get them to respond in the manner that you need, because you’ll have effectively constructed a bridge between their mind and your own.

What are your thoughts?

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