Making sense of horses

PHOTO: Tiia Monto, Flickr CC-BY

Early in my teaching career I invited my community college students to introduce themselves on the first day of class. One young woman said, “I’m a horse person.”

For some inexplicable reason this made no sense to me.

“Horse person?” I replied incredulously.

“Yes,” she said.




“That’s right.”

“Like, a centaur?” I asked.

Now she was confused. “No,” she replied, “I just like horses.”

I was a little embarrassed.

It’s remarkable that when I was growing up in the 1980s and ‘90s I never gave any thought to horses. At that time, living people had spent their early lives dependent upon them.

Horses once served as cars, tractors, winches, and communication technology. An entire industry was dedicated to caring for them. Horses were so ubiquitous that when automobiles finally entered everyday life in the early 20th Century, a repair shop was called an “auto livery.”

The United States horse population peaked in 1915 at more than 26 million horses. Today there are fewer than four million horses in the U.S., owned almost exclusively by “horse people.”

My teenage son Doug has become interested in farming and animals, so a couple weeks ago we visited some friends of mine who have horses. This was Doug’s first time riding a horse and the first time I’ve been around them in quite some time.

The first thing I noticed was that the voice I use to talk to dogs seems wholly inappropriate for horses.

“Hewow Mr. Horsey Horse! Howareyou? Areyouagoodhorseyhorse?”

[Horse blinks]

It’s not that dogs are dumber, but they are a good deal more enthusiastic. I know this because a dog came up to us while we were working with the horses. Me and the dog were super chill even though we had just met. Me and the horse, I don’t know.

Horses respond to emotion in voices, too, but they’re more sensitive. Talking to a horse is a bit like trying to convince a teenager not to throw out her poetry just because it didn’t turn out perfectly on the first try.

“It’s probably a lot better than you think, horse! Don’t be that way!”

But they are that way.

Our friends explained how horses feel a lot of anxiety in uncertain situations, which is something I share with horses. That and our affection for oats. Horses also detect social awkwardness, which I pump out prodigiously around 1,000-pound animals.

My son did great, though. He’s always been good with animals. A regular Dr. Doolittle. Animals seek him out. I could see him having horses someday, a real life Farmer Brown.

I suppose that what people like most about horses is also what makes them tedious for others. If you want to do horse stuff, you have to build a relationship with the horse. Horses are not bikes. They’re not Pontiac Sunfires. They’re horses.

You’ve got to learn their fears, hopes and tendencies. Meantime, they’ve got to figure out all your weird habits. Horses must learn what you do when you get mad, how to read your mood, and the key to your heart (so they get get more treats).

In other words, being a horse person is a lot like being a person person. Only these very muscular people have hooves and 270 degrees of peripheral vision, which they use to spot benign objects that frighten them.

I was watching one of my favorite old westerns the other day, “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.” In the movie, John Wayne’s character is a rugged old rancher who knows his way around horses and hard men. Jimmy Stewart’s character is a young lawyer moving west to tame the countryside for civilization.

John Wayne rides a horse. Jimmy Stewart rides around in a little surrey pulled by a horse. It’s a subtle difference that depicts the change in society at that time. I suppose I’m more Jimmy Stewart than John Wayne. I don’t know which one the horse prefers. The ones I talk to say little.

Maybe I won’t become horse person, per se, but I have learned to like horses as much or more than oats, which is to say, some. But I won’t begrudge a horse person their special relationship with these magnificent animals. If you’re riding a horse, you’re probably not angry. And the world could use more of that.

Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog and co-hosts the podcast “Power in the Wilderness” on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Sunday, May 15, 2022 edition of the Mesabi Tribune.


  1. Joe musich says

    You Pegasused us with this piece. Thanks.

  2. Heather Hill says

    Thanks Aaron! Nice article.

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