Last fall I attended a talk at the Mancos Public Library to hear a presentation of a new book, Horse Head.
I thought it would be a good to read a book on horse behavior, given that the protagonist of my mystery series, Allison Coil, is around horses. A lot. I didn’t really need a reason, though. Horses are cool and kind of mysterious, too. I’ve done plenty of riding, but never really “got” horses.
Maddy Butcher’s presentation was enticing. So was the book (a full review follows). I’m fortunate to say that my wife and I have become friends with Maddy, who is practically a neighbor here in Mancos. She is also the founder and director of the Best Horse Practices Summit. Yeah, she knows horses.
Maddy Butcher was born and raised in Maine. She grew up riding the woods and fields of Harpswell Neck and beyond. She graduated from Brown University with a BA in Biology. Maddy worked for nearly two decades as a free-lance reporter for The Boston Globe, The Wall Street Journal and many other publications covering sports, travel, business, front page, and investigative work.
Maddy was kind enough to answer a few questions about the book, and other horse-related things, via email.
Question: Could you give us a general idea of how you came to your insights about horses, how they think? Was there a moment when a light went off? Were you first taught in an entirely different way about horses and how they process the world?
Maddy Butcher: Last question first: Oh, I definitely grew up with a different idea of horses and riders. My early influences were my mom and grandmother and English riding. There was a lot more contact from my hands (English riders tend to hold reins more tightly – an oversimplification, but still accurate.) And my mom liked to anthropomorphize a lot.
But I had a lucky opportunity when I was 12 and offered the task of taking care of a neighbor’s pony when the owner went to college. Honey and I rode trails constantly, mostly bareback. I came off about once a ride. Honey would wait until she felt my body relax a bit and then would dump me in the dew, on the pretense of shying as some imagined concern. She’d trot a few strides, look back, and wait for me to get back on. She was a marvelous companion and teacher.
There were several light-bulb moments over the years. One was when I visited with Dr. Steve Peters, who was lecturing about horse brain science. His explanations of things like dopamine releases and brain wiring around stress provided a huge “Ah-ha” moment for me. All the things I was seeing peripherally suddenly made sense and moved to the forefront in my perception of horses and horse-rider communication.
I’d say another light-bulb moment was simply my evolution of naïve country girl to someone with a solid understanding of biology, the scientific method, and a journalist’s natural skepticism and curiosity. I believe in the ideology of doubt and I’m especially interested in trying to represent what might be the horse’s perspective and best interests.
Question: Can you explain the horse-human connection? What is it about this peculiar bond that is so fascinating? On so many levels, as you mention, it doesn’t really make sense.
Maddy Butcher: Nope. Can’t explain it.
Just kidding. Although here’s my point – most folks who really get into horses will, after thousands of rides and decades of experience, still be mesmerized and lacking words when asked to ‘explain the horse-human connection.’
What’s in it for humans:
The possibility of developing a relationship of increasing abilities and connection.
The potential satisfaction of riding a thousand-pound animal with control, partnership, and grace.
The feel of a warm, fuzzy muzzle and that wondrous smell of sweat, poop, and general horseness.
What’s in it for horses:
Food, shelter, overall comfort?
Question: The positive power of being around horses seems, at this point, obvious. Equine therapy, etc. Can you describe a little bit when you knew you would make horses a significant part of your life?
Maddy Butcher: Well, as a kid, I was sure I’d be a horse vet. I went to college thinking that that would be my route. But then there was the little problem of barely passing chemistry and realizing I really, really liked the world of newspaper journalism. So instead of flailing around in pre-vet courses, I got a job at the Providence Journal, in the sports department before I even graduated from college. I was smitten with the challenges of translating action into letters on paper as well as the excitement and pressure of performing on deadline.
Anyway, in adulthood, I only dabbled in horse-related activities until I bought a property that had enough land to afford a horse. I was in my 40’s. Since then, I’ve gotten increasingly into having horses in my life. The dedication grew more when I operated 24 Carrot Horse Care, a horse-sitting business I started when I moved back to Maine, and then founded NickerNews (my first website) in 2008 and started reporting on horse topics.
In 2020, I have four horses (two projects and two stalwarts) and direct a horse conference, so I guess you could say things have mushroomed a bit.
Question: Can you tell us why you started the Best Horse Practices Summit? How much out there, that you see, is not-best practices? Do we have a long way to go in terms of how horses are treated?
Maddy Butcher: I sometimes call the conference the Silver Lining Summit. I’d just gotten home after staffing a booth for Cayuse Communications at the Equine Affaire, in Massachusetts. To put it bluntly, I saw a whole lot of bling and bullshit and very little that served the horse. Accordingly, there were a whole lot of people who were buying (literally and figuratively) the nonsense offered.
How ‘bout we offer something horses would appreciate?
That’s how the Summit was founded, with, of course, a whole bunch of support from my circle of friends and colleagues, like Dr. Steve Peters, Dr. Sheryl King, Amy Skinner, Warwick Schiller, and many others.
Yes, we have a long way to go. I like to think of the possible evolution of horse owners’ mindsets as one conversation or one article at a time. I like to think of my work as planting seeds. I’m not interested in converts. I’m interested in cultivating a space where folks can be open to new ideas, be vulnerable and okay about having things wrong in the past, be engaged and invested in offering a better deal for their horses as they move forward. We’re all works in progress.
Question: If you could wave a wand and change one thing about how horses are cared for across horse country today, what would it be?
Maddy Butcher: Let horses be horses. They want freedom, friends, and forage. They don’t want to be in stalls. They don’t want to be fed a bunch of grain. They want to move. I also think they are happier if they have a job. If you don’t have a job (like working cows), then you can invent jobs (like herding chickens or going to get the mail from your mail box, etc. etc).
Two of Maddy’s horses – Barry (left) and Pep.
Question: Care to weigh in on the wild horse controversy? You’ve got a great interview in the book with New York Times reporter David Philipps. It’s clearly a complicated issue. What would you do?
Maddy Butcher: First of all, let’s all agree that wild horses in the US are feral horses. They have been turned out from domestic life over time. Sure, some may have been turned out a long time ago. But many have been turned out as unwanted ranch horses over recent generations. I saw a horse in a Delta, Utah, holding facility that bore an uncanny resemblance to a Haflinger. DNA testing shows that many wild horses have quarter horse blood. If they weren’t so darned pretty and iconic, this conversation would be a lot easier. That said…
- Vastly increase the PZP darting program for each Herd Management Area.
- I’m simply not convinced that a long life in a holding facility is the best outcome for these horses. Have you seen them? They aren’t happy. By my observations, I’d say many are under constant, constant stress. I’d be in favor of slaughtering those three-strike horses in long-term holding facilities. (The current horse-slaughter situation in the US is kind of at a political bottle neck, making horse processing almost impossible. But don’t think that horses aren’t being slaughtered! The very same horses that could be slaughtered in a relatively humane and regulated fashion are instead shipped to Canada or Mexico. Most endure a brutal, marathon trip in a possum-bellied, sardine-canned trailer, to then be slaughtered in a sketchy, some-would-say-inhuman fashion.)
- Increase the chances that herd populations can be brought to a more sustainable level through natural elements. For instance, let’s stop hunting mountain lions so more of them can prey on horses.
Question: Now is your chance to pass along some music tips – cowboy-related, horse-related, anything!
Maddy Butcher: Haha. Thanks, Mark! I’m just back from the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nevada:
An American Forrest (Forrest Van Tuyl); Wylie and the Wild West; J Roddy Walston; Kendrick Lamar (He rhymed ‘terrorist’ with ‘asparagus’? How hilarious is that?); A-Wa (blame the Tiny Desk concert); and many, many others.
Local loves include Stillhouse Junkies and Farmington Hill.
Question: Same thing for great horse books—fiction or non.
Maddy Butcher: Seabiscuit, by Laura Hillenbrand; Where Rivers Change Direction, by Mark Spragg. There are others. I just can’t think of them now. Get back to me, will you?
Question: What are you working on next?
Maddy Butcher: Now that my kids have flown the coop, I get to work more and more on projects I feel passionately about. Lucky me! Aside from the Summit and work for Cayuse Communications, I have a book project and an event project. Stay tuned!
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“Horses are not people. We know this is true. But attend any horse event, enter any tack shop, open any horse magazine, and you’ll come away thinking otherwise.”
So begins Horse Head—Brain Science & Other Insights by Maddy Butcher (with Dr. Steve Peters), a book that asks us to stop anthropomorphizing the hell out of the horse and to start seeing and understanding this animal on its own terms.
“We make horse actions personal and emotionally complex,” writes Butcher. “He likes kisses. He needs his breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Look, he’s nodding ‘yes.’ We’re friends. He loves me! It’s fun but it’s wrong. Of course, horses DO have feelings, motivations, and goals. But from a scientific point of view, they’re much more basic than ours. They want to move. They want to forage. They want to rest. They want to be with other horses.”
Loaded with insights into brain science, Horse Head takes off from there, exploring all aspects of horse behavior and horse mentality. Butcher, the founder and director of the Best Horse Practices Summit, writes with a smooth and clear-eyed style.
Butcher covers neuroscience, vision, how horses learn, and she offers up a variety of best practices insights, from understanding horse pain (results drawn from an interesting, to the say the least, study), ownership, care, hay, hoof abscesses, and dentistry. Power tools for cleaning horse teeth? Maybe not a great idea. Butcher grounds her insights in research or quotes experts and studies throughout.
The last third of Horse Head offers a smorgasbord of essays, reflections, and interviews. In more than a few instances, Butcher gets up close and personal in relevant and revealing stories from her own experiences with human- and horse-related relationships. There are tales from horse rides, an interview with New York Times reporter David Phillips on the difficult issue of managing the wild horse population, and you’ll meet a straight-talking burro named Wise Ass Wallace.
Butcher closes with a thoughtful essay, “Beasts of Being,” that urges riders and handlers to be in the moment and very “present” around horses. “Engaging with horses for any prolonged period of time becomes an earned partnership. With horses, we learn about respect, trust, consistency, and boundaries,” she writes. “It’s very much a two-way deal and, therefore, it’s more valuable. It’s a relationship that’s harder to obtain and maintain than one with a dog or a cat.”
Packed with scientific nuggets, and laced with a gentle humor, Horse Head makes a convincing case that horses should be understood as the creatures they are—not something we want them to be.